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Gender and Pronoun Usage in the 17th Century

When and how did a change from thou to you occur and was this change promoted by one gender rather than the other?

Hausarbeit 2009 29 Seiten

Anglistik - Linguistik


Table of contents

0. Introduction

1. Early Modern England
1.1. Demographical facts and social structure
1.2. Family Life
1.2. Education and literacy

2. Changes in the pronominal system in Early Modern English- when, how and who?
2.1. The history of thou and you
2.2. Implied meanings of pronoun usage and the importance of power, solidarity and politeness theory
2.3. Assumptions about gender differences in pronoun usage

3. Second person singular pronouns in Early Modern English private correspondence
3.1. Second person singular pronouns in women’s letters
3.2. Second person singular pronouns in men’s letters

4. Comparison of the findings and conclusion

5. Appendix

6. Bibliography

0. Introduction

Language changes, all the time. This is true because English spoken a millennium ago significantly differs from English spoken today. But how did it change and who were the innovators who promoted language change in the course of time?

It is the aim of the following research paper to show how and why the pronominal system changed from thou to you as the standard second person singular pronoun in the course of the Early Modern English period (1500-1700). More precisely, private correspondence from the 17th century will be examined to see why thou or you respectively were chosen and if it was one gender rather than the other who mainly contributed to the standard that we have today.

The first chapter is going to shed light on Renaissance England and its demographical facts with particular emphasis on the role of women. General information will be included as well as some facts about family life, and most importantly, about education and literacy, which is imperative for language change found in written texts.

The second chapter is going to investigate when, how and why a change in the pronominal system from thou to you occurred. In order to do so the concepts of power and solidarity as well as aspects of politeness theory will be considered. Chapter two is going to finish with a summary of assumptions about gender differences in pronoun usage.

In chapter three a small-scale qualitative analysis of letters by female and male writers to family members will be carried out. The material is taken from the Corpus of Early English Correspondence (CEEC) as well as from the Helsinki Corpus (HC). It will be examined if the concepts brought forward in chapter two, e.g. affection or anger and matters of social stratification, e.g. super-/subordination played a role in language choice and, ultimately, language change.

It is going to be the aim of the fourth and last chapter to summarize the findings and an attempt will be made to form a conclusion to the question asked initially.

1. Early Modern England

When talking about Early Modern England we roughly refer to the time between 1500 and 1700. It is the time of the Tudor and Stuart Dynasty, the time of Shakespeare and also the time of major social changes. Those resulted in manifold linguistic changes which influenced today’s Standard English. In order to get a better understanding of the time in which the letters, analysed in chapter three, were written, the following chapter is going to give a short overview about Renaissance England.

1.1. Demographical facts and social structure

Estimating the population size of Renaissance England is difficult because there did not exist censuses until 1801 (Okulska 2006: 23). As a result scholars estimate population sizes with reference to the families or households mentioned in parish registers and tax returns as well by means of back-projection. This technique developed by Wrigley and Schofield (1981) enables scholars to estimate the population by analysing its later development. As a result, researchers found out that the population of England between 1500 and 1800 rose drastically, resulting in the doubling of its size by 1650 (Okulska 2006: 23).

Women constituted 62% and men 38% of the English population, which is due to the fact that women tended to live longer than men. Life expectancy ranged from thirty-two to forty with women being four times as likely to die between the age of twenty-six and thirty-six in which they bore children. Yet, if they survived it was not unusual for them to live well into their sixties (Laurence 1994: 28).

Like many countries of that time, Renaissance England was a socially highly stratified country which was divided into three layers, i.e. gentry, professionals and non-gentry. The gentry was sub-divided into nobility and gentry proper, the former embracing royalty, dukes, viscounts, higher clergy etc. and the latter baronets, knights, gentlemen etc. The professionals were composed of well-educated people performing non-manual work, including army officers, lawyers, doctors, clergymen, teachers and others. The lowest social rank was called the non-gentry and embraced people performing all kinds of manual work e.g. yeomen, husbandmen, craftsmen or other labourers. (Okulska 2006: 22f)

The position of women depended on “specific factors according to which they were assigned to particular social ranks” (Okulska 2006: 24). Those factors were e.g. the status of their family, their matrimonial status and the status of their husbands. However, between 1500 and 1800 a series of events with regard to demography (e.g. growth of London), political life (e.g. the Civil War), economy (e.g. diversification of industries) and culture (e.g. better educational opportunities) influenced the life of people in that it promoted e.g. social mobility often resulting in marriages between people of different social ranks (Okulska 2006: 24/52 and Raumolin-Brunberg 1996a: 35). Nevertheless, researchers claim a change for the worse for women in that time because, as a result of the free labour market, fewer workers were needed. This mainly resulted in an exclusion of women from work and a stronger dependence on their men.

