In most English speaker’s everyday language, “you” can represent an indefinite referent. That is, when I say “you never can tell” I don’t mean that you, the specific person I’m talking to, never can tell, but rather that “somebody never can tell.” In written language, however, “one” is common in such situations; I pepper my writing with “one is struck by …” or “one cannot deduce …” I might also utter such phrases if I were speaking in a very formal, scripted situation, such as while delivering a lecture.
Using this type of “one” in spoken conversation, however, probably sounds vaguely “British” to many Americans. Maybe that’s unfair. (Although I delight at the notion of a stuffy genre of British sarcasm which depends upon the interchangeability of “one” and “you,” as in “one really must learn to be more polite, mustn’t one?”) Seriously, though, it would be interesting to see a comparison of the two Englishes in this regard.
But even in Britain, I’d guess that this type of “one” feels formal and old-fashioned in everyday conversation. It is striking, then, that we haven’t come up with a suitable alternative to “you,” since that word introduces a precarious element of ambiguity. “You’re always such a jerk after a bad night’s sleep” is perfectly polite if you mean “poor sleep patterns lead to grumpiness.” But this can easily be misinterpreted.
So back to the topic at hand: As with many pronominal gaps, one would expect (there it is!) certain dialects to fill it in. And yet I’ve found few varieties of English which do this. Linguist Tom Roeper makes an interesting, if passing, suggestion that y’all in some Southern dialects is used to disambiguate between the two types of second-person pronouns. Hence for such speakers, “y’all can’t do it” would mean “you (the person I’m talking to) can’t do it” while “you can’t do it” would mean “one can’t do it.” However, I haven’t found any corroborating evidence of this.
Can anything think of a variety of English that fills this gap?