Etymology: "They" (long)

carljweber carljweber at MSN.COM
Thu Jan 10 08:04:37 UTC 2002

Etymology: "They"

Carl Jeffrey Weber

I had asked two questions, I'd like to comment on the second one first.

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?

Fritz Juengling responded

>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.

I'd like to offer a simple explanation why the pronoun changed. I worked on
the problems of the pronouns ten years ago, doing my extremely labor
intensive masters thesis on it - unfortunately, although they gave me the
degree, no one ever looked at my paper. I'm grateful, therefore, for the
chance to present some of my findings.

Why was the older nominative all-genders plural pronoun replaced at all?
When the preterit plural disappeared from the language, and the preterit was
no longer marked for number, the disappearance was balanced by the
development of an unambiguous written plural pronoun (because the
feminine/plural no longer expressed concord).

A perfectly elegant example of this is seen in the following lines from
La3amons Brut, from about 1200.

Eneas nom Lauine; leofliche to wife.
he wes king & heo quen; & kine-lond heo welden.

"Eneas took Lavine lovingly to wife. He was king, and she queen, and (the)
kingdom they governed." - from Sir Frederic Maddon.

If the preterit (welden) were not marked for plural, the sentence would have
to be refashioned because the reader would not know if it was "she" or
 "they" that "governed". Incidentally, in the one other extant manuscript of
La3amons Brut, from later in the century, there is NO preterit plural, and
so there is no single "feminine/plural" form as in the example.


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

Fritz Juengling responded

>'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)

[Actually, and albeit of small significance, there DO seem to be
morphological identities with Swedish and Norwegian (th = d); and with Old
and Modern Icelandic in the oblique cases (of each of the three plural
genders)! CJW]

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

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

I'm very aware of the obvious advanced knowledge of others in these general
areas, and I admittedly confine my expertise to a very narrow focus. Getting
to the point -- I took from the OED all the h-stem forms, the th- forms, and
others as well, and made many pages of exhibits, organizing them in various
ways - mapping over the centuries the persistence of their grammatical and
orthographical forms. No small task.

The real surprise, however, came with comparative analysis of the seventeen
manuscripts of the A-Version of Piers Plowman. Across the lines of the
manuscripts I extracted thirty-six hundred examples (another no small task),
and then constructed the personal pronoun paradigms for each of the written
dialects of the seventeen manuscripts.

My conclusions follow from my primary assumption that the paradigms of Piers
Plowman are highly representative of the general dialects in 15th century
England. My observations are not restricted to the status/prestige dialects
from which Standard English developed. (Fernand Mossé says that Piers was
closer to the common people than any other, and more English than Chaucer.)

My major conclusion, based on the seventeen paradigms (granting special
conditions for "they", as mentioned above, and other conditions for "she") -
it was PRINTING that was the most significant event in the restructuring of
the historical personal pronouns. Printing, with only a few qualifications,
CAUSED (strong word) the demise of the h-stem pronouns. Printing set the
standard of the King's English throughout the land - at least insofar as the
written personal pronouns were concerned. The H-stems had been alive and
well in all the dialects of Piers until printing! The seventeen manuscripts
of Piers show this in unmistakable terms. Why did Caxton, England's first
printer, make certain changes? - as students of the language are well aware,
he began using "them" and "their" mid-career, replacing the h-stems.

It was not "diffusion" that explains it. Examining the seventeen paradigms
shows why. There were many orthographical h-stem forms of "her". There were
many orthographical h-stems forms for "their". In many instances, the
singular and plural shared the same orthographies. As examples, <hire, hyre,
hir, hure, her, etc.> were in some dialects singular, in some plural. The
same situation existed among the many forms of  "him" and "them". What was
singular-masculine/neuter-object in some dialects was the all-genders plural
object in others. Caxton solved the problem and created a standardized
universal written concord through settling on the use of the unambiguous
written th-plural, apparently patterned on the plural th-nominative, already
in the language for several centuries, but adopted for other reasons.