1.2. Family Life

During the 16th century a family model influenced by kinship ties called open lineage family (Stone 1979) was popular in England. It had a “multigenerational structure fully exposed and extremely susceptible to external influences and pressures” (Stone 1979: 69-89, quoted from Okulska 2006: 26). A decisive feature of the open lineage family was the perception of the human as an inseparable part of the community.

In the late 16th and early 17th century, caused by a decline of kinship ties and communal affiliations, the nuclear family, a family with more defined boundaries, became popular. It resulted in a more private lifestyle and strengthened emotional bonds among the closest family members. Furthermore it went hand in hand with the so-called companionate or affective marriage in which both spouses agreed on their marriage and “considered each other partners and friends” (Stone 1979: 180, quoted from Okulska 2006: 26f.). This fact is particularly important since it influenced letter writing, as will be shown in chapter three.

1.3. Education and Literacy

Scholars doing research on Early Modern English are faced with the problem of “bad” data (Nevalainen 2000b and Nevalainen/Raumolin-Brunberg 2003: 26)). All they have is a relatively limited number of texts which enable them to make only few judgements about spoken language. Moreover, the available material can be problematic because it only represents a minority of the population since illiteracy was a widespread problem in Renaissance England. Cressy (1980) assumes that at the beginning of the 16th century almost 90% of English men and 99% of English women were incapable of reading and writing. It took another 150 years until in the first half of the 18th century about 45% of men and 30% of women were literate. However, it is assumed that in the course of the 17th century the gentry, men as well as women, became nearly 100 percent literate (Nevalainen 2000a: 40). The level of literacy within the female population is closely related to the educational system of England in the Early Modern English period. School fees were high so that mostly people of the upper social ranks could send their children to school. Furthermore it was assumed that only boys were destined to be taught, which resulted in girls going to school only for one year in which they learnt how to read but not how to write.

Resulting from this is a difficulty for scholars to make valid claims about language change or about gender aspects of language change because material of the female population is always under- represented (Cressy 1980: 176-177, quoted from Okulska 2006: 28).

2. Changes in the pronominal system in Early Modern English- when, how and who?

As already mentioned in chapter one this paper is concerned with the change in the pronominal system from thou to you in the Early Modern English period. Before the letters themselves will be analysed, it is necessary to give some detailed information about the history of the change in the pronominal system from thou to you and about the assumed promoters of this change in order to get a deeper understanding of the processes that occurred.

2.1. The history of thou and you

In Middle English thou was used as the second person singular pronoun whereas you functioned as the second person plural pronoun. In a gradual process you spread as the polite form for addressing one person, generally of higher social rank. This resulted in social inferiors addressing their superiors by using you but receiving thou in return. Among the lower social classes people addressed each other with reciprocal thou while in the upper ranks people used reciprocal you (Nevalainen 2006: 78, Walker 2003: 311, comp. also chapter 2.2 on page 5). A further reason for the gradual decline of thou during the 17th century is offered by Walker (2003: 312) who suggests that, because you was regarded as more polite, it became the safer option in cases of doubt. As a result you developed towards the standard second person singular pronoun[1]

According to the above-mentioned development it might be assumed that the shift from thou to you was quite straight-forward and led to a pronominal system comparable to this of other European languages in which two second person singular pronouns, a formal/polite and an informal one, co-exist (e.g. German: Du/Sie, French: Tu/Vous). This is not the case though, since thou, after becoming an archaism, appearing in dialects and liturgical language only (Okulska 2006: 122), died out completely[2]. However before this occurred around the 18th century, thou and you were used interchangeably and synonymously in meaning (Okulska 2006: 126). Moreover a conscious decision about the usage of one second person singular pronoun rather than the other could imply meanings apart from the apparent ones already mentioned.

2.2. Implied meanings of pronoun usage and the importance of power, solidarity and politeness theory

When talking about the importance of power and solidarity and implied meanings of pronoun usage, Brown and Gilman’s theory (1960) and its reconsiderations by Lass (1999) should be considered. Brown and Gilman argue that pronoun usage depends on social stratification and therefore distinguish three possible kinds of socially-pragmatic usages:[3]

1) Asymmetric, socially pragmatic usage in which people of higher rank address their inferiors by thou but receiving you in return
2) Asymmetric, sexually determined usage, e.g. in which husbands address their wives by thou but receiving you in return
3) Mutual lower class thou implying solidarity

In addition, Lass (1999) claims that socially-pragmatic usages go hand in hand with non-socially pragmatic usages, which depend on the immediate linguistic and situational context. He particularly points out the importance of the emotional usage which can cause thou to occur where you would be expected:

1) One-sided or reciprocal thou as a sign of anger or insult
2) One-sided or reciprocal thou as a sign of affection

Furthermore the politeness theory coined by Brown and Levinson (1987) should be considered when talking about pronoun usage. They suggest that aspects such as social distance and relative power affect the way in which people communicate. “Social distance is derived from relatively stable social attributes, such as kinship and friendship” (Raumolin-Brunberg 1996b: 174) whereas relative power is “derived from what we know of social stratification in Late Medieval and Early Modern England” (Raumolin-Brunberg 1996b: 174). Brown and Levinson assume that in conversations the concept of relative power overrules that of social distance which may result e.g. in a daughter using you to address her father, regardless of their familiar bonds.

