Etymology: "They" (short)

Thu Jan 10 22:52:34 UTC 2002

...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.

I think it's 'who' not 'they.'

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.

This is where you are in trouble.  First, neither 'the' (I will use only regular Mod Eng characters) the relative pronoun (RP), nor 'thee' the 2 person pronoun (2PP), had a diphthong.  They both had monophthongs.  The spelllings do not necessarily indicate the same pronunciation.  The  RP may have been pronounced something like modern unstressed 'the' when it was unstressed.  The stressed RP may have been nearly identical in pronunciation with the 2PP.  However, both had monophthongs and the normal development of both words would have been [thi:].  Neither would have give the diphthong that we find in 'they.'  "they' does not retain the pronunciation of OE 'the.'  Also, I am not exactly sure what you mean by, "The spelling "-ee" shows the orthographic accommodation to the new pronunciation."  The double -ee probably just represents a long vowel, not  the 'new' pronunciation.

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.

Probably not. 'Overload' does not have the impact that one would think.  I wish I had all my articles and books here at work; I have a good article on homonyms that would be interesting to look at.  Also, 'thou' hung around (and is still around in some dialects/situations) for centuries longer than you would want.


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