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XIX. Changes in the Language to the Days of Chaucer

§ 4. Old English Grammar; Changes in Declension

The history of pronominal forms, like that of the declension of nouns, exhibits certain changes serving to relieve the want of distinctness in the traditional system. These changes began in the Anglian districts, and did not, for the most part, reach the Saxon region till after Chaucer’s time. The forms of the Old English pronouns of the third person, in all dialects, were, in several instances, curiously near to being alike in pronunciation. The masculine nominative h[char] was not very different from the feminine nominative and accusative h[char]o (also h[char]e, h[char]), and this closely resembled the plural nominative and accusative h[char]e or h[char]. The dative singular masculine and neuter was him, and the dative plural was heom. The genitive and dative singular of the feminine pronoun was hire, and the genitive plural was heora. The one form his served for the genitive both of the masculine h[char] and of the neuter hit. (The forms here cited are West Saxon, the divergences of the other dialects being unimportant.) As the pronouns were most commonly unemphatic, such differences as those between him and heom, hire and heora, would, usually, be slighter in speech than they appear in writing, and with the general weakening of unstressed vowels that took place in Middle English the were simply obliterated. In southern Middle English the resulting ambiguities remained unremedied; but in the north and a great part of the midlands, they were got rid of by the process (very rare in the history of languages) of adopting pronouns from a foreign tongue. In many parts of these regions the Danes and Northmen formed the majority, or a powerful minority, of the population, and it is from their language that we obtain the words now written they, their, them and, perphaps, also she, though its precise orgin is not clear. She (written scœ) occurs in the Peterborough Chronicle about 1154. It does not appear in the Ormulum (about 1200), which retains the native pronoun in the form [char]ho; the some-what later east midland Genesis and Exodus has both words ghe or ge and sge or sche. After 1300, scho is universal in the northern dialect and sche in east midland; but ho was common in west midland down to the end of the century, and still remains in the local speech of many districts. The Ormulum has always they (written pe[char]); but retains heore, hemm beside the newer their, them (written pe[char]re, pe[char]m); in the fourteenth century they, their, them are found fully established in all northern and east midland writings, while, in the west, hy for “they” continued in use. Early in the twelfth century, the accusative form of all pronouns, except the neuter hit, had been replaced by the dative. Chaucer uses she and they; but his her serves both for “her” (accusative, genitive and dative) and for “their,” and he has always hem for “them.” In the south, the curious form hise or is was used for “them.” With regard to the other pronouns it will suffice to mention that the form ich (with ch pronounced as in “rich”) was general in the south, while elsewhere the Old English ic became I early in the thirteenth century.

The Old English inflections of adjectives and article, and, with them, the grammatical genders of nouns, disappeared almostly entirely early in Middle English. The Kentish dialect of the fourteenth century, indeed, was exceptionally archaic in these points; in the Ayenbite (written 1340) we find for instance, the accusative masculine form of the adjective and article in “ane gratne dyeuel” (a great devil) and “thane dyath,” for which Chaucer would have written “a gret deuel” and “the deeth.” In other districts of the south, also, considerable traces of grammatical gender and adjective inflection are found quite late. But the north midland English of the Ormulum is, in these respects, nearly identical with that of Chaucer. The article is regularly the undeclined; gender is determined purely by sex; and the adjective (with rare exceptions) has no other inflectional endings than the final -e used when the adjective precedes a definite or a plural noun. In the north, where final unstressed vowels had been silent, the adjective and article were uninflected, and grammatical gender had ceased to exist, before the fourteenth century.