The pronoun of address in Piers Plowman
Authorial and scribal usage
This paper is a study of the singular pronoun of address in Piers Plowman. Previous studies have held that Langland’s use of second-person pronouns conformed to the Old English system where the distinction between the thou and ye type pronouns was strictly based on number. This view has accorded with the assumption that singular ye in the late fourteenth century was restricted to “courtly” genres (Burnley 2003: 29). The appearance of singular ye in the manuscripts has mainly been explained by scribal interference; at best, Samuels (1988: 214) states that authorial usage is impossible to define. The present study is based on a detailed analysis of scribal variants in all three versions of Piers Plowman. It suggests that the use of ye comes no less naturally to Langland than to Chaucer, and that it forms an integral part of the language of Piers Plowman. The extent of scribal alteration with regard to this feature was modest, and there seems to be no reason to interpret the shared usage as anything but authorial. Finally, it is suggested that the choice between thou and ye in this period was not merely a question of authorial creativity but an obligatory choice for the speaker, with real social and pragmatic implications.
Keywords: medieval scribes, Piers Plowman, Langland, pronoun of address, politeness
Published online: 04 March 2010
Cited by 1 other publications
Grant, Colin J.
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