The "th-" was added to the "-m" (the "-m" was the mark of the dative turned
object) and to the "-r" (genitive) morphologies.

The OED has been the authority of final resort and authority in
understanding these pronouns. Everybody quotes the OED, and well they
should. And conservatism in scholarship should be a primary value. Not
available at the time the OED made its observations, however, was the
monumental compilation in George Kane's Piers Plowman (1960), which had
built on the inspiring, and none the less monumental, scholarship of Walter
W. Skeat.

The seventeen paradigms of the A Version of Piers Plowman show the h-stem
feminine and the h-stem plurals were thriving in the 15th century. Printing
swept them away and established a new universal standard. Even the h-stem
nominative plural was to be found, although almost undetectable, in 15th
century English - but, amazingly, it is seen in five manuscripts of Piers,
in Prologue Line 63. I assume John Langland, the author, could have done it
differently, but the h-stem nominative plural RIMES Langland's original "h-"
alliteration in that line. An amazing prize of a find!

Except for the status/prestige dialects, the "she" pronoun had not made the
gain so quickly into the language after 1200 as one might be lead to believe
by everything that has in modern times been written about it. Feminine [hi]
is found far and wide across the manuscripts of Piers. It is often in
variation in the same manuscript with the sh- form. I must accept the
general validity of Eric John Dobson's sound shift data (that by 1400 the
rising front diphthong settled to [i]), and the observation of the OED that
<-o> at the end of <heo> in 1400 had long since been dropped from general
speech. (I've seen "heo" rimed with "se"!). In Passus X, Line 46, the h-stem
feminine is seen in a majority of the seventeen manuscripts - [hi].

Printing swept the h-stem feminine aside, too, at least from the printed

Depending if one is talking about the orthography or the phonology, there is
a good argument that [hi] WAS indeed the much-disparaged "so called generic"
pronoun of modern times - and of course, [hi] was not a masculine pronoun
for most of the history of the English Language! As the feminine, it had
been originally the singular accusative, and then became widely used as a
feminine subject pronoun, spelled with its Roman value, <hi>, and pronounced
exactly as the modern masculine singular! (For my OE paradigms, I used
Pyles, Marckwardt, Baugh, Bloomfield, and Campbell). This is not to say
there were not other forms.

 This [hi] was also the plural of the nominative and accusative, and
continued to be widely found (even after the general displacement of the
accusative by the dative in "-m"). Simply put, my current understanding, a
sociolinguistic one, is that  "sh-" seems to have been preferred as the
written and status/prestige form -- no doubt the preferred form of address
by the ladies of the court -- based, apparently, on the French model of
distinct pronouns for the masculine and feminine. Among the common folk of
the 15th century, as seen in Piers, [hi] often served quite adequately for
man and woman alike.


As far as the source of "they", lacking an alternative explanation, the
Danish source has served well for an impressively long time. Whether it was
in fact Danish or not, it filled the role, it seems, that I earlier
presented - providing an unambiguous written plural when the preterit plural
(except "to be") was dropped.

What seems to me to be a good "source" candidate, an improvement on the
Danish theory, is that it is one of the developments of the same lexical
item that gives us "the" - a demonstrative from WITHIN the language. (The
"þe" orthography is an article, personal pronoun, demonstrative adjective,
demonstrative pronoun, relative, and also a second person object!!) The "þe"
pronoun as a singular is often translated as "who". Why not just call it
singular "they"? It is many times, especially with plural or uninflected
verbs, easily interpreted as the relative, "that", and often interchangeable
with it with no loss of meaning. Why not call it the incipient "they".

The theory here presented, "they" as native and a duplet with "the", also
offers to explain the SINGLE NUMBER morphology of "they".


Whatever you may think -- whether edified, entertained, or exasperated -- of
the various observations made above, please note that I have never had an
opportunity, since I spent several years doing this work ten years ago, to
present, vent, or discuss it with anybody having a knowledge of the subject
area, or the technicalities involved -- and it's a heartfelt cathartic
experience that I will have had been able to tell it before turning to dust.

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