Many of the world’s languages have more than one word for “you”. English is unusual in having just one. In other languages there is often a distinction made between singular and plural – i.e., when speaking to one person or to more than one person. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese nǐ is singular and nǐmen is plural. Another common distinction is between informal and formal pronouns (as in tú and usted in Spanish).
The distinction between singular and plural has been lost in English. Thou took the role of singular until it fell out of use by the 17th century in most places, and you came to perform both functions. But 21st-century speakers often seem to feel that something is missing in the language, and several substitutes for a plural pronoun have crept into modern English – and now into the Cambridge dictionary.
The most obvious way of making you plural is to add an –s to form yous:
Yous are too many to all get into one car.
This is found in several varieties of northern British, Irish, and Australian English, and seems to be spreading into the rest of British English from its origin in urban Scots at the beginning of the 20th century. It is still not considered standard English, however, despite fulfilling a useful function.
How did you guys meet?
Y’all have a great time tonight!
Cheer up, you miserable lot!
Y’all is particularly associated with the Southern United States, with you guys being more common in the North and West.
The other distinction, that between formal and informal ways of address, was also made by the use of thou and you, with you being used as if singular to show respect or social distance. In sociolinguistics (the study of the way language is used in society) we call such formal and informal pronouns T (from Latin tu) and V (from Latin vos). T is typically used to address children, close friends, and lovers; V is used for teachers, elders, and work colleagues – although the exact details of what is used for whom vary from society to society. Since the 17th century the more respectful you has been applied to everyone, whatever their social rank. Some people say that this makes English a more democratic language; it certainly removes the embarrassment of having to decide which pronoun to use, T or V.
In any case, people have found ways to add extra degrees of respect, especially when it involves trying to sell something to someone. In very formal British English, sir and madam can be used to fulfill the function of you:
Would sir care for a dessert?
Madam looks splendid in that hat.
If this is felt to be too grovelling, sir and either madam (preferred in British English) or ma’am (preferred in American English) can be used together with you:
Would you like a dessert, sir?
That hat really suits you, madam/ma’am.
In British English, Ma’am tends to be reserved for the highest-status women: the Queen, or senior women in the police or the army.
It seems that English is not excluded from the difficulties of choosing the right way to address people after all.