The Influence of Language Contact on the English Personal Pronouns

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1999

15 Pages, Grade: A+




1 Introduction
1.1 How the Banana Differs from Personal Pronouns
1.2 The Use of STELLA
1.3 Limits of the Helsinki Corpus

2 Main Body
2.1 The Old English Personal Pronoun Paradigm
2.2 The Scandinavian Influence
2.2.1 Some Historical Notes
2.2.2 Some Linguistic Notes
2.2.3 The Third Person Plural Pronouns
2.2.4 A Remark on Parallel Developments
2.3 The French Influence
2.3.1 Some Historical Notes
2.3.2 Some Linguistic Notes
2.3.3 The Second Person Pronouns Changes Induced by French Contact Other Changes

3 Conclusion- Summary, Deficiencies, Prospect

4 Printed Works Consulted and Cited


Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

1 Introduction

1.1 How the Banana Differs from Personal Pronouns

When the banana was first introduced to the British Isles nobody knew what to call this new long, yellow object. The easiest way to make up for the want of a concise expression was to borrow the word from the languages spoken in the banana’s countries of origin, i.e. Spanish and Portuguese. In 1597 Hartwell remarked: ”Other fruits there are, termed Banana, which we verily think to be the Muses of Egypt and Soria.” (OED). Extra-linguistic circumstances had led to change, here addition, in a language’s lexical system.

But the process of change is not always as straightforward as here. First of all, obviously not only the lexicon is subject to change, but likewise are the phonological, the semantic and other systems of a language. Secondly, also intra-linguistic modifications, however triggered, can result in further adjustments within other areas of the language. Thirdly, addition is certainly not the only possible change. Replacement, loss and shift are some other phenomena that might succeed both extra- and intra-linguistic developments. One could add that, for instance in the case of addition, it is not always clear whether the need for a new word or the new word, having been used synonymously with some other expression in the beginning, occurred first. But the main confusion definitely arises from the interdependence of all movements within language and beyond. Linguistic change is usually far more complex than was the case with the banana. But, as Smith (1996: 43) has pointed out, there are three main factors with the help of which linguistic change can be understood and described, namely contact, variation and systemic regulation. So contact between different varieties or languages may add elements that are not necessary, i.e. two or more elements are used in variation until the system adjusts itself in order to improve its efficiency. I am not going to discuss in detail these three mechanisms underlying most processes of change and the various ways they might be interwoven.

Rather, this paper will investigate how personal pronouns as an example were affected by them in the ME period, an instance where change was all but straightforward. The focus will be on language contact. An attempt will be made to give answers to the following questions:

* How do the developments of the second and the third person pronoun respectively differ from the ‘normal’ change of words from OE to PDE?

* Which role does the contact with France and Scandinavia play?

This is to show that the two contact situations had a fairly different impact on English pronouns, where Scandinavian influence is far more fundamental, eventuating in morphological[1] changes as opposed to the pragmatic changes connected with French contact. This difference is paralleled by changes in other areas of the language and gives us some idea of the way the newcomers integrated with the Anglo-Saxons.

After a short overview of the historic events leading to Scandinavian and French contact, the nature of the change in the pronominal system will be outlined and evidence will be given by textual references of the ME period.

1.2 The Use of STELLA

STELLA, acronym for Software for Teaching English and Scottish Language and Literature, is a software package Glasgow University provides for their students to assist both in-class and individual work in English and Scottish studies.[2] This essay makes use of two components of the package. With the help of the electronic Oxford English Dictionary all spellings of the words examined were found . Whereas for this purpose it would have been possible to use the printed edition of the OED the results provided by the Helsinki Corpus could not have been achieved without electronic means.

The diachronic part of the HC, which is the part employed for this essay, is an electronic collection of early English texts. It encompasses extracts of long works, such as the Canterbury Tales, as well as complete shorter texts, such as letters. The database is divided into three main sections, namely Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English, where the texts for the latter are taken from the South of Britain. The rough year boundaries and sub-periods assigned by the compilers to the periods of OE and ME are the following:

Old English: OE1(- 850), OE2 (850- 950), OE3 (950- 1050), OE4 (1050- 1150)

Middle English: Early Middle English : EM1 (1150- 1250), EM2 (1250- 1350)

Late Middle English: EM3 (1350- 1420), EM4 (1420- 1500)

Within each main section searches for words can be made with respect to certain parameters that have been assigned to each text and are now to be selected by the user. So users can not only have a look at all occurrences of one or more word(s) but may restrict their search to a certain sub-period, certain kinds of texts, certain authors or dialects, etc. The results can be viewed in different ways, such as the complete chosen text(s) with the word(s) searched for ‘simply’ highlighted, or as a list of lines or paragraphs containing the relevant word(s). The user can also chose from a range of options as to which information is given with each passage. For the sources of the texts, instructions how to run the programme and other details refer to the manual by Kytö (1996) listed in chapter 4.

