Generic You - Analogs in Other Languages

Analogs in Other Languages

Second-person pronouns and structures are often used generically in other languages as well. Many languages have more than one second-person pronoun. In some languages this is due to a distinction between formal and informal pronouns (informal pronouns typically being used with family and close friends, and formal pronouns typically being used with social superiors and new acquaintances, though the line between these depends on the language; see T-V distinction). In other cases the presence of more than one second-person pronoun is due to a distinction between singular and plural or masculine and feminine. The rules for selecting a generic second-person pronoun may differ from the rules for selecting an ordinary second-person pronoun. Russian, for example, has a pronoun ты, used as an informal singular, and a pronoun Вы, used as a plural and as a formal singular; but only ты is used generically, such that ты may be used generically in the same sentence as a Вы being used as a literal second-person pronoun. Similarly, in Darja (Arabic as spoken in the Maghreb), there are two distinct singular second-person pronouns, one masculine (used when addressing a man) and one feminine (used when addressing a woman); but when used as generic pronouns, the speaker uses the pronoun with the gender corresponding to his or her own sex, rather than that of the person he or she is addressing.

On the other hand, in situations in which the generic you is used in English, diverse ways of expressing the same idea are used in a number of languages. German speakers, for example, use man as the generic pronoun, conjugated as third person. (Man darf einen Wagen kaufen./You may buy a car.) In Japanese, the sentence structure may make a patient of an action, or even an action itself, the topic of a sentence.

In Middle English, the pronoun you was used strictly for the second person plural. When the pronouns thou and ye fell out of common use you assumed their roles. Though many prescriptive grammarians disagree with the acquisition of new meaning, many feel it has become so widespread, and lacking an alternative (other than the generic one) that it may be considered standard usage.

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