“You and Ya”: the Return of Informal vs. Formal Pronouns in English

English is an awfully tricky language, it has had so many influences and developed so many dialects and variations over the millennium and a half that it has existed that are not just influenced by geography, society, economics, or religion, but a big mix of all four and many more. My English can be officially designated as Inland Northern American English, which roughly corresponds to the Great Lakes region going west to the Dakotas and somewhat south to cities like St. Louis and Kansas City where it runs headlong into Midland American English and Southern American English.

Yet my English also has been heavily influenced by a somewhat sizeable list of other European languages, brought to my home region, the Midwest, by generations of immigrants including my own ancestors, whether it be the slightly more Minnesota/Wisconsin/Ontario “o” sound that I use in “Go,” and “Sorry” which I’ve noticed sounds awfully similar to the Swedish “å”, while the addition of a “y” sound in any word starting with a hard consonant followed by an “a” or an “e” such as in “cart”, which I heard in Cardiff, Wales, though I’ve read that it may also come from the Dutch spoken in New Netherland (modern New York) in the seventeenth century. Then there’s the more recent influences, from my loving adoption of the odd Yiddish curse word, especially “schmuck” to how I was told that I inadvertently use the word “utilise” more ever since I started learning French (“utiliser” is French for “use”).

One especially confusing thing about English is the second person pronoun, of which there’s only one: you. It’s not like French which has “tu” for singular and informal and “vous” for plural and formal, or Irish which has “tú” and “síbh” for the singular and plural respectively. We used to have more variety in second person pronoun in English. I study the early sixteenth century, and spend my working days reading manuscripts and books written in Early Modern English. Back then, English had “thou” (sometimes spelled thow) for the singular informal, “you” (sometimes spelled “yow”) for the singular formal, and “ye” for the plural. At that time English was written phonetically, so “thou” and “you” were both pronounced with the same ending vowel as we use in “you” today. Yet by the American Revolution, “thou” had largely disappeared from common use in English, surviving most recognisably in the Church of England and through older poets and authors like Shakespeare and Chaucer.

So, today, we have “you”, and only “you”. It’s singular and plural, formal and informal. In academic writing, especially as a historian, we’re strongly advised to avoid using “you” as well as the first person pronouns “I” and “we”. Academic writing is about the most formal form of English today. By using only the third person “he,” “she,” and “it” it is impersonal and distant from the reader. This is one element of the attempt amongst us historians at being objective.

Despite all the certainty that there is only one “you” in English, I’ve noticed this starting to change. “You” is gaining an informal variant again, only this time it is not the now antiquated “thou”. Rather, the frequently used “ya” seems to be gaining traction as an informal version of “you”, one that we can use with our families and friends, but one that I wouldn’t use with a boss, professor, or other official. I’ll often hear people greet their friends with “Hey, how are ya doing?” or even more informally “Hey, how’ya doin?” or when asking for input on something, “Hey, what do ya think about this?”

So, is this a permanent change in English? Will generations future learn in their English classes that they must use “you” with their teachers and “ya” with their friends? Or will “ya” fade away like “thou” and “ye” have gone before it? Granted, while this is primarily an American English phenomenon, with the advent of the Internet and with how much easier it is getting to travel internationally, “ya” could spread across the English-speaking world. An American export like “jazz,” “baseball,” and “barbecue.”

But what do you think? Do you use “you” in all cases? Is there a different type of “you” that you use in your own dialect of English? And if you are learning English, or speak another language as your first language, how do English pronouns differ from those of your own language? And does your native language influence your English?

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