1.3 Limits of the Helsinki Corpus

”It should be clear to every user, however, that the Helsinki Corpus does not fully represent the English language of the past.” (Kytö and Rissanen 1992: 9). Hence, occasionally some statements on the history of the personal pronouns cannot be given the endeavoured foundation with the mere help of the HC material. Printed primary and secondary sources, e.g. concordances, at times were used for supplementary information. However, there are also a few cases in which statements that have been widely accepted are simply taken for face value. This method, on the one hand, offers the uninitiated reader the possibility of a rather complete overview. On the other hand, it shows to some extent the limits of the HC to the initiated reader. I consider this method to be justified. For the topic of this essay is by no means an unexplored one and the aim of the essay not research but partly an attempt to demonstrate how far electronic teaching material can aid in the production of an overview by making available a large amount of data in an easily accessible way. Furthermore, consisting of texts from such different fields as religion, law, narration, letters, science, travel, etc., the HC is very representative.

One should also keep in mind that the use of pronouns can serve as an indicator for historians of linguistics to determine the date and place of origin of texts. But since most allocations are based on other means, such as palaeographic methods, this is only true for very few texts. Moreover, no text will be dated or placed merely on the basis of its use of pronouns. More parallels to other texts, like verb forms etc., will be checked before a date or place of origin is assigned. Therefore I will run the very small risk of using texts as a proof of certain geographical or time characteristics which themselves have been assigned to a certain area or period by just these characteristics. I am aware of the fact that this would not be acceptable for research work, but am convinced that it does not matter for my purpose.

2 Main Body

2.1 The Old English Personal Pronoun Paradigm

Due to a lack of standard orthography, a variety of pronoun forms are to be found during the OE period. With the help of the HC, Ælfric’s Old Testament, a West-Saxon text from the period 950- 1050, could be checked for the forms it uses. The most frequent ones are given in the table below. The text was written at a time when the dual number, i.e. the concepts ‘the two of us’ and ‘the two of you’, had already become obsolete, and the dative form had absorbed the accusative form in all persons but the third person singular. Objective is the term covering dative and accusative.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

It is even harder to fix a paradigm for the ME personal pronoun system, again due to a lack of a written standard and the resulting abundance of competing forms. In the HC, the texts are classified by the following dialects: Northern, East-Midlands, West-Midlands, Southern, and Kentish. But even these dialects are far from uniform in spelling. However, common features can be found. All of them have in common their striving for simplification. So we find for instance the accusative absorbed by the dative in all persons but the neuter everywhere. The former genitive forms start to be used as possessive pronouns. Astonishing differences compared to PDE for which simplification does not account are to be found within the second and third person declension. These differences have their roots in extra- and intra- linguistic events during the ME period.

With the second person, not only the loss of the nominative - objective distinction is striking, but much more, since unparalleled by the other persons, the loss of all singular forms. These forms must have been replaced rather than undergone phonological development. Even though replacement might suggest simplification as its reason, it was the usage of the second person pronouns during the ME period that created a situation of pragmatic uncertainty which gave way to the absorption of the singular form by its plural counterpart. See 2.3.

As above, the change from h- to th- forms in the third person plural cannot be accounted for by general rules for the phonological development of English. Again, we have a case of replacement. Here a combination of phonological and morphological changes allowed for Scandinavian contact adding new items to the lexicon, namely their th- pronoun forms, which gradually replaced the OE forms. See 2.2. Scandinavian contact is possibly also partly responsible for the form she. A very brief discussion is included in 2.2.4.

During the ME period, hit seems to have lost its initial h due to weakening. Probably, in this case the same form it for the accusative absorbed the dative form in order to improve the distinction from the masculine form. The possessive its was formed by analogy to the formation of the genitive of nouns during EModE.

2.2 The Scandinavian Influence

2.2.1 Some Historical Notes

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records for the year 787 the first landing of the Danes in Portland (Blake 1992: 415). From then on, periods of more and less violent invasions took turns. Around a hundred years after the first raid, Scandinavians, looking for new land and trade posts, started to settle. The Norwegians concentrated on Ireland, the Scottish Isles and the very north-west of England, whereas heavy Danish settlement took place on England’s east coast between the rivers Tees and Thames, the East-Midlands. It was then, after fierce fighting, that King Alfred of Wessex officially handed over this area to the Danish leader Guthrum, who imposed the Danish legal system there. The region became known as the Danelaw. This meant by no means the end of all fighting. But henceforth there was fairly intense contact and population mixing between Anglo-Saxons and Danes, who have been described as cosmopolitan and adaptable due to the wealth ”of contact with foreign people, into which their many enterprises had brought them” (Baugh and Cable 1993: 93). Guthrum was baptised a Christian, and intermarriage became a frequent event.

