Etymology: "They": Earliest Use

carljweber carljweber at MSN.COM
Mon Jan 14 19:06:48 UTC 2002

Etymology : "They" : Earliest Use

Carl Jeffrey Weber

No thorns, "th-" used instead.
Apparently, the earliest identified "unambiguous plural" pronoun is seen in
the Peterborough Chronicle, of the year 1137 (Mosse Handbook). The need for
an unambiguous plural pronoun arose when the past tense plural marker moved
from the verb-proper into the "to be" auxiliary.

Another developmental stage in English third person pronominals is seen in
how "they" is expressed in Layamons Brut, in the earlier and later, of two
versions. "They" arises full-blown in the later version. These are great
sagas, intended to be read aloud. They are of heroic scale epic
peradventure. Of the poet's manuscripts, which are usually rescribings of
earlier scribings, with changes made to fit the audience written dialect. It
is assumed the practice of the day demanded of the story teller a well
exercised spontaneity for rendering the manuscript in the colloquial idiom.
One text is from about 1200, the other, a few decades later. Each
manuscript, more voluminous than the average modern novel, shows many many
pronoun experimentations, particularly in the h-stem and deictic pronouns.
They were, eight hundred years ago, "squaring off" in grammatical
competition to be the correct form of last resort. Incidentally, in
discussing the pronoun as a "relative pronoun", it should be mentioned there
are three instances of "who" as a relative pronouns in the earlier version,
about seventy in the later. (On another interrogative: "tha. tha", can
signal "when.then", as in the Peterborough Chronicle example given above. In
the Chronicle, the markedness for "personal" + "plural" of "they" is created
by "the" + "hi". The h-stem pronoun gives a personal/plural marker to
deictic "th-". The interrogatively marked "wh-" of "when" or "who" was not
used as a shape in a relative pronoun .

In the earlier Layamons Brut the grammaticality of "they" was expressed by
the two words "the" + "aer".  The "th-" seems to be pollinated for plural
number by the verb particle.

A full blown "they" plural appears in these decades opening the 13th century
in several medieval manuscripts. I have identified the full-blown form of
"they" in the later Layamons Brut, apparently not previously indentified:
"thaie" (with futharc thorn instead of Roman digraph "th-").

Petersborough Chronicles 1137 : They =  the + hi
(my translations follow)

Tha the casltes waren maked, tha fylden hi mid deovles and yvele men. The
namen hi tha men the hi wenden that ani god hefden, bathe be nightes and be

"When the castles were built, then they filled them with devils and evil
men. Then they took the men they governed. They took everything they had,
both by night and by day."

Mosse isn't sure about the "the" in "the hi" next to "wenden". He says:
"It may represent the relative particle of Old English, but also may be a
particular use of the new definite article." My idea of the development of
the paradigm suggests an answer to what "it may represent".

 In addition, it appears that <the hi>, the incipient "they", is the subject
of "hefden", whereas Mosse says the subject is unexpressed.

About 1200, in the earlier Layamons Brute: They = the aer

Brutus hit herde siggen; thurh his sæ-monnen.
the aer weoren on than londe; & tha lawen wusten.

Brutus heard it said through his seamen <they> were landed & keeping the

The same lines roughly twenty years later: The "they" of earlier Layamon
(i.e. "the aer"), survives as "the er":

Brutus hit ihorde; thorth his see-mannen.
the er weren in that lond; and the lawes wiste.

(In some instances the "er" is easily misidentified as "her" or "here".)

About 1220, the  later Layamons Brute: They =  thaie (full-blown form)

The new full-blown form, "thaie", identified here, is in the later
manuscript. Regardless whether or not the h-stem is gone or just hiding:
Could the vowel carry the ghost of nominative morphology from the displaced

Anomalous forms.

1. In the earlier version tha[i] appears one time.
2. In the later version "thaye" appears one time.

1. Credit for the earliest identification of the form pregnant with the
incipient "they" belongs to Sir Frederic Madden, 1847. He put the editorial
bracketed letter in the following.

there quene; and tha[i] that mid hire weoren.
Their queen and they that were with her.

2. A modern looking form:

thar the gode cnihtes; cometh to strange fihtes.
that thaye that her bi-3eteþ; eft hii leoseth.

When the good knights cometh (vague accord) to mighty battles.
Then they that joineth (vague accord) here, again they loseth (vague

(The apparent lack of concord here seems to show "they" in its singular
morphology, notwithstanding attested plural -th in some written dialects.)

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