Etymology: "They" revised continued

carljweber carljweber at MSN.COM
Fri Jan 11 02:03:11 UTC 2002

Etymology: "They" revised continued

Carl Jeffrey Weber

Michael Newman said:
1) It's possible to get too caught up with the apparent novelty of
the use of 3pp pronouns with 3ps antecedents, as some kind of
distortion in the paradigm, but that is an artifact of a theoretical
idea that pronouns match antecedents in number and gender. In fact,
cross linguistically the agreement rules between pronouns and
antecedents are loose and often obey semantic/pragmatic principles as
much as mere feature matching.

I think:
Very nicely put. I'm surprised, almost chagrined, that you interpret what I
said this way, Michael. I'm not talking about "everybody.their" and
artifacts of theoretical ideas. And I'm not talking about distortions of the
paradigm. I'm talking about the paradigm shift and reorganization itself!!
And, in introspect, I don't believe that I've been overly caught up in
anything (maybe a bit) -- but merely appropriately caught up in (1) the
plausible explanation that the "th-" nominative plural developed to fill the
need in the preterit for an unambiguous plural when the preterit plural
disappeared and (2) a suggestion of a NATIVE source of "they" as a duplet
with "the" of the OE singular instrumental demonstrative -- a suggestion
which might explain the singular morphology of "they".

Michael Newman said:
2) In contemporary English, one of a number of principles governing
pronoun agreement is that use of the they, them, etc. tend to signal
generic (i.e., general, abstract, nonspecific) referents. Use of the
singular forms signal individuated ones. This is why it is possible
to find singular they with sex-definite referents, as indeed I have from a
variety of places when that referent is clearly generic. It is also
difficult to get sex-indefinite ones with specific referents whose sex
happens to be unknown.

I think:
It would be nice to see one or two of your favorite examples, Michael. The
"hot" parts of the pronouns in question are the "-ey", the "-m", and the
 "-r". Case seems to be more significant than number when there is no
ambiguity for number involved. I think I'm trying to make different points
than you are commenting on. I'm trying to understand the historical paradigm
shift itself. I can show example after example, in Late Middle English, of
the spelling "he" being used for a female referent; similarly, I can show
"he" used for today's "they" - in which cases, both are the feminine/plural.
The late survival of the feminine/plural has escaped modern scholarship to a
large extent. In the year of Chaucer's birth, 1340, in the Ayenbite of Inwit
(Morris 1866) we find "[hi] wes a uayr wifman" (She was a fair woman). As I'
ve written, what swept all this away was Caxton's standardization of the
pronouns of the King's English - that it might be more uniformly understood
in its written representation throughout the realm.

A very good argument can be made that there WAS a generic pronoun. It seems
absurd -- but the so-called generic pronoun, not only was real, but seems to
have developed, in its singular morphology, from the feminine(/plural) -
notwithstanding that these historical developments seem to have been veiled
to modern perception.

Michael Newman Said:
3) When I looked at different ms.s of Chaucer's Prologue to the
Pardoner's Tale, which contains a good number of generic referents, I
found tremendous variation between tendencies to use He, him, etc.
and They, hem, etc.  I presented this once at a conference, and
someone who works on Old English said that she found equivalent
examples in OE. She was supposed to send me the citations, and never
did, and I never followed up.

I think:
(We have to agree whether we are talking about contemporary English, Middle
English, of both  -- let's talk about it all.) Chaucer's written dialect can
't be discounted, but as the status/prestige dialect, it was only one very
very small part of Late Middle English, albeit of grand celebrity to modern
eyes. Chaucer cannot be considered to represent the generalized English of
the time. In addition, if Caxton, a century after Chaucer, is to be
believed, the upper classes in England held in contempt those of lower
station and the way they spoke the language. Also, the problem of "they" has
different historical implications than those of "them" and "their" - as I've
indicated before. I would like to see some of your examples to see if we are
considering same page phenomena.

The very common enigmas of English - the generic "he" and the singular
 "they" are aspects of the same thing -- the development of the OE
feminine/plural. Another side to this, that I haven't said anything about,
is the affinity of forms of the masculine singular and the neuter singular -
in which instance the (apparent) masculine singular carried also the
morphology of "neither one or the other" -- as in "somebody lost his book".
"His" can't be interpreted as a strictly masculine genitive. (The
feminine/plural and the masc/neut singular were inherited by English from
the wider language family).

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