What’s the matter with youse?

I have written before about the distinction between non-standard language on one hand (e.g. “Me and him is friends), and wrong usage on the other (e.g. “for you and I“). This is an important distinction – and it is interesting how often we get riled by usage which is non-standard but in fact perfectly good speech in certain contexts (and, usually, certain dialects).

One example I came across during the week was “youse”. It was raised in the context that its use is an obvious error – the plural of “you”, surely, is simply “you”. In Standard English this is of course true. However, in informal speech in certain dialects, not least all of those which predominate in Northern Ireland, “youse” is perfectly acceptable. Indeed, I would argue it has attained a degree of prestige to an extent that it’s use is deemed acceptable at a higher level than, say, “Me and him is friends”. There’s a connection, in fact…

Firstly, what are we talking about? We are talking about personal pronouns, which are notable in English because, unusually, they have retained vestiges of the case system – i.e. their form typically differs when used as the subject of a clause, or as an object. Thus, in English, I (plural we) is the subject of the sentence (“first person”), and me (plural us) is an object form – which is why the aforementioned usage “For you and I” is wrong. In the “third person”, this becomes more complex as gender becomes involved in the singular – he/him, she/her and it/it for masculine, feminine and neuter. The plural “third person” form does not differ depending on gender – simply they/them – although it already hints at the implicit instability of the system, as they/them (and the possessive their) are borrowings from Scandinavian (North Germanic) which replaced earlier, Continental (West) Germanic forms. I have noted before that the so-called “object” forms of English person pronouns derive from the older dative form once only used for an indirect object (this remains distinguished from the accusative in German, whose personal pronouns thus typically have three forms – so er/ihn/ihm as against he/him).

So, what about the “second person” – you? Well, that is unstable in a lot of languages, because most distinguish not just between singular and plural, but also between familiar/informal and polite/formal. Consider the line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Ophelia: “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended!”

Hamlet: “Mother, you have my father much offended!”

Here, there is an important register distinction – Hamlet’s mother Ophelia uses the familiar and apparently loving familiar form thou, but Hamlet replies with the formal, colder, more distant you. (Out of interest, the modern German translation would be “Du hast deinen Vater viel beleidigt” – retaining the cognate of thou and the same second person singular verb form hast).

In Middle English, pre-Shakespeare, both the singular familiar form thou/thee and the plural or formal form ye/you had distinct subject/object forms as with all the other personal pronouns.

However by modern times English – to be precise, Standard English – did away with: a) the distinction between singular and plural; b) the distinction between familiar/informal and polite/formal; and c) the distinction between subject and object. You became the second person personal pronoun in all contexts – familiar, polite, singular, plural, subject, object. This is no doubt to the delight of foreign learners, but it does cost us subtle distinctions such as the one Shakespeare was able to utilise above.

Most of us would know, of course, that most languages retain not just a singular/plural distinction for you, but also an informal/formal distinction – known by linguists as a “T-V distinction” with reference to the French tu(/te/toi)-vous. 

French is actually much more straightforward than most – tu/te/toi is both familiar/informal and singular; vous is anything else.

German uses du/dich/dir as the familiar/informal singular; ihr/euch/euch as the familiar/informal plural; and Sie/Sie/Ihnen as the formal form (either singular or plural). It gets slightly more complicated as there was a tradition of capitalising Du/Dich/Dir in letters; and Royals were often referred to by the apparently otherwise informal plural Ihr/Euch/Euch (again capitalised).

In many languages, the complexities become almost impossible for learners. In Spanish, tú/ti is taught as the familiar/informal singular; vosotros/os as the familiar/informal plural (feminine vosotras); usted/usted as the formal singular; and ustedes/ustedes as the formal plural (these latter two are used with third person verb forms). However, in most of the Spanish-speaking world this is not the case. In some cases, vos replaces ustedes replaces vosotros and so on. I once received a text from a Venezuelan friend referring to me and my wife as ustedes and wondered what we had done to offend him – until I realised that was the Venezuelan system! Portuguese has a similar story (with a different outcome) and further distinctions between Brazilian and European standards; Italian has also developed third-person verb forms with apparently second-person pronouns.

Fundamentally, this all demonstrates that personal pronouns, particularly “second person” are unstable. German has adopted a particular personal pronoun (which can also, confusingly, mean they/them or even in some contexts she) and used it to be formal in both singular and plural; Spanish has adopted a highly formal word originally meaning “your mercy” and developed it as usted(es) to make the formal distinction; Portuguese and Italian have done their own thing too.

As for their “own thing”, many English dialects have done their own thing to make up for the lack of a plural form. Some Yorkshire dialects (most notably, among others) have in fact essentially retained thou and thee; some southern Irish dialects retain the ye/you distinction but have made it plural/singular; Texan (notably, among others) has developed y’all from you all to emphasise plural meaning (not totally unlike Spanish developed vosotros above from vos+otros “you+others”, also seen in certain contexts in French, e.g. vous autres belges “you Belgians”).

After all that, it strikes me that a perfectly reasonable way to emphasise that you is meant as a plural is simply to use the regular, productive plural form – and yous (I personally tend to stick with that spelling to emphasise its regularity) is common in much of Australia as well as parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Dublin and Northumbria for that reason.

Of course, this is not Standard English; but it seems to me a perfectly good form in spoken, informal usage and, as far as I’m concerned, long may it thrive on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere!

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