Personal and Possessive Pronouns

§436. Since personal pronouns are noun-pronouns, it might have been expected that their evolution would repeat the evolution of nouns; in reality it was in many respects different. The development of the same grammatical categories in nouns and pronouns was not alike. It differed in the rate and extent of changes, in the dates and geographical directions, though the morphology of pronouns, like the morphology of nouns, was simplified.

Before describing the grammatical changes of personal pronouns we must mention some lexical replacements.

§ 439. In Early ME the OE Fem. pronoun of the 3rd p. sg hēo (re­lated to all the other pronouns of the 3rd p. — hē, hit, hie) was re­placed by a group of variants — he, ho, see, sho, she: one of them — she — finally prevailed over the others. The new Fem. pronoun, Late ME she, is believed to have developed from the OE demonstrative pronoun of the Fem. gender — sēo (OE sē, sēo, pæt, NE that). It was first recorded in the North Eastern regions and gradually extended to other areas.

The replacement of OE hēo by ME she is a good illustration of the mechanism of linguistic change and of the interaction of intra- and ex- tralinguistic factors. Increased dialectal divergence in Early ME sup­plied the “raw material” for the change in the shape of co-existing va­riants or parallels. Out of these variants the language preserved the unam­biguous form she, probably to avoid an homonymy clash, since the de­scendant of OE hēo — ME he coincided with the Masc. pronoun he. The heed to discriminate between the two pronouns was an internal factor which determined the selection. The choice could also be favoured by external historical conditions, for in later ME many Northern and East Midland features were incorporated in the London dialect, which became the basis of lite-ary English (see §301 for the dialectal shift in the speech of London). It should be noted, however, that the replacement was not complete, as the other forms of OE hēo were preserved: hire/her, used in ME as the Obj.s case and as a Poss. pronoun is a form of OE hēo but not of its new substitute she; hers was derived from the form hire/her.

§ 440. About the same time — in the course of ME — another im­portant lexical replacement took place: the OE pronoun of the 3rd p. pl hie was replaced by the Scand. loan-word they [θei]. Like the pronoun she, it came from the North-Eastern areas and was adopted by the mixed London dialect. This time the replacement was more complete: they ousted the Nom. case, OE hie, while them and their (coming from the same Scand. loan) replaced the oblique case forms: OE hem and heora. The two sets of forms — coming from they and hie — occur side by side in Late ME texts, e. g.:

That hem hath holpen, whan that they were seeke. (Chaucer)

(‘Who has helped them when they were sick.’)

It is noteworthy that these two replacements broke up the genetic ties between the pronouns of the 3rd p.: in OE they were all obvious derivatives of one pronominal root with the initial [h]: he, hēo, hit, hie. The Late ME (as well as the NE) pronouns of the 3rd p. are separate words with no genetic ties whatever: he, she, it, they (it is a direct de­scendant of OE hit with [h] lost).

§ 441. One more replacement was made in the set of personal pronouns at a later date — in the 17th or 18th c. Beginning with the 15th c. the pl forms of the 2nd p. — ye, you, your — were applied more and more generally to individuals. In Shakespeare's time the pl. forms of the 2nd p.were widely used as equivalents of thou, thee, thine. Later thou became obsolete in Standard English. (Nowadays thou is found only in poetry, in religious discourse and in some dialects.) Cf. the free interchange of you and thou in Shakespeare's sonnets.

But if thou live, remember'd not to be,

Die single, and thine image dies with thee.

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,

Or you survive when I in earth am rotten.

§ 442. The lexical and grammatical changes in the personal and pos­sessive pronouns are shown in Table 2:

Table 2

Personal and Possessive Pronouns in ME and Early NE[51]

Person Singular Plural  
  ME Early NE ME Early NE
1st p. Nom. Obj. (from OE Acc. and Dat.) Poss. (from OE Gen.)   ich/I me   myn(e)/my   I me   my/mine   we us   our(e)/ ours   we us   our, ours
2nd p. Nom. Obj. (from OE Acc. and Dat.) Poss. (from OE Gen.)   thou/thow thee   thyn(e)/thy   thou/ye thee/you   thy/your/thine/ yours   ye you   your(e)/ yours   you/ye you   your, yours
3rd p. M. F. N.      
Nom. he he/she hit/it he, she, it hie/they they
Obj. (from OE Acc. and Dat.) him hir(e)/ her him/ it him, her, it hem/them them
Poss. (from OE Gen.) his her(e)/ hir his his, her, his/its his, hers, his/its her(e)/ their(e) their, theirs

§ 443. Both in ME and in Early NE the pronouns were subjected to extensive grammatical changes. The category of Number was brought into conformity with the corresponding categories of nouns and verbs; the forms of the dual number of the 1st and 2nd p. went into disuse in Early ME.

§ 444. The category of Case underwent profound alterations. The forms of the Dat. and the Acc. cases began to merge in OE, especially in the West Saxon dialect. The syncretism of the Dat. and Acc. took a long time: it began in Early OE in the 1st and 2nd p. pl; in Late OE it extended to the 1st and 2nd p. sg; in Early ME it spread to the 3rd p.; it was completed in Late ME.