On first sight, those theories seem to explain a lot in terms of the choice of personal pronouns. However, as will be shown in 3.1. and 3.2., pronoun usage in Early Modern English is not quite as straight-forward as Brown and Gilman, Brown and Levinson and Lass suggest.

2.3. Assumptions about gender differences in pronoun usage

Gender differences in language change are a disputed issue, discussed from a synchronic as well as from a diachronic perspective. A detailed account of theories assuming gender differences in language change is portrayed in Okulska (2006:51f) which, for the purpose of this paper, will be reduced to three main aspects:

1) As Walker (2003: 312) and Okulska (2006: 55) claim, women, due to their relative powerlessness, tend to be more polite and formal in style than men. This powerlessness shows in positive politeness strategies, which “leads to moves to achieve solidarity through offers of friendship and the use of compliments (…)” (Wardhaugh 2002: 275).
2) As already discussed in 1.3. better educational opportunities for both men and women resulted in better literacy within the population. Consequently, more women were frequently exposed to the Standard variety, i.e. the prestigious variety of English. What is more, as Okulska (2006: 51) claims, women made use of the prestigious variety far more frequently than men because of its association with social uplifting (comp. Labov 1966).
3) As already mentioned in 1.1. the Early Modern English period was a time of many changes. One such change was social mobility which led to a weakening of links in social networks, resulting in so-called loose-knit social networks. As Milroy and Milroy (1985: 375) argue, those loose-knit networks are much more prone to language change than communities with close-knit social networks. This is because social identity is conveyed to a smaller extent by means of language.

Applying the above-mentioned theories to the changes in the pronominal system would imply that it was women who, because of 1) their relative powerlessness, 2) their usage of the prestigious variety of English and 3) the general trend in Renaissance England towards loose-knit social networks promoted the change from thou to you. This promotion is hard to prove though, because all we can analyse are letters from women of which we know comparably little. What we have to bear in mind is that they, because of their ability to read and write, were probably women of higher social rank.

Because of the difficulties mentioned, the analysis done in chapter three is going to focus on the frequencies in which thou and you occurred in the letters by females and males to see if it was women rather than men who were innovative in their choice of second person singular pronouns. Furthermore the analysis is going to investigate why in some instances thou was used rather than you.

3. Second person singular pronouns in Early Modern English private correspondence

The letters that are going to be analysed in this chapter are taken from the CEEC as well as from the HC. Whereas the CEEC compiles correspondence from 1417-1681 only, the HC compiles all sorts of documents from around 700 to 1700. Together both corpora contain many million words.

For the following research just a comparably “tiny” number of letters has been looked through which was written between 1621 and 1675. More precisely, four letters by women and four letters by men will be analysed in detail. Those letters contain family correspondence only, although letters to officials were accessible as well. The decision not to focus on them was mainly influenced by the fact that those letters do not shed light on changes in the pronominal system from thou to you, since they exclusively contain you as the second person singular pronoun.

3.1. Second person singular pronouns in women’s letters

The first two letters that will be analysed are written by Winefrid Thimelby and are part of the private correspondence of the Aston family. Regarding the usage of thou and you it can be said that Winefrid Thimelby almost exclusively uses you[4]. The only exception one can account for is in her letters to her nieces and nephews. In these cases Winefrid Thimelby uses a combination of you and thou. There seems to be a certain logic underlying her choice of second person singular pronouns which is evident in one of her letters to her niece Gertrude Aston from 1675 (Appendix I.1.). Winefrid Thimelby uses the first half of the letter to thank Gertrude Aston for the letters she sent before and continues with an account of the events of the previous time (l. 1-21). All second person singular pronouns used in the first paragraph take the form of you. In the second half of the letter there is a change in the usage of second person singular pronouns from you to thou exclusively (l. 21-45), interestingly attended by a change of the topic. Winefrid Thimelby, making use of a teacher-like tone, gives Gertrude Aston some advice on the right way of life and the importance of godliness. Concluding it can be said that thou in Winefrid Thimelby’s letters is only used in situations in which she wants to pass on her experience of life to family members who are younger than her. However, this usage of thou rather than you does not seem to reflect feelings of superiority [comp. point 1 of Brown and Gilman (1960) in chapter 2.2., page 5]. Rather, it appears to be a sign of affection and interest for the well-being of her niece [comp. point 2 of Lass (1999) in chapter 2.2 on page 5]

