Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The forms of English personal pronouns

with 12 comments

I’ve been mulling over how English personal pronouns preserve case, gender,

Like Greek and Latin nouns (and pronouns and adjectives), the form of English personal pronouns vary to show number, gender, and case (how the word is used in a sentence: whether it’s the subject or object or a possessive).

Number

Nouns in English normally show number by using a suffix of “-s” or “-es,” but some English nouns do have a declension for plural: ox/oxen, for example, or goose/geese. Some use the same form for singular and plural, the number indicated by context—for example, fish, sheep, deer.. (In the case of “fish,” the plural form “fishes” can be used when referring to fish of different species: “the fishes of the deep.)

Most of the personal pronouns do indeed have a declension for number. When used in the nominative case (subject of verb), the forms are:

Singular: I, he, she, it
Plural: we, they
No variation for number: you, who

However, “you” and “who” in some dialects of English use the suffix “all” to make a plural form: “you all,” “who all.” E.g., “You all are going to have to clean up this mess.”

Classical Greek had, in addition to singular and plural forms, a dual form, used to denote a pair. For example, there was the word for “ox” (singular) and “oxen” (plural) but also the word for two oxen, since oxen were often used in pairs. The dual form was also used when speaking of the two brothers Agamemnon and Menelaus: “brother,” “pair of brothers,” “brothers” (plural without the “pair” connotation). You might use the dual form for sandals, gloves, and any other natural pair. In English, we have the word “brace” to denote a pair, either a natural pair (“a brace of dueling pistols”) or simply to denote two (“I bagged four brace of pheasants” refers to eight pheasants).

Gender

Gender variation is now found only in third person singular pronouns:

Masculine: he, him, his (nominative, accusative, possessive)
Feminine: she, her (nominative and accusative/possessive (same form))
Neuter: it, its (nominative/accusative (same form) and possessive)

Other personal pronouns do not vary for gender. “You,” for example, is the form used for both male and female (and for both singular and plural as well as for both nominative and accusative). “You” acts more like a noun that the other pronouns, though it does have a special form for the possessive: “your.”

Some English nouns also have a gender differences: king/queen, actor/actress, comedian/comedienne, waiter/waitress, steward/stewardess.

There has been a conscious effort to strip gender declension from nouns, either by substituting other words (e.g., “flight attendant” instead of “steward/stewardess”; “firefighter” instead of “fireman/firewoman”; “chair” instead of “chairman/chairwoman”; and using “actor” as the occupational title for both sexes).

Forms for use as an object of verb or preposition

English nouns do not differ in form when used as the object of a verb or preposition, but some personal pronouns do. When used in what would correspond to the Greek dative case (in English, as the indirect object of a verb or preposition) or accusative case (object of a verb), the forms that change are these:

Singular: me, him, her
Plural: us, them
No variation for number: whom
No variation for subject/object: you, it

Form to indicate possession

In general, nouns in English form the possessive by adding ‘s at the end of singular nouns and simply ‘ at the end of plural nouns: “the boy’s books,” “the boys’ books.” The apostrophe marks the possessive for nouns. (There are exceptions: some proper nouns that end in “s,” for example, simply add the apostrophe: Moses’ tablets.)

In contrast, none of the possessive pronouns use an apostrophe, since pronouns have a declension for the possessive:

Singular: my, his, her, its
Plural: our, their
No variation for number: your, whose

For some reason, I find this interesting and wish I knew more about the evolutionary history of language.

 

 

Written by LeisureGuy

6 December 2016 at 11:43 am

Posted in Daily life

12 Responses

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  1. A very interesting post. Thank you for taking the time for it.

    William Bettis

    6 December 2016 at 12:21 pm

  2. This is a topic well worth exploring. Off the top of my head, I might recommend David Crystal’s writings on the history of English. My grad school textbook on the subject was The Origins and Development of the English Language, Pyles and Algeo, which you could probably find cheap. Absolutely fascinating subject, but one I haven’t studied seriously in almost 20 years.

    middlesmith

    6 December 2016 at 4:07 pm

  3. It’s interesting that except for the possessive form, “you” acts more like a noun of the deer/sheep variety, in which form doesn’t change for plural: “you” has no number like this type of noun (“deer” by itself doesn’t indicate one or several, so we say “a deer” to indicate one and “several deer” or “a herd of deer to indicate number, but I don’t see using “a you” or “several you” or “a crowd of you). Also, “you,” like any noun, doesn’t have a different form when used as the object. It does have a different form for possessive, but so does a noun nowadays: the ‘s suffix.

    “You,” like most nouns, has common gender: Though we do have gendered nouns (king/queen, father/mother, cock/hen, etc.), most nouns are not gendered: doctor, general, book, teacher, fireplace, bread, president, sheriff, and so on. And, as noted, I think we more often now see (say) “council member” rather than “councilman” or “councilwoman” because we are deliberately degendering our discourse.

