Posts Tagged ‘Middle English’

It’s Greek to Me

April 20, 2017

My favorite YouTube channel is, without question, the Langfocus  channel, created by Paul Jorgenson, a Canadian who teaches English in Japan. Paul is fascinated by language and he shares his knowledge and fascination in his videos. Paul makes videos about particular languages, language families and general concepts about language. Whatever the specific topic he covers, Paul’s videos are always interesting and informative.

Not too long ago, Paul made a video on the Greek language.

I have studied Koine or New Testament Greek a little bit and it is amazing to me just how little the language has actually changed over the centuries. I can tell there are some differences in grammar and vocabulary. Some of the verb inflections have changed a little and Modern Greek seems to have lost the dative case. I also notice that the middle and passive voices have combined into a mediopassive voice. The Greek word for speak has changed from λαλεω (laleo) to μιλεω (mileo) and dog from κυων (cuon) to σκυλος (skylos). I think that a speaker of Modern Greek could read the New Testament in its original Koine Greek without too much trouble and could even read Plato and Homer with varying degrees of difficulty. I suppose that the sounds or phonology of spoken Greek have changed quite a bit more than written Greek so a modern Greek transported back to Periclean Athens might have quite a bit of difficulty making himself understood in conversation, but perhaps not much more than speakers