O useful thou! Wherefore hast thou disappeared?

Copy editors are never really off duty. Even over omelets and home fries at the local diner, questions like, "Whatever happened to 'thee' and 'thou'?" are likely to come up.

English is unusual in that it makes no distinction between the second-person singular and second-person plural pronouns: In proper modern English everyone we talk to is "you," whether it's our significant other, our pet gerbil, the kids' carpool ("Will you please pipe down back there!?") or the homeowners' association.

Many other languages have a "familiar" second-person singular and a second-person plural form for groups, naturally, and also for people one doesn't know too well. For instance, in French, the significant other and the gerbil are clearly "tu"; the carpool and the homeowners both "vous." But many relationships are less clear-cut, and it takes a certain mental energy to keep the "tu" friends and the "vous" acquaintances straight.

English speakers are spared all this - and have been for centuries. The second-person singular "thou" has long since been overtaken by the all-purpose "you."

But what happened to "thee"? Why did it fall into disuse? Our friends at Wiktionary, in a passing note on a grammar table, say of the second- personal singular, "It disappeared as English society became mercantilist, leaving many feudal ties behind."

That may be a rather sweeping statement, especially unelaborated, but linguists do link the disappearance of "thee" to a growing egalitarianism in England, and to the expansion of a rather fluid middle class, especially in contrast with the more rigid and conservative societies on the Continent.

Linguist musings over the electronic grapevine suggest that at a time of social structures in transition, it was safer to call everyone "you" than to risk offending one of one's social superiors by addressing him as "thou."

By the 17th century "thou" seems to have come to be used as a putdown. "I 'thou' thee, thou traitor!" was reportedly the prosecutor's insult to Sir Walter Raleigh, on trial for treason in 1603.

Now we may wonder whether we've thrown the baby out with the bath water.

Having jettisoned "thou" and reassigned its functions to the multipurpose "you," we still seem to feel a need occasionally for a pronoun that unambiguously signifies a group.

American English offers several possibilities, none of them quite a national standard. Southerners have "y'all"; in the Northeast, there's "youse" and its variations, more familiar from the movies than real life, but still to be heard occasionally. And then there's the ever-popular "you guys."

It is a phrase that's been part of my personal lexicon since I was a little girl in southern California, where I heard it in sentences such as, "Hey, d'you guys wanna play hide-and-go-seek until we hafta to go in?"

In an age so fastidious about gender-exclusive language that many people would be reluctant to call the female head of a congressional committee a "chairman," the curiously unisex "you guys" lives on.

The "sudden emergence" of this locution in New York, if that's what it was, was described by a Daily News writer in 1980 as "the biggest thing to hit the English language since the time of Shakespeare." This writer clearly saw "you guys" as compensating in the plural for something that was missing in the singular.

"Where art thou now that we need thee?" he asked.

This appears with links at: http:// weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy

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