This is different in other letters by Winefrid Thimelby, for example in those to her brother (in-law?) Herbert Aston (Appendix I.2.) in which she exclusively uses you. This letter, compared with the one to her niece Gertrude Aston is generally of a different nature because Winefrid Thimelby remains very cautious and obedient. This obedience is particularly obvious in her closing of the letter in which she does not only express her affection “Your most affectionat” (l. 32) but also includes “though unworthy sister” (l. 33). Regarding the closing formula it should be mentioned that, although they differ depending on the reason for the correspondence and the relationship of the writer and the receiver, they still remain pre-set phrases which do not necessarily reflect actual emotions but might be comparable to today’s “yours sincerely”. Analysing letter I.2., it can be concluded that although Winefrid Thimelby expresses her affection in the closing of the letter, feelings of subordination [comp. point 1 of Brown and Gilman (1960) in chapter 2.2., page 5] still seem to dominate her choice of words. Accordingly this behaviour would confirm Brown and Levinson’s theory (1987) in which relative power seems to overrule social distance or closeness respectively [comp. Brown and Levinson’s theory (1987) in chapter 2.2., page 5].

The following two letters that will be analysed in the next paragraph were written by Brilliana Harley and are taken from the CEEC which compiles very many letters of her, particularly to her son Edward Harley. After a couple of rather neutral, explanatory and introductory words (l. 1-7) in one of her letters to her son (Appendix I.3.), Brilliana Harley continues in a teacher-like tone in which she reminds her son of the importance of physical and mental health:

“be carefull of the health of your body for my sake and aboue all, be carefull of the health of your soule for your owne and my sake” (l. 8-11).

Although the topic as well as the tone are alike in Brilliana Harley’s (Appendix I.3.) and Winefrid Thimelby’s (Appendix I.1., l. 21-45) letter, the former completely omits the usage of the second person singular pronoun thou. Nevertheless, this omission should probably not be analysed as a lack of affection [comp. point 2 of Lass (1999) in chapter 2.2 on page 5] towards her son which in fact is apparent in her anxiety concerning his well-being throughout the letter. Since no letters of Edward Harley to his mother Brilliana are available it is difficult to find out whether concepts of sub- or superordination [comp. point 1 of Brown and Gilman (1960) in chapter 2.2., page 5] and social distance or relative power [Brown and Levinson (1987) in chapter 2.2., page 5] influenced Brilliana Harley’s choice of pronouns in her letters to her son.

Much clearer in that respect is the letter by Brilliana Harley to her husband Robert Harley (Appendix I.4.) which although it finishes with the words “Your most true affectionat wife, Brilliana Harley” (l. 12), still is much more cautious and obedient in tone. This is particularly evident in the address formula which says nothing but plain “S=r=” (l. 1). Therefore it might be argued that Brown and Gilman’s (1960) concept of subordination comp. point 1 and 2 of Brown and Gilman (1960) in chapter 2.2., page 5] played a role in Brilliana Harley’s choice of words. Nevertheless, affection is perceptible in the content of the letter in which Brilliana Harley stresses the point that she wishes her husband to come home soon (l.8-11). Hence, bearing in mind the over-all tone of both letters by Brilliana Harley, they seem to express obedience and subordination, as in the letter to her husband (I.4.) as well as affection. Therefore it seems probable that Brilliana Harley’s preferred second person singular pronoun was you, regardless of the concepts brought forward in chapter 2.2.. This general preference of you might be due to the fact that the Harley’s were quite an influential family with Robert Harley as well as Edward Harley being members of parliament. Accordingly, one could assume that the choice of pronouns had much to do with prestige, you regarded as more prestigious than thou.


[1] Further reading about the reasons for a decline of thou are cited in Walker 2003: 312: Barber 1976 and Wales 1983.

[2] Exceptions can be accounted for in some British dialects in which thou survived

[3] Information presented in 2.2. are taken from Hope 1993: 86-91 and Raumolin-Brunberg 1996b: 174ff. Further reading: Lass, Roger (1999), Brown and Gilman (1960/1989) and Brown and Levinson (1987)

[4] The analysis of you and thou in the following chapters 3.1., 3.2. and 4. also refers to the respective derived forms (your, yours, yr and the(e), thy, thine/thyne)


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gender pronoun usage century when



Titel: Gender and Pronoun Usage in the 17th Century