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tu/vos

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tu/vos

Postby Anthony Appleyard » Thu Sep 21, 2017 10:13 pm

In Classical Latin, "tu" is singular and "vos" is plural, absolutely, and polite use of "vos" as singular had not yet started. But when writing in Latin to people who speak Romance languages descended from Latin and having pronouns similar to "tu" and "vos", and are accustomed to "tu" being intimate/familiar/condescending in their own languages, are any of them likely to dislike being addressed as "tu" in Latin?

During World War 2 there was a serious attempt in Italy to restore Italian "tu", and "voi" (Italian for "vos"), to their Classical Latin uses. And once a television series about WWII showed a recorded speech in Italian by Mussolini; I know little Italian, but I clearly heard him addressing a big mass audience (clearly very plural), as "tu".
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Re: tu/vos

Postby bedwere » Thu Sep 21, 2017 10:40 pm

Actually what you write about Italy is not correct. Achille Starace, among other comical things, tried to replace "lei", the courtesy form that uses the 3rd person singular, with "voi" (2nd plural).
If you write or speak in Latin, I wouldn't worry about addressing any Italian Latinist with "tu".
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Re: tu/vos

Postby Timothée » Fri Sep 22, 2017 7:59 am

Even the emperor was addressed with tu, so how could one feel offended? It’s already a big thing when one speaks or writes in Latin in general.

The development of the polite address is generally explained occurring some time during the later Roman imperial age. It has been put forth that as there were multiple emperors at that point, it could have conduced to the custom. I don’t know the details, nor do I know how well they are known on the whole.

English of course actually uses exclusively the polite address (the so-called v-form), even if this isn’t necessarily realised anymore (thou is now very restricted in its usage). The Englishmen were at some point so polite (the turn of the 19th century?) that everyone was addressed formally, even small children.

Would Dante have said politely voi? Modern Italian Lei, on the other hand, is a feminine form, because the main word, subsequently dropped, was feminine (probably Eccellenza or Grazia).
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Re: tu/vos

Postby Barry Hofstetter » Fri Sep 22, 2017 1:11 pm

Timothée wrote:Even the emperor was addressed with tu, so how could one feel offended? It’s already a big thing when one speaks or writes in Latin in general.

The development of the polite address is generally explained occurring some time during the later Roman imperial age. It has been put forth that as there were multiple emperors at that point, it could have conduced to the custom. I don’t know the details, nor do I know how well they are known on the whole.


Do we have any examples from late antiquity of this usage?

English of course actually uses exclusively the polite address (the so-called v-form), even if this isn’t necessarily realised anymore (thou is now very restricted in its usage). The Englishmen were at some point so polite (the turn of the 19th century?) that everyone was addressed formally, even small children.


The forms seem to be in living use at the time of Shakespeare. By the time of James the first of England fourth of Scotland authorizes the Bible sometimes called after him, the singular forms already seem largely out of use in daily speech. The KJV translators preserve them for translational and literary purposes, but don't themselves employ them in other writings that we have preserved from them. It's true that the non-conformist George Fox wrote a book in 1660 on why the singulars should be preserved and reinstated, but the fact that he wrote it (mainly as an apologetic on why Quakers shouldn't be abused for continuing to use it), shows the shift has already occurred. My question would be to what extent did social change in England influence the loss of the pronouns? England certainly did not become an egalitarian society by the 1600's. I suspect it was more due to syntactic shift, normal linguistic change, than polite Brit's.
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Re: tu/vos

Postby Timothée » Fri Sep 22, 2017 2:52 pm

The question why thou became marginalised isn’t an easy one, an article I was just reading says. Changes in the class society (which doesn’t mean its becoming egalitarian) are seen as a triggering factor, as you suggest. Other reasons put forward by scholars are the desire for dissociating oneself from Quakers, and the extensive use of thou in the Bible and literature.

You apparently started to displace thou more and more during the 1500’s, but it took until the end of the 17th century and even to the 18th century until thou was marginalised.

Barry Hofstetter wrote:Do we have any examples from late antiquity of this usage?

I have not gone into this question in detail, but it’s an interesting one and definitely worth knowing more of.
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Re: tu/vos

Postby Barry Hofstetter » Fri Sep 22, 2017 3:46 pm

Timothée wrote:The question why thou became marginalised isn’t an easy one, an article I was just reading says. Changes in the class society (which doesn’t mean its becoming egalitarian) are seen as a triggering factor, as you suggest. Other reasons put forward by scholars are the desire for dissociating oneself from Quakers, and the extensive use of thou in the Bible and literature.

