Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 298

H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

Page 298

ago as the fifteenth century the old clear distinction between ye, nominative, and you, objective, disappeared, and today the latter is used in both cases. Sweet says that the phonetic similarity between ye and thee, the objective form of the true second singular, was responsible for this confusion. 80 In modern spoken English, indeed, you in the objective often has a sound far more like that of ye than like that of you, as, for example, in “how do y’ do?” and in American its vowel takes the neutral form of the e in the definite article, and the word becomes a sort of shortened yuh. But whenever emphasis is laid upon it, you becomes quite distinct, even in American. In “I mean you,” for example, there is never any chance of mistaking it for ye. In Shakespeare’s time the other personal pronouns of the objective case threatened to follow you into the nominative, and there was a compensatory movement of the nominative pronouns toward the objective. Lounsbury has collected many examples. 81 Marlowe used “is it him you seek?”, “’tis her I esteem” and “nor thee nor them shall want”; Fletcher used “’tis her I admire”; Shakespeare himself used “that’s me.” Contrariwise, Webster used “what difference is between the duke and I?” and Green used “nor earth nor heaven shall part my love and I.” Krapp has unearthed many similar examples from the Restoration dramatists. 82 Etheredge used “’tis them,” “it may be him,” “let you and I” and “nor is it me”; Matthew Prior, in a famous couplet, achieved this:
For thou art a girl as much brighter than her
As he was a poet sublimer than me.
  The free exchange continued, in fact, until the eighteenth century was well advanced; there are examples of it in Addison. Moreover, it survived, at least in part, even the attack that was then made upon it by the professors of the new-born science of English grammar, and to this day “it is me” is still in more or less good colloquial use. Sweet thinks that it is supported in such use, though not, of course, grammatically, by the analogy of the correct “it is he” and “it is she.” Lounsbury, following Dean Alford, says it came into English in imitation of the French c’est moi, and defends it as