LINGUIST List 6.835

Thu 22 Jun 1995

Disc: English pronominal morphology

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  1. Joseph Davis, English 's

Message 1: English 's

Date: Fri, 09 Jun 95 10:45:58 EDEnglish 's
Subject: English 's

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Concerning the discussion of English 's, an interesting authentic
example heard by me (with only the names changed here):
"Benjie's wife Mary? 's father is from the same little town as my father."
The speaker knew that I knew Benjie, but she wasn't sure I remembered his
wife Mary. "Mary" had rising intonation, followed by pause.
Joseph Davis
City College of New York
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Date: Tue, 13 Jun 1995 10:38:42 FEMININE-HE, SINGULAR-THEY
From: Robert Millar <>

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Before I begin on this piece, I would like to reassure all on the
list that there is more sorrow than anger involved, and that I
am replying not out of any desire for self-congratulation, but
merely in an attempt to set the record straight.

In an occasionally confused message, puts
forward what appear to be 2 new ideas for the history of
English pronominal morphology, which I will deal with in order:

(1) that far from being the product of a long drawn out process
of replacement in waves from North to South in the Middle
English period, _she_ entered English as a whole suddenly at the advent
of printing, replacing the more colloquial _h-_ forms, primarily
for what are apparently (although the word is never used)
sociolinguistic reasons. In answer to this:
(a)The North - South process happened. This is a fact. The
writer would do well to read some of the material published by
the LALME project and by McIntosh and Samuels separately.
Samuels has demonstrated the spread of the _sh-_ forms (as well
as _they_) convincingly.
(b) The author attempts to circumvent this by discussing
material from _Piers Plowman_ and the _Ayenbite_. This leads me
to suspect that he or she only has a slight understanding of
dialect diversity, particularly in a situation where there is
little in the way of standardization. Both _PP_ and _Ayenbite_
come from areas where the _h-_ forms survived longest (indeed
the _h-_ forms are still to be found in a broad swathe across
the Midlands of England today). He or she would have done
well to have looked at material from further North and
East as well. English is not, and most definitely was not, a monolithic
language. People understand forms from other
dialects. Remember also that the Middle Ages had a cult of
_auctoritas_ so that it is not surprising that a text as
highly respected as _PP_ should have had many of its basic
South West Midlands features in manuscripts from elsewhere in
the country.
(c) I have no problems with the idea that Caxton made certain
choices when it comes to morphological usage. But the choices
were present in the dialects (and the incipient standard) around
him. Right the way through the article I was puzzled by one
thing: where does _she_ come from? The way it is presented
here, it is almost as if the wicked 'Anglo-Norman rulers' (who
are something of an anachronism for the 14th and 15th
centuries) had invented it out of spite. It seems to be being
suggested that this is the 'polite' pronunciation, when quite
the opposite appears to be the case when the attempts to
avoid it in earlier centuries are looked at. The writer might
also wish to avoid concepts such as 'vernacular' in what was
an almost completely unstandardized, low prestige, language.
 A lot of this stems from a misunderstanding of the
standardization process in English (if not some misconceptions
on the nature of language itself). Only to a very small extent
can language change be forced on people (as a resident of
Norway I am very aware of the problems with this). Rulers
change, fads cease. As I have said, even Caxton could not make
decisions on material which did not exist. Of course 'in a
generation after printing, the H-stems for SHE, THEY, THEM, and
THEIR seem to vanish!!, at least from the written evidence'. By
the permanency of print, the rising London standard spread much
more rapidly than it ever would have done in an age of
purely manuscript culture.
(d) A much more interesting question would be: why did English
consider it necessary to have a distinction between female
and male pronouns, when some languages, such as Finnish, do
not have this problem?

(2) also suggests that _they_ rather than being
primarily a Scandinavian borrowing, is in fact a native
construction from Old English _the_ and its paradigm. Therefore
a spread has taken place from the singular to the plural.
(a) He or she says that _they_ was introduced earlier because
of the loss of distinction between sg. and pl. in the
preterite. This is interesting, and worth studying. But why did
this happen? What about the loss in certain Northern dialects
of verb-noun concord in the present as well?
(b) Old English did not have a _the_ form, except in some late
Northumbrian manuscripts. It is also not confined to the
singular as a paradigm. The nearer contender to the _they_ form
in Old English is _tha_ which could be used in the,
and nom and acc. pl. (so there is a connection there between the
two numbers). The _the_ form appears to have developed as an analogy from
forms in the 'simple demonstrative' paradigm.
 Without sounding as if I am blowing my own trumpet, I
have done a little work on this, primarily with 12th and 13th
century texts. _The_ as sole form is probably the product of a
number of ambiguities of form and function within the simple
demonstrative system at that time. A stressed plural form
did survive however, as _tho_ in the South, _thae_ in the
North and Scotland (where it survives today). This represents
more the meaning 'those', but one can see how it could be
confused with _they_. No doubt the new _the_ form in the plural
would also have developed a stressed form, which would be
confused with _they_, and this would suit the argument better.
(c) But the problem always comes down to the spelling, which
appears to represent the Old Norse diphthongal pronunciation,
not the monophthongal one discussed above. Of course, there
is some manuscript evidence where _the_ is used in this
function (which may well represent the above); but these are much outweighed
by examples varying around _they_. How can this
be explained by there only being some influence in the North
from Norse forms?

My apologies to all for going on at great length about this. I
hope everybody can understand why.

Robert McColl Millar
Engelsk faggruppe
Avdeling for kultur og humanistiske fag
Hoegskolen i Telemark
N-3800 Boe i Telemark
Tel: +47 35 95 26 24
 +47 35 95 18 67
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