You apparently started to displace thou more and more during the 1500’s, but it took until the end of the 17th century and even to the 18th century until thou was marginalised.

Barry Hofstetter wrote:Do we have any examples from late antiquity of this usage?

I have not gone into this question in detail, but it’s an interesting one and definitely worth knowing more of.


I was going by period literature that I read while researching Samuel Rutherford, not only his writings and letters, but also those of a number of contemporaries, antecedents, and subsequent writers. In Rutherford in particular, I never saw a single "thou" in his letters, although occasionally he would write "ye" instead of "you." Similarly in other writers. I found it quite interesting that the KJV translators, in their correspondence, used the singular forms rarely or not at all. I agree that it was not straightforward and instantaneous, but there seems to be a big difference in usage between mid-16th and 17th centuries.

Yes, I'm hoping someone will pipe in about tu/vos in late antiquity. I personally know of no Latin author in any period who observes the distinction. Even Calvin, in the 1559 Institutes, in the preface dedicated to the King of France, says "in regno tuo"...."apud te" where he surely could have made the distinction, but doesn't, most likely because it's simply not the sort of thing one says in Latin. Were the French in the mid-16th century marking the distinction in their uses of the pronouns? Jerome, in his letters to Pope Damasus, uses the second person singular. Hardly a scientific survey, I know, but those are the two who immediately came to mind that might likely actually observe the usage if it exists.
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Re: tu/vos

Postby Anthony Appleyard » Fri Sep 29, 2017 7:59 am

I used to guess that "you" plural used as respectful singular, meant "thou and thy servants" or similar.
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Re: tu/vos

Postby anphph » Wed Nov 22, 2017 8:05 pm

In the late 14th century Coluccius Salutati, chancellor of Florence and prolific letter writer, decided to try to emulate Classical usage by replacing the formal Medieval Latin Vos with Classically-inspired Tu. Seeing how Latin usage at the time mirrored Spoken Italian, he struggled deeply with this, both thinking he was being rude at his addressees and due to some of them actually feeling offended!

Apropos Latin stylistic rules colliding with the rules of formality, I am reminded of the story of Cardinal Wolsey who wrote "ego et rex meus" (placing the pronoun in the first place ahead of "my king", as required by Latin grammar), and who was for that "a good grammarian but a bad courtier".
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Re: tu/vos

Postby Anthony Appleyard » Tue Nov 28, 2017 10:16 pm

The first time that I was addressed as "thou" in ordinary conversation (there pronounced "tha") was in Blackburn in Lancashire, where the local dialect still keeps "thou". (I am in England.)
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Re: tu/vos

Postby daveburt » Wed Nov 29, 2017 3:03 am

Barry Hofstetter wrote:
English of course actually uses exclusively the polite address (the so-called v-form), even if this isn’t necessarily realised anymore (thou is now very restricted in its usage). The Englishmen were at some point so polite (the turn of the 19th century?) that everyone was addressed formally, even small children.


The forms seem to be in living use at the time of Shakespeare. By the time of James the first of England fourth of Scotland authorizes the Bible sometimes called after him, the singular forms already seem largely out of use in daily speech. The KJV translators preserve them for translational and literary purposes, but don't themselves employ them in other writings that we have preserved from them. It's true that the non-conformist George Fox wrote a book in 1660 on why the singulars should be preserved and reinstated, but the fact that he wrote it (mainly as an apologetic on why Quakers shouldn't be abused for continuing to use it), shows the shift has already occurred. My question would be to what extent did social change in England influence the loss of the pronouns? England certainly did not become an egalitarian society by the 1600's. I suspect it was more due to syntactic shift, normal linguistic change, than polite Brit's.


Google N-Gram Viewer shows a peak in 'thee's and 'thou's around 1600, falling off within three decades to a presumably KJV-supported baseline ~1:6 thou:you ratio. That's just books, and the data prior to 1600 is increasingly sketchy, but the data might even suggest that 'you' may have been more popular before 'thou' and 'thee' had a crack at the limelight for a generation or two? The First Book of Homilies (~1543-47) seems to show a preponderance of 'you's.
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