The reduction of the pronoun paradigm proceeded at a slower pace than that of nouns, and its geographical direction was different; begin­ning in the South it spread northwards. The results of this simplifica­tion were less drastic than in the noun morphology; two cases fell togeth­er — Dat. and Acc. — into what may be called the Obj. case but its dis­tinction from the Nom. case was preserved. In Late ME the paradigm of personal pronouns consisted of two cases: Nom. and Obj.

Cf. the following instances of the OE Dat. and Acc. cases of pronouns used as objects after the verbs sellan ‘give’ and nemnian ‘call’ and sim­ilar ME phrases with the verbs given and callen governing pronouns in the Obi. case:

Ælfric (10th c.) Chaucer (14th c.)
hēo sealde him pone mete (Dat.) ... that yaf hym wherwith to scoleye
(‘she gave him that food’) (‘who gave him (the means) to study’)
Alfred (9th c.) Chaucer (14th c.)
and hine be his naman nemnde (Acc.) ... I noot how men hym calle
(‘and him by his name called’) (‘I don’t know how men call him’)

§ 445. In Early NE the syncretism of cases entered a new phase: the Nom. case began to merge with the Obj. case. In the following quo­tation from Shakespeare you, the Obj. case of ye, is used as the subject, while she, the Nom. case, is an object: You have seen Cassio and she together. Yet the tendency to reduce the case system of personal pronouns was not fully realised. Only two personal pronouns, you and it lost all case distinctions in NE.

The modern pronoun you comes from the ME Obj. case you (OE Dat. ēow); its Nom. case ye has become obsolete. Recall the use of ye in ele­vated, poetic style: Arise, ye prisoners of starvation (INTERNATIO­NALE).

The pronoun it goes back to the ME Nom. case it, OE hit; the ME Obj. case of it, him (OE Dat.) was identical with the form of the Masc. pronoun he, him; it was used in the function of object in ME as a variant of him, as a substitute of inanimate nouns; eventually it displaced him. This replacement reflects the new grouping of nouns into animate and inanimate, which had superseded the division into genders: it, which stood for inanimate things, had to be kept distinct from he, him in both forms — Nom. and Obj.

The loss of case distinctions by these two pronouns did not break up the paradigm of personal pronouns, since the other pronouns have pre­served the distinction of two cases, Nom. and Obj. (Ime, sheher, etc.): therefore the non-distinctive forms you and it are merely in­stances of homonymy in the two-case system.

§ 446. The OE Gen. case of personal pronouns split from the other forms and turned into a new class of pronouns — possessive.

In OE the Gen. case of personal pronouns — like the Gen. case of nouns — was commonly used in the attributive function; its use as an object was rare. Some of these forms were treated like other noun mod­ifiers: they agreed with the head-noun in case and number, while others did not. In ME these pronouns became more homogeneous: they had all lost their forms of agreement and were uninflected. They can be regarded as a separate class of pronouns termed “possessive”.

ME possessive pronouns occurring in the literary texts of the late 14th and 15th c. are given in Table 2. Special note should be made of the pronoun his which corresponded both to he and it and was used in reference to animate and inanimate things, e. g.:

He moste han knowen love and his servyse. (Chaucer)

(‘He must have known love and its service.’)

(For the new possessive pronoun of the 3rd p. pl their see § 440.)

In Early NE there arose a new possessive pronoun its derived from it; its was built on the analogy of the Gen. case of nouns, of the form his or the new variants of other possessive pronouns: oures, yours. Its was first recorded in 1598 but was still rare in the age of Shakespeare, cf.:

The earth can have but earth, which is his due ...

... and my trust,

Like a good parent, did beget of him.

A falsehood, in its contrary as great,

As my trust was... (Shakespeare)

Some possessive pronouns had two variant forms in ME: myne/my, our(e)/ours, etc. They could be used in free variation, but the variants in -n were preferred before nouns which began with a vowel, e. g. accepte my bileve ‘accept my belief’ but be myn advocat (Chaucer) ‘be my advocate’ (cf. the similar modern distribution of the two variant forms of the Indefinite article — a and an. )

In the 17th and 18th c. the two variants of the possessive pronouns split into two distinct sets of forms differing in syntactic functions; in modern grammars they are called “conjoint” and “absolute”. At the time of Shakespeare both forms could be employed in the attributive function (i. e. as conjoint pronouns), but only the forms in -s or -ne were used independently, as absolute pronouns. Cf.: thine own deep-sunken eyes, thy unused beauty and ten of thine. Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me. (Shakespeare)

§ 447. The OE oblique case-forms of personal pronouns and the ME possessive pronouns gave rise to one more type of pronouns — reflex­ive. Reflexive pronouns developed from combinations of some forms of personal pronouns with the adjective self. Their origins are obvious from their modern structures: e. g. myself, ourselves consist of the Gen. case (or possessive pronoun) and the component self; himself, themselves contain the Obj. case of personal pronouns as their first components. (In ME and Early NE reflexive pronouns were not as yet fixed in the schemes familiar today; instances like He clothed him hastily were not infrequent. )

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