Time magazine has just announced that you are its person of the year for 2006. One blogger faulted the magazine for not making clear whether you is singular or plural. Since the magazine’s cover has a mirror – actually a bit of silvered paper impersonating a mirror – it seemed clear to me that you was singular. Calling you the person of the year, not the people of the year, suggested this as well. Nonetheless, some ambiguity remains: many of the articles in the “Person of the Year” issue address a mass audience, users of the World Wide Web, you plural.
Whatever Time meant, it’s clear that when it comes to numbers, the English second person pronoun isn’t clear at all. You can mean one, or two, or more than two. That hasn’t always been the case. Old English had separate second person pronouns for the singular, the dual (referring to two people), and the plural (for more than two). The dual died out – after the Norman conquest the English decided that two was the loneliest number – but singular thee, thou and thy held on till well into the 17th century, with ye, you and your reserved in most cases for the plural.
Then the you forms started to multiply both for the “polite” singular as well as the plural. That happens in other languages too: French uses plural vous as polite singular as well as the general plural, and German uses Sie. But while French kept the second-person familiar tu and German held on to Du, the English thees and thous started to disappear, leaving us with an all-purpose, yet numerically ambiguous second person you. You for one, you for two, you for many.
Context doesn’t always make it clear how many you are. That’s why, when someone says “you,” we’re always asking, “Are you talking to me?” Speakers of English can be uncomfortable with the ambiguity of you, so to clarify just how many you are, we sometimes make new plurals like youse, you ‘uns and y’all. These terms all carry some baggage: youse suggests the urban lower class; you’uns sounds Midwestern rural; and y’all is the Dixieland pronoun, more reputable than the Stars and Bars or separate drinking fountains. But sometimes “Whatchouse want?” or “Y’all come back, hear?”, spoken to one person, suggest that like you itself, these plural forms occasionally function as singulars.
Now purists will insist that even if singular y’all can be found from time to time in border states, or in the mouths of carpetbagging Yankees, no true Southerner uses y’all as a singular – if there’s only one person being addressed, the speaker really means “You and your kin.” In other words, they’re just being polite. But even true Southerners sometimes accentuate the plural by saying “All y’all,” which suggests that y’all, like you, can be ambiguous when it comes to number.
It’s a truism for language historians that the pronoun system is relatively stable: new pronouns rarely come into being; old ones rarely die out. The last new officially-recognized pronoun, its, entered English in the 17th century. Before that, the possessive form of it was it, and sometimes his. There are no its in the King James Bible of 1611, and it’s rare in Shakespeare or in Milton.
But pronouns are on the move again. Forms like youse, you’uns and y’all, none of them very new, are often stigmatized as incorrect. At best they’re considered informal, okay for speech, or writing that transcribes spoken dialogue. That’s probably why the newest English unambiguous plural is you guys. For twenty years or so, you guys has been sweeping the nation – it’s even become popular in the South, perhaps because this new pronoun doesn’t signal any region or social class. Interestingly, you guys has become a generic masculine plural at a time when other gendered terms like chairman, policeman and the generic masculine pronoun have been receding in polite usage. That suggests it’s a needed term.
Time magazine is known for its person of the year issue (in the old days, they called it Man of the Year). It’s also known for its creative use of language – there’s a word for what the magazine’s writers do to English: Timese. So I’m pretty sure that if Time meant this year’s person of the year to be plural, they would have given the honor not to you, but to you guys.