LINGUIST List 6.1084

Sat Aug 12 1995

Disc: He/She, Re: 1071

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. , Re: 6.1071, Disc: He/She

Message 1: Re: 6.1071, Disc: He/She

Date: Thu, 10 Aug 1995 17:15:52 Re: 6.1071, Disc: He/She
From: <>
Subject: Re: 6.1071, Disc: He/She

Paul Foulkes


h-initial forms of the feminine pronoun are alive - if not
necessarily very well - in various parts of Britain, if not
elsewhere. At a guess these are usually restricted to rural areas.
Conservative speakers in parts of Derbyshire, for example, retain
a form typically written as 'her' (and which, naturally, is normally
regarded as misuse of the possessive pronoun). Dialect maps (eg by
Orton) often deal with these pronouns.

Thanks for the interest. My search through the 17 dialects of Piers
Plowman is justly criticized for being too constrained a sampling,
nonetheless the manuscripts show great varieties within and between
dialects. The h-stems (feminine singular and the three plurals) exist
alongside the newer forms (she, they, them, their). The h-stem for "they"
is least likely to occur.
A dual system of pronouns is seen across these manuscripts -- the old
pronouns and the new. I plan to discuss the "'em" phenomenon, and perhaps
a little "'er" and "'ey", as h-less survivals in stressless positions.
The following, sent to me, is a nice statement of what you're saying regarding
the survival of the h-stem feminine:

You might be interested to =

know that the [h-] forms still survive in modern traditional dialect =

(or at least they were holding their own in the 1950s and early 60's =

at the time of the Survey of English Dialects) - but [h-] dropping in =

the areas concerned has left them with no [h]. This is a 'N-W =

Midland' area, comprising Cheshire, N. Derbyshire, most of Lancashire =

and S-W Yorkshire. Some believe that the HER subject forms of the S-W =

Midlands and S-W derive from OE [h-] nominative rather than the =

modern objective/oblique form. There's a paper on this. P. Duncan, =

'Forms of the Feminine Pronoun in Modern english Dialects' in M. =

Wakelin (ed.), Patterns in the Folk Speech of the British Isles =

(London, 1972),182-200.

Here are two notes on historical usage:
1) The neuter singular shared the masculne singular "he" form (see OED,
<neuter>, 1755: "He and HIS having formerly been applied to neuters in
the place now supplied by IT and ITS", Johnson's Grammar.

2) In the 16th and 17th centuries, "IT also occurs when HE, SHE or THAT
would now be preferred" (OED <it> =86d.). The French _c'est_ construction
seems to have influenced the English grammar.

A curious result of examining different lines across the manuscripts of
Piers is that the "proverbial he" sometimes can be seen to have feminine
morphology. I have posted examples to Linguistic. The explanation for
this phenomenon can be understood by following the evolution from an older
English pronoun paradigm to a modern one, from one in which the feminine was
associated with the all-genders plural and the masculine associated with
the singular and neuter.
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