Etymology: "They" (short)

carljweber carljweber at MSN.COM
Thu Jan 10 18:47:54 UTC 2002


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

Fritz Juengling said,
Interesting idea.  I do not believe I have come across this before.  Have
you been able to find 'þe' used as 'they' (i.e.nom, pl, sentence
subject--that last one is crucial!)?


If I'm not mistaken, the following shows the "incipient plural they", again,
from about 1200:

...Noe & Sem
 Japhet & Cham
& heore four wives
þe mid heom weren on archen.

...Noah & Shem
Japheth & Ham (,)
& their four wives (;)
they [that, who] were with them on (the) ark.

A curious thing is how quickly /they/ was adopted into writing -- although
far from being universally so. The OE feminine/plural could no longer be
invariable used when the preterit plural fell from use. (Many forms of
h-stems for the plural, differentiated from the feminine singular within the
same written dialect, were also used.)

I imagine there was, as an aside at a national convocation of the Church
hierarchy, the "correct" written plural proposed.


Fritz Juengling said,
You will also need to explain the modern pronunciation  with the diphthong
[ei].  I do not think 'þe', if stressed and it were a long vowel, would have
rendered the diphthong; we would have [þi:] (that's really voiced, but I
cannot produce the voiced symbol).


As I understand it, modern "they" retains the OE pronunciation of  <þe>.
Perhaps shedding some light on this, the second person "thee" shows before
1400 the spelling <þe> also -- BEFORE the rising diphthong went to [i]. The
spelling "-ee" shows the orthographic accommodation to the new
pronunciation. The emphatic modern article "the" [thi] shows the same
pronunciation, the raised diphthong. How this makes sense to me is explained
by one of the characteristics of English -- its drift, in some cases, from
the phonetic principle; variant spellings produce the same phonological
shape -- I, eye, aye. What makes sense to me is that "they" (th-y) and its
spelling variations represent a written form to distinguish it from the many
other uses of "þe". I've also considered, in passing, that the overload on
<þe> influenced the adoption of "you" instead of the "th-" forms.


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