Etymology: "They": Earliest Use

Beverly Flanigan flanigan at OAK.CATS.OHIOU.EDU
Mon Jan 14 19:36:06 UTC 2002

Carl, I hope you're sending this thread to the HEL listserv too, where you
might get some valuable feedback (in addition to ours, of course).

At 01:06 PM 1/14/02 -0600, you wrote:
>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-").
>LINE 19
>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.)

Beverly Olson Flanigan         Department of Linguistics
Ohio University                     Athens, OH  45701
Ph.: (740) 593-4568              Fax: (740) 593-2967

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