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The Major Changes in the Pronoun System of English

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Here is an essay on the major changes in the pronoun system of English since the beginning of the Modern English Period.

I recommend this essay on the history of the English pronoun system as a good example for English Major students in university or college.

The development of the pronoun system of English

The English pronoun system as we know it today has been a later development forming part of the grammatical changes that have taken place in the language over a period of more than four centuries.

This system began to take shape in the Early Modern English Period around the 15th to 16th centuries AD.

Before this period, the Old English (O.E.) and Middle English (M.E.) pronoun systems revolved around the following:

thou, thy, thee, thine, ye, you, it and his

Each of these performed various functions at various times, sometimes indiscriminately. The stability in the form and function of today’s system has come about through three major changes.

1.     The disuse of thou, thy, thee and thine.

2.     The substitution of you for ye as the nominative case.

3.     The introduction of its as the possessive form of it; not forgetting the emergence of the relative pronoun who.

These changes shall form the basis of this discussion.

In the earliest times, there was a distinction between thou and ye in terms of number. Thou was singular and ye plural. In William Shakespeare’s play, Othello, for example, we have:

I take it unkindly,

That thou Iago who hast had,

My purse …

(Act 1, Scene 2)

Meanwhile, the tendency to distinguish between thou and ye in terms of number was changing to that of familiarity. Thou, thee and thy became popular in colloquial usage among familiars and also in addressing people of lower rank.

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Ye, You and Your

On the other hand, ye, you and your were used as a mark of respect for superiors and in formal discourse. So, in Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar, Strato, a servant, is addressed by Brutus, a noble, thus:

I prithee Strato stay thou by thy Lord. (Act 5, Scene 5)

In later years, the forms you, ye and your took over completely from thou, thy and thee as the common pronouns of address regardless of rank or intimacy. Thus by the early 17th century, thou, thee and thy were no longer fashionable in polite speech or otherwise except for limited ordinary use among the Quakers or in formal religious prayer.

For instance, the famous English hymnist, Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748) wrote in his Praise for the Gospel thus:

Lord, I ascribe it to thy grace.

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The second phase of the change occurred in the substitution of you for ye as a nominative case. Before this time, ye was used for the nominative case and you for the objective case. Since both forms were unstressed,  there arose a confusion in the use of these two in terms of case. Therefore, it became necessary to leave ye alone and since the 17th century, you has continued to serve in both subjective and objective cases.

In Othello, Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) makes Iago address Roderigo thus:

You, Roderigo? Come Sir, I am for you. (Act 1, Scene 2).

Today, we have:

1.     You are my friend. (Subjective Case)

2.     I like you. (Objective Case)

It, Its

The current use of the possessive case pronoun, its has equally been a later development in the English language. It is interesting to note that as late as the Middle English Period, the genitive and possessive forms of it was his. Geoffrey Chaucer (1343 – 1400) wrote in The Miller’s Tale:

As any kyde or calf folwyng his dame.

Much later, lines 11 and 12 of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 would read thus:

But if that flower with base infection meet

The basest weed outbraves his dignity.

 

Later on, it, apart from functioning in the subjective case, began to serve as the genitive case. In the 17th century, the genitive case of it became it’s alongside his. This went on up till the 19th century when he was discarded and the apostrophe in it’s dropped. Its thus emerged to conform with the other possessives like yours and hers.

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That, Which, Who

Finally, the relative pronoun, who also came up quite recently.

In around the 13th century, the universal relative pronoun was that. Which emerged in the latter part of the Middle English Period to share this role with that. Even when who finally appeared around the early 16th century, it was not used widely. It was only in the 17th century that it became acceptable and was widely patronized colloquially.

Conclusion

As we have seen, today’s pronoun system of English is a product of at least three major changes stretching across some four or more centuries. The old forms like thou, thee and thy were to be discarded later. Ye went out of fashion, its gradually emerged as the genitive case for it while who only came into popular usage in the 17th century.

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Bibliography

Baugh, Albert, C.: A History of the English Language; Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd; London (1951).

Nist, John: A Structural History of English; St. Martin’s Press; New York (1966).

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