Etymology Query: "They"

Wed Jan 9 19:28:59 UTC 2002

>>> carljweber <carljweber at MSN.COM> 01/06/02 02:42PM >>>
Etymology Query: "They"

Carl Jeffrey Weber

(I couldn't find anything by searching the archives.)
Given all that the OED says about "they" (and other pronouns) -- I have for
years carried around two questions:

1. What is the evidence behind the OED's presentation that "they" is Danish?

'They, them, their' (with various spellings) are found in Old Norse, but not in Old English or any other Germanic language.  'They' enters English at the same time and place as many other Norse words (of course after the Vikings settled in England)

(a) Is it a "probably" type conclusion? (b) Is it based on similarity of
forms only?

No, not 'probably', it's certain.

2. Why was the older nominative all-genders plural pronoun replaced at all?
Were there developmental constraints, the result of reorganization during
the period of Norman dominance?

No one really knows why the pronoun changed, altho some people have suggested that there was confusion with the 3 person masculine 'he.'  I do not find that a convincing argument at all.
It did not have anything to do with the Normans.
Another puzzle is why native English 'aeg', pronounced something like modern English 'eye,' was replaced by Scandinavian 'egg.'  There does not seem to be any good reason for this type of change.  (We do have remnants
of Old English 'aeg' in Modern English--cock-eyed and Cockney.)

This "they" pronoun seems to have been the only trespasser into "basic"
English (with the other th-plurals later following).

Some scholars have thought that 'she' (which is much more interesting than 'they') is from Scandinavian 'sja.'  In a forthcoming article on the etymology of 'she,' I discuss what is wrong with this theory (and propose my own.)

Has any native source
been suggested?


Fritz Juengling
PhD Germanic Philology

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