    Yeah, it’s fascinating. The first third of The Reader Over Your Shoulder, by Robert Graves and Alan Hodge, contains an excellent potted history of the English language, with substantial quotations so you get a feel for what he describes. That constitutes the first third of the book, which I discuss in this post.

    I looked at the date and saw that it’s been more than a decade since I posted that, but I clearly remember posting it. (I don’t remember every post, but I remember some that required more engagement and thought, and this one was important to me, because the book is important to me.) And in remembering it, I was struck by this: our memories are in present tense. There’s no sense of time passing within a memory, except either real time (you remember a conversation) or in clips/extracts (as in remember several different scenes at a long-ago party, but not most of the party: remember being in this room, and dancing in that room, etc.). But within each memory the present tense is how the memory presents.

    LeisureGuy

    6 December 2016 at 4:35 pm

  4. Very interesting – I think you’re right. I’ve never thought about time and memory that way, but it rings true. I’ve read that the actual present passes that way too, that perceived time is just the brain creating continuity from one “still” to the next. On the other hand, I can play Louis Armstrong’s “Stardust” solo on a reel in my mind, and “hear” it. (On yet another hand, it wouldn’t surprise me if musical memory works completely differently.

    I have that post of yours bookmarked and hope to pick up a copy of that book soon. I bought Goodby to All That earlier this year, but too late read that the edition I bought was bowdlerized somehow. Then I had moved on before I looked into it further. My bookshelves are full of such excuses.

    middlesmith

    6 December 2016 at 4:51 pm

  5. I second the suggestion of David Crystal’s writings, in particular “The Cambridge Encyclopedia of The English Language” ISBN 0-0521-40179-8. In fact I have most of Crystal’s books and they are all great reading.

    Chris R

    6 December 2016 at 5:08 pm

  6. @middlesmith: Jonathan Foer wrote an interesting book on memory as a skill: Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything. In the course of the book he becomes a competitive memorist,(the title is the kind of incongruous image eideticist use to lock in a memory). In it, he describes a party some of his fellow memory experts threw, with each room starkly differed so your separate memories would be bookmarked, as it were: a room full of balloons, a room with sparkly walls and rotating light, and so on. Each memory will be recallable by room.

    @Chris R: I’m off at once to Abebooks.com, my regular source. Book should be here soon.

    LeisureGuy

    6 December 2016 at 5:20 pm

  7. Chris R: Nice one, a really good overview.

    LG: Now that one I did read! And reading it I realized I’ve had Frances Yates’ Art of Memory for years, lurking there on the shelf, so I’ve queued it up.

    middlesmith

    6 December 2016 at 5:29 pm

  8. I was a writing tutor for many English as a Second Language students.. These lessons were very frustrating for all involved 😉

  9. I only wonder why, in your examples, you refer to the Greek language, and not to Latin

    w8post

    7 December 2016 at 8:05 am

  10. @ Studious Ninja: I hope you’ve read the Hyman Kaplan books by Leo Rosten.

    @ w8post: Pretty simple: I’ve studied Greek (classical and Homeric), but I haven’t studied Latin. My younger daughter, though, is fluent in both. (She teaches Latin and Greek.)

    I will add that it’s sort of frustrating in studying Greek when you are offered explanations such as “The Greek genitive absolute is just like the Latin ablative absolute,” since I knew nothing of the ablative case…

    LeisureGuy

    7 December 2016 at 8:26 am

  11. the question was more a matter of logic. for ME. as we in the Netherlands, in our educational system, have 2 schools named ‘Lyceum’ and ‘Gymnasium’, where we [start] learning Latin and Greek. BUT, one first gets 2 years of Latin before beginning with Greek (in 3rd). supposing you have a better grammatical base by starting with Latin before Greek.
    so I guess you studied Greek on a voluntary base and not as a ‘must’ as part of your educational package.

    w8post

    7 December 2016 at 9:28 am

  12. Greek was required in the St. John’s College Great Books Program, the college I attended as an undergraduate. That did not distinguish Greek: all courses were required at St. John’s: no electives. The language tutorial (8-10 students and 1 tutor) focused on Greek (and authors writing in Greek) the first two years. Initially, the first-year language tutorial was Greek and the second year was Latin, but by the time I arrived, the first two years were Greek.

    But you’re right: I did continue my studies voluntarily for a while after I graduated. One tutor remarked that in her experience, people who studied Latin tended to feel that the amount of Latin they knew was enough, but those who studied Greek always wanted to know more Greek. 🙂

    I don’t see the logic to which you refer, but then I’ve not studied Latin. Still, Greek grammars are readily available (Goodwin & Gulick was the one I used, along with a grammar of Homeric Greek by Clyde Pharr). I would think spending time studying Greek grammar would be the most expeditious course to understanding it, rather than splitting the time between Latin grammar and Greek grammar, though (as I say) I’ve not studied Latin.

    I’m puzzled why you thought my study was voluntary rather than as a part of a curriculum.

    LeisureGuy

    7 December 2016 at 9:47 am


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