Arrant Pedantry

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Whence Did They Come?

In a recent episode of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, John McWhorter discussed the history of English personal pronouns. Why don’t we use ye or thee and thou anymore? What’s the deal with using they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun? And where do they and she come from?

The first half, on the loss of ye and the original second-person singular pronoun thou, is interesting, but the second half, on the origins of she and they, missed the mark, in my opinion.

I recommend listening to the whole thing, but here’s the short version. The pronouns she and they/them/their(s) are new to the language, relatively speaking. This is what the personal pronoun paradigm looked like in Old English:

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine Plural
Nominative hit hēo hīe
Accusative hine hit hīe hīe
Dative him him hire him
Genitive his his hire heora

There was some variation in some forms in different dialects and sometimes even within a single dialect, but this table captures the basic forms. (Note that the vowels here basically have classical values, so would be pronounced somewhat like hey, hire would be something like hee-reh, and so on. A macron or acute accent just indicates that a vowel is longer.)

One thing that’s surprising is how recognizable many of them are. We can easily see he, him, and his in the singular masculine forms (though hine, along with all the other accusative forms, have been lost), it (which has lost its h) in the singular neuter forms, and her in the singular feminine forms. The real oddballs here are the singular feminine form, hēo, and the third-person plural forms. They look nothing like their modern forms.

These changes started when the case system started to disappear at the end of the Old English period. , hēo, and hie began to merge together, which would have led to a lot of confusion. But during the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500 AD), some new pronouns appeared, and then things started settling down into the paradigms we know now: he/him/his, it/it/its, she/her/her, and they/them/their. (Note that the original dative and genitive forms for it were identical to those for he, but it wasn’t until Early Modern English that these were replaced by it and his, respectively.)

The origin of they/them/their is fairly uncontroversial: these were apparently borrowed from Old Norse–speaking settlers, who invaded during the Old English period and captured large parts of eastern and northern England, forming what is known as the Danelaw. These Old Norse speakers gave us quite a lot of words, including anger, bag, eye, get, leg, and sky.

The Old Norse words for they/them/their looked like this:

Case Masculine Neuter Feminine
Nominative þeir þau þær
Accusative þá þau þær
Dative þeim þeim þeim
Genitive þeirra þeirra þeirra

If you look at the masculine column, you’ll notice the similarity to the current they/them/their paradigm. (Note that the letter that looks like a cross between a b and a p is a thorn, which stood for the sounds now represented by th in English.)

Many Norse borrowings lost their final r, and unstressed final vowels began to be dropped in Middle English, which would yield þei/þeim/þeir. (As with the Old English pronouns, the accusative form was lost.) It seems like a pretty straightforward case of borrowing. The English third-person pronouns began to merge together as the result of some regular sound changes, but the influx of Norse speakers provided us an alternative for the plural forms.

But not so fast, McWhorter says. Borrowing nouns, verbs, and the like is pretty common, but borrowing pronouns, especially personal pronouns, is pretty rare. So he proposes an alternative origin for they/them/their: the Old English demonstrative pronouns—that is, words like this and these (though in Old English, the demonstratives functioned as definite articles too). Since hē/hēo/hīe were becoming ambiguous, McWhorter argues, English speakers turned to the next best thing: a set of words meaning essentially “that one” or “those ones”. Here’s what the plural demonstrative pronouns in Old English looked like:

Case Plural
Nominative þā
Accusative þā
Dative þǣm/þām
Genitive þāra/þǣra

(Old English had a common plural form rather than separate plural forms for the masculine, neuter, and feminine genders.)

There’s some basis for this kind of change from a demonstrative to a person pronoun; third-person pronouns in many languages come from demonstratives, and the third-person plural pronouns in Old Norse actually come from demonstratives themselves, which explains why they look similar to the Old English demonstratives: they all start with þ, and the dative and genitive forms have the -m and -r on the end just like them/their and the Old Norse forms do.

But notice that the vowels are different. Instead of ei in the nominative, dative, and genitive forms, we have ā or ǣ. This may not seem like a big deal, but generally speaking, vowel changes don’t just randomly affect a few words at a time; they usually affect every word with that sound. There has to be some way to explain the change from ā to ei/ey.

And to make matters worse, we know that ā (/ɑː/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet) raised to /ɔː/ (the vowel in court or caught if you don’t rhyme it with cot) during Middle English and eventually raised to /oʊ/ (the vowel in coat) during the Great Vowel Shift. In a nutshell, if English speakers had started using þā as the third-person plural pronoun in the nominative case, we’d be saying tho rather than they today.

But the biggest problem is that the historical evidence just doesn’t support the idea that they originates from þā. The first recorded instance of they, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, is in a twelfth-century manuscript known as the Ormulum, written by a monk known only as Orm. Orm is the Old Norse word for worm, serpent, or dragon, and the manuscript is written in an East Midlands dialect, which means that it came from the Danelaw, the area once controlled by Norse speakers.

