Sunday, December 8, 2013

"Us-guys:" how Lila recreated the birth of "nosotros," only in 2-year-old English

Yesterday at whole foods, all three girls were on the verge of melting down and we had a long drive ahead of us. I grabbed a box of truffles for the road. As I did so, I noticed that Katharine had already gotten one, leading to this exchange:
Me: Oh, you already grabbed chocolates?
K: Yeah, I got some for work.
Lila (excitedly): Some chocolates for work and some for us-guys!  [əm wawI fə wək æn əm wawI fə əsgaiz]
Grace (archly): Lila, it's "us," not "us-guys." Dad, she said Us-guys.
This led, of course, to me giving an impromptu lecture on the evolution of "nosotros" in Spanish, which, though unappreciated by Grace, I will nonetheless repeat here.

 At about the time Spain was busy conquering the world, it was in more or less the same place we are now with its evolution of second person pronouns. Spanish, like English, started out with singular and plural second-person pronouns:

1st person:IWeYoNos
2nd person:ThouYouVos

In both languages, the plural form was used as a term of respect for people of rank, both in the second person and the first (the royal "we"), etc. In what seems like an odd move, both languages at one point or another generalized the plural/respectful form to a universal "you" form:

1st person:IWeYoNos
2nd person:YouYouVosVos
Obviously, that leads to confusion in the 2nd person, and a great deal of innovation has occurred in both languages to fill in the gap.

Various innovative forms
2nd person:You, ThouhYou, Y'all, You guys, Yous, Yous guysVos, Tú, Vuestra merced, UstedVos, Vos-todos, vosotros, vuestras mercedes, ustedes

Eventually, Spain evolved four different 2nd person forms to address formal and informal, singular and plural, and "vosotros" became the standard 2nd person informal plural form. It was only after the evolution of "vosotros" that "nosotros" came into being instead of "nos" as the full (non-clitic) form of the first-person-plural pronoun, presumably as an attempt to regularize the forms by rhyming them (of course "nos" and "vos" had originally rhymed, but by this time "vos" was no longer a plural pronoun).

So, what does all of this have to do with "us-guys"? Of course, "us-guys" was formed by precisely the same pattern that formed "nosotros" in Spanish. Just as "otros" was taken to be a plural marker, "guys" is understood by Lila as the plural-marker in my Northeastern dialect. It strikes me that it is quite possible that Lila learned the grammatical meaning of "guys" (turn a pronoun plural) before she learned its literal meaning.

To understand what happened in the Spanish in terms of modern-day English, you would have to imagine the following events taking place in order for English to arrive where Spanish presently is:

1. All speakers adopt Lila's habit of adding "-guys" to "us" and "we" in addition to adding it to "you" (you-guys, us-guys, we-guys). This new us-guys form becomes so common it is used universally by speakers everywhere, no matter what their feeling are on 2nd person pronouns.
2. "Thou" becomes trendy again and becomes the normal informal 2nd person pronoun, leaving "you" on its own to sound old-fashioned and oddly formal, except in a few countries colonized by England, where "you" continues to be the normal pronoun or where it exists in alternation with "thou."
3. "Your honor" and "your honors" becomes a standard form of formal address in all kinds of situations, except in particularly left-leaning English-speaking enclaves, and becomes contracted first to "yonor" and then finally to "onna" The abbreviation is written either "On./Ons." or "Yn./Yns." depending on where you see it.
4. Many people stop saying "you-guys" all the time, so that "you-guys" sounds like a particularly New-England thing. Most of the world uses "onnas" for the 2nd person plural, regardless of formality.

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