2.2.2 Some Linguistic Notes

Linguistic evidence for the heavy Danish settlement is given by the at least 1,400 Scandinavian place names in England (Baugh and Cable 1993: 92). But more important for the purpose of this paper are the Scandinavian traces left elsewhere. The Scandinavian colonisers spoke languages that were rather closely related to OE. Bourcier (1981: 39) holds that they partly were still mutually intelligible, Scandinavian languages being north-Germanic and OE west-Germanic. There is reason to believe that a continuum ranging from ON to OE existed in the Danelaw, where the varieties in-between forwent some inflectional endings and made use of lexical items and grammatical structures of both ends. This fact definitely helped the Norsemen's languages to affect most areas of OE, even its closed class of words and its morphology. The Norse contact, in general, displays an intimate and somewhat basic quality.

In order to provide some idea of the Scandinavian influence, here a few examples of Scandinavian nouns that entered the OE lexicon: birth, dirt, egg, freckle, guess, leg, seat, sister, sky, thrift, window (Baugh and Cable 1993: 98). A look at other nouns and categories of words would confirm the impression that the influence is not limited to certain domains of the lexicon. This is a result of the fact that the ”civilization of the invaders was very much like that of the English themselves” (Baugh and Cable 1993: 97). It is also an indication that contact happened on an everyday life basis. The influence was therefore not confined to certain registers, either, hence the idea of its common quality. When contrasted with the French influence (cf. 2.3.2) the following famous example will be more powerful. The pronunciation of sc - in OE scyrte had been palatalised to /ò/ during the OE period, whereas the borrowed ON cognate skyrta kept its velar sound. These two words were in synonymous use for a while, referring to a piece of ”outer garment” (Smith 1996: 125), before scyrte became shirt and skyrta skirt. Neither one of the pair can be objectively favoured over the other in any respect.

A major proof of the close character of the contact between Scandinavians and Anglo-Saxons is the fact that the influence was not restricted to lexical borrowings. In the first place, it also resulted in fundamental morphological changes as with the present participle ending and adding affixes such as um- and -leik (Burnley 1992: 66). Furthermore, it affected even the group of grammatical words, the so-called closed class, including prepositions, pronouns and conjunctions, where loss and addition are rare for rarely do new concepts in these fields come into existence (hence the term closed). But among others the preposition till and the third person plural pronouns are of Scandinavian origin.

Even though contact happened primarily during the OE period, i.e. before the Norman Conquest, the texts looked at will be from the ME period. This is not only due to the relative shortage of OE texts, especially from the Danelaw, but also to the belated incorporation of the borrowings into the written language. It did not happen until many years after the Norman Conquest ”when training in the West Saxon Standard was terminated and scribes began once more to write on a broader range of topics in the forms of their local dialects” (Blake 1992: 419).

2.2.3 The Third Person Plural Pronouns

Intra- and extra- linguistic reasons went hand in hand when the Scandinavian third person plural pronouns replaced the OE forms. When due to phonological changes the OE inflectional endings of the verbs became less distinguishable the urge to rely on the pronouns to find out the number of the subject grew. In addition, the above-mentioned closeness of Danish and English at that time might have encouraged speakers to forgo the realisation of distinct inflectional endings in order to improve mutual intelligibility. But, as can be seen in the table in 2.1, already in OE the distinction between the third person pronouns had been minimal. With the rise of ME, the phonological differences became even less noticeable, if not non-existent.

It was the Scandinavian system that offered the solution. ON had their in the nominative, theirra in the genitive, and theim in the dative and accusative (Wardale 1972: 93). Their distinct th- forms replaced, starting in the Northeast of England, gradually the OE h- forms.


[1] I consider here pronouns to be part of the morphology, knowing that they are as well syntactical and lexical items.

[2] More information can be found on the following web page:

Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Influence of Language Contact on the English Personal Pronouns
University of Glasgow  (Department of English Language)
History of English I
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ISBN (eBook)
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612 KB
Influence, Language, Contact, English, Personal, Pronouns, History, English
Quote paper
Gesa Giesing (Author), 1999, The Influence of Language Contact on the English Personal Pronouns, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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