In the Ormulum we finds forms like þeȝȝ and þeȝȝre for they and their, respectively. (The letter ȝ, known as yogh, could represent a variety of sounds, but in this case it represents /i/ or /j/). Other early forms of they include þei, þai, and thei.

The spread of these new forms was gradual, moving from areas of heaviest Old Norse influence throughout the rest of the English-speaking British Isles. The early-fifteenth-century Hengwert Chaucer, a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, usually has they as the subject but retains her for genitives (from the Old English plural genitive form hiera or heora) and em for objects (from the Old English plural dative him. The ’em that we use today as a reduced form of them probably traces back to this, making it the last vestige of the original Old English third-person plural pronouns.

So to make a long story short, we have new pronouns that look like Old Norse pronouns that arose in an Old Norse–influenced area and then spread out from there. McWhorter’s argument boils down to “borrowing personal pronouns is rare, so it must not have happened”, and then he ignores or hand-waves away any problems with this theory. The idea that these pronouns instead come from the Old English þā just doesn’t appear to be supported either phonologically or historically.

This isn’t even an area of controversy. When I tweeted about McWhorter’s podcast, Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper was surprised, responding, “I…didn’t realize there was an argument about the ety of ‘they’? I mean, all the etymologists I know agree it’s Old Norse.” Borrowing pronouns may be rare, but in this case all the signs point to yes.

For a more controversial etymology, though, you’ll have to wait until a later date, when I wade into the murky etymology of she.

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The Taxing Etymology of Ask

A couple of months back, I learned that task arose as a variant of tax, with the /s/ and /k/ metathesized. This change apparently happened in French before the word was borrowed into English. That is, French had the word taxa, which came from Latin, and then the variant form tasca arose and evolved into a separate word with an independent meaning.

I thought this was an interesting little bit of historical linguistics, and as a side note, I mentioned on Twitter that a similar phonological change gave us the word ask, which was originally ax (or acs or ahs—spelling was not standardized back then). Beowulf and Chaucer both use ax, and we didn’t settle on ask as the standard form until the time of Shakespeare.

But when I said that “it was ‘ax’ before it was ‘ask'”, that didn’t necessarily mean that ax was the original form—history is a little more complicated than that.

The Oxford English Dictionary says that ask originally meant “to call for, call upon (a person or thing personified) to come” and that it comes from the Old English áscian, which comes from the Proto-Germanic *aiskôjan. But most of the earliest recorded instances, like this one from Beowulf, are of the ax form:

syþðan hé for wlenco wéan áhsode

(after he sought misery from pride)

(A note on Old English orthography: spelling was not exactly standardized, but it was still fairly predictable and mostly phonetic, even though it didn’t follow the same conventions we follow today. In Old English, the letter h represented either the sound /h/ at the beginning of words or the sound /x/ [like the final consonant in the Scottish loch] in the middle of or at the end of words. And when followed by s, as in áhsode, it made the k sound, so hs was pronounced like modern-day x, or /ks/. But the /ks/ cluster could also be represented by cs or x. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use ask and ax rather than asc or ahs or whatever other variant spellings have been used over the years.)

We know that ask must have been the original form because that’s what we find in cognate languages like Old Saxon, Old Frisian, and Old High German. This means that at some point after Old English became differentiated from those other languages (around 500 AD), the /s/ and /k/ metathesized and produced ax.

Almost all of the OED’s citations from Old English (which lasted to about 1100 AD) use the ax form, as in this translation of Mark 12:34 from the West Saxon Gospels: “Hine ne dorste nan mann ahsian” (no man durst ask him). (As a bonus, this sentence also has a great double negative: it literally says “no man durst not ask him”.) Only a few of the citations from the Old English period are of the ask variety. I’ll discuss this variation between ask and ax later on.

The ax forms continued through Middle English (about 1100 to 1475 AD) and into Early Modern English. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (about 1386 AD) has ax: “I axe, why the fyfte man Was nought housbond to the Samaritan?” In Middle English, ask starts to become a little more common in written work, and we also occasionally see ash, though this form peters out by about 1500. (Again, I’ll discuss this variant more below.)

William Tyndale’s Bible, which was the first Early Modern English translation of the Bible, has ax: Matthew 7:7 reads, “Axe and it shalbe geven you.” The Coverdale Bible, published in 1535 and based on Tyndale’s work, also has ax, but the King James Bible, published in 1611, has the now-standard ask. So do Shakespeare’s plays (dating from the late 1500s to the early 1600s). After about 1600, ax forms become scarce, though one citation from 1803 records axe as a dialectal form used in London. And it’s in nonstandard dialects where ax survives today, especially in Southern US English and African American English. (I assume it also survives in other places besides the US, but I don’t know enough about its use or distribution in other countries.)

In a nutshell, ax arose as a metathesized form of ask at some point in the Old English period, and it was the dominant form in written Old English and an acceptable variant down to the 1500s, when it started to be supplanted by the resurgent ask. And at some point, ash also appeared, though it quietly disappeared a few centuries later. So why did ask disappear for so long? And why did it come back?

