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Generally speaking, English once used 'you' as the second person plural (equivalent to 'vous' and 'vós') and 'thou' as the second person singular (equivalent to 'tu'). When talking to a person in a higher position, one would use the polite 'you' rather than the informal 'thou'. Nevertheless, as time went by, the polite 'you' (nearly) erased 'thou' from existence and became a simple form of treatment without distinction between formal and informal.

I'm attempting to translate a historical novel set in medieval times. The use of the formal/polite 'vous'/'vós' often gives subtle but important cues for the plot, therefore I decided the simplest way of maintaining these cues would be to use 'thou' and 'you'.

Technically speaking, 'thou'='tu' and 'you'='vous'/'vós'. However, usage has caused modern speakers (I believe) to see 'thou' as more formal than 'you'.

Should I then translate 'vous'/'vós' as 'thou' and 'tu' as 'you'? And would that suffice to transmit to the English readers the aforementioned cues?

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    You might also ask or search on History SE to see if anyone's addressed or mentioned this issue. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Dec 19 '16 at 15:42
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    You first talk about a plural/singular difference and then talk about a difference of formality. How does what you said about number factor into your question? Thanks. – Monica Cellio Dec 19 '16 at 17:28
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    @MonicaCellio: I know that in Iberian languages the second (and the first) person plural were first used with their normal plural functions. Then they were adopted as royal pronouns. With time, the second person plural was also used as a form of polite treatment. It is essential to denote the difference between 'thou'-'ye' because of levels of informality-formality in the text being translated, but then I will also have to respect the singular-plural difference for coherence sake. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Dec 19 '16 at 17:46
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    You might also find helpful information under the thou-thee-thy tag on the English site. – Goodbye Stack Exchange Dec 19 '16 at 18:28
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    It's perhaps worth noting that Tolkien used almost precisely this, using thee to indicate formality in the speech of Gondor, but also using it for familiarity when Éowen says to Aragorn because they love thee. – TRiG Dec 20 '16 at 11:27
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I agree with Lew: If you use an archaic form, use it correctly. Singular: thou/þou, plural: ye/ȝe (use either thorn and yogh or "th" and "y", don't mix them up!). If you use these archaic forms, explain them in a preface.

But my recommendation is to not use these achaic forms.

"Thou" and "ye" will be a constant irritation to contemporary English readers and an obstacle to immersion. If you use them, you force your readers' attention on an aspect of the book that readers of the French original do not notice at all.

You are translating a novel from French to contemporary English, not from French to Middle English, so you should use contemporary English. There will be many other words and expressions that you cannot translate literally but have to translate by using different construction or a paraphrase. This is one of those cases.

How do other translators handle the difference between singular and plural pronoun, between familiar and polite address? How do native speakers of English address a higher ranking individual in a formal manner? They all manage without reverting to Middle English.


There are many possibilities to convey formality versus informality without reverting to archaic pronouns. Instead of opposing "Thou, Madame" to "Ye, Madame", you could use more or less formal versions of the title. One character might say "You, Madame", the other "You, Joan", that is, one uses the name, which will be considered familiar, the other the title, which is more formal and polite. Or you can use "Madame" in opposition to "Mistress" or "Milady" (or whatever other titles where used back then – do some research).

Apparently, the usage is discussed among the characters in the novel, so there is no danger that the readers will miss it. If a character in the French original says something like "Why do you say 'thou'? That is impolite!", let him say "Why do you say 'Joan'? That is impolite!".

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    In this particular instance, the plot requires it. A couple's relationship is defined by their formal, succint treatment; the couple's son rebels against this stiffling way of living love and marriage and uses the informal, loving treatment in his personal life, for which he is often criticised. Again, the dialogues are not long and definitely not wordy. There are two instances where the sentence would simply be 'you, madame', but one character says 'thou, madame' while the other says 'ye, madame'. How else to convey this? – SC for reinstatement of Monica Dec 19 '16 at 18:49
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    @SaraCosta I see the challenge you are facing, and I my trust is in the readers, adopting to the outdated convention—it is not that hard. I can also see another level of this challenge: if "thou" and "ye" are the only archaisms you employ, and the rest is written in modern language, those two words might not feel natural. – Lew Dec 19 '16 at 19:24
  • @SaraCosta That is not difficult at all. See my edit. – user5645 Dec 20 '16 at 5:41
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...usage has caused modern speakers (I believe) to see 'thou' as more formal than 'you'.

I do not think so. It is not more formal, if anything, it is archaic, or literary, or both, but you definitely should not switch the actual single/plural meaning of the words, that would be very confusing. I suggest to use ye for the plural of thou to equalize the impact.

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If it was me, I'd distinguish by using "you all" for the plural form, which is a more modern way to do it.

However, I happen to live in a dialect area where "you all" is very common, so others might find that odd.

You could pick whichever one of the below second-person plurals most strikes your fancy:

enter image description here

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  • Unfortunately that would be anachronistic for a historical novel set in the 14th century. Interesting map, though. Now I wonder if the Uk has a similar approach to the problem... I may just pose the question over at ELU. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Dec 20 '16 at 8:32
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    Some places in the North East and East Midlands retain forms for informal use derived from "thou" etc., but generally it's not common in the UK to have such a distinction. I hear "you all" (not abbreviated to the extent of the Southern American version) and "you guys" (among the younger population exposed to more American influence) a lot, can't think of any others right now but I'm sure someone else can step in. – Muzer Dec 20 '16 at 10:19
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    @SaraCosta. Here in the middle of Ireland, I'd find ye far more natural than you all. I myself use ye all the time: it's a normal part of my speech. Other parts of Ireland (Dublin and NI) use youse. – TRiG Dec 20 '16 at 11:26
  • @SaraCosta - That's a really confusing response. For a historical novel set in the 14th Century to not be anachronistic, the dialog would have to be in Middle English (and perhaps Anglo-Norman) which many modern readers (myself among them) would not be able to understand at all. If you aren't doing that, then the discussion is already about what modern language to translate it into. – T.E.D. Dec 20 '16 at 14:16
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    A book about ancient Rome includes: ‘OK. Steady, lads, keep low,’ Sabinus growled. comment: "Agreed, Ok is not okay. In my opinion, neither is 'Ok, steady lads.' The whole thing sounds a bit too...England to me and as i have stated before, i have a big issue with Romans sounding like Englishmen." Just so you can have an idea of what some would call nit-picking. – SC for reinstatement of Monica Dec 20 '16 at 18:02

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