The simple answer to the first question is that the word metathesized in the dominant dialect of Old English, which was West Saxon. (Modern Standard English descends not from West Saxon but from the dialect around London.) These sorts of changes just happen sometimes. In West Saxon, /sk/ often became /ks/ in the middle or at the end of a word. Sound changes are usually regular—that is, they affect all words with a particular sound or set of sounds—but this particular change apparently wasn’t; metathesized and unmetathesized forms continued to exist side by side, and sometimes there’s variation even within a manuscript. King Alfred the Great’s translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, switches freely between the two: “Þæt is þæt ic þé ær ymb acsade. . . . Swa is ðisse spræce ðe ðu me æfter ascast.” This is pretty weird. When a change is beginning to happen, there may be some variation among words or among speakers, but variation between different forms of a word used by the same speaker is highly unusual.

As for the second question, it’s not entirely clear how or why ask came back. At first glance, it would seem that ask must have survived in other dialects and started to crop back up in written works during the Middle English Period. Or perhaps ax simply remetathesized and became ask again. But it can’t be quite that simple, because /sk/ regularly palatalized to /ʃ/ (the “sh” sound) during the Old English period. You can see the effects of this change in cognate pairs like shirt (from Old English) and skirt (from Old Norse) or ship (from Old English) and skipper (from Middle Dutch).

It’s not entirely clear when this palatalization of /sk/ to /ʃ/ happened, but it must have been sometime after the Angles and Saxons left mainland Europe (starting in the 400s or 500s) but before the Viking invasions beginning in the 800s, because Old Norse words borrowed into English retain /sk/ where English words did not. If palatalization had occurred after the influx of words from Old Norse, we’d say shy and shill instead of sky and skill.

One thing that makes it hard to pin down the date of this change is that /sk/ was originally spelled sc, and the sc spelling continued to be used even after palatalization must have happened. That means that words like ship and fish were spelled like scip and fisc. Thus a form with sc is ambiguous—we don’t know for certain if it was pronounced /sk/ or /ʃ/, though we can infer from other evidence that by the time most Old English documents were being created, sc represented /ʃ/. (Interestingly, this means that in the quote from Alfred the Great, the two forms would have been pronounced ax-ade and ash-ast.) It wasn’t until Middle English that scribes began using spellings like sch, ssh, or sh to distinguish /ʃ/ from the /sk/ combination.

If ask had simply survived in some dialect of Old English without metathesizing, it should have undergone palatalization and resulted in the modern-day form ash. As I said above, we do occasionally see ash in Middle English, which means that this did happen in some dialects of Old English. But this was never even the dominant form—it just pops up every now and then in the South West and West Midlands regions of England from the 1200s down to about 1500, when it finally dies out.

One other option is that the original ask metathesized to ax, missed out on palatalization, and then somehow metathesized back to ask. There may be some evidence for this option, because some other words seem to have followed the same route. For instance, words like flask and tusk appear in Old English as both flasce/flaxe and tusc/tux. But flask didn’t survive Old English—the original word was lost, and it was reborrowed from Romance languages in the 1500s—so we don’t know for sure if it was pronounced with /sk/ or /ʃ/ or both. Tusk appears in some dialects as tush, so we have the same three-way /sk/–/ks/–/ʃ/ alternation as ask.

But while ash meaning the powdery residue shows the same three-way variation, ash meaning the kind of tree does not—it’s always /ʃ/. Ask, ash, and ash all would have had /sk/ in the early stages of Old English, so why did one of them simply palatalize while the other two showed a three-way variation before settling on different forms? If it was a case of remetathesis that turned /ks/ back into /sk/, then why weren’t other words that originally ended in /ks/ affected by this second round of metathesis? And if /ks/ had turned back into /sk/ at some point, then why didn’t ax ‘a tool for chopping’ thus become ask? Honestly, I have no idea.

If those changes happened in that order, then we should expect to see /ask/ for the questioning word, the tree, and the tool. But there’s no way to reorder these rules to get the proper outputs for all three. Putting palatalization before metathesis gets us the proper output for the tree but also gives us ash for the questioning word, and putting a second round of metathesis at the end gets us the proper output for the questioning word but gives us ask for the chopping tool. And any way you rearrange them, you should never see multiple outputs for the same word, all apparently the products of different rules or at least different rule ordering, used in the same dialects or even by the same speakers.

So how do we explain this?

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Maybe the sound changes happened in different orders in different parts of England, and those different dialects then borrowed forms from each other. Maybe some forms were borrowed from or influenced by the Vikings. Maybe there were several other intermediate rules that I’m missing, and those rules interacted in some strange ways. At any rate, the pronunciation ax for ask had a long and noble tradition before falling by the wayside as a dialectal form about four hundred years ago. But who knows—there’s always a chance it could become standard again in the future.

Sources

Hayes, Bruce, Robert Kirchner, and Donca Steriade, eds., Phonetically Based Phonology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 138–139.
Lass, Roger, Old English: A Historical Linguistic Companion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 58–59.
Ringe, Don, and Ann Taylor, The Development of Old English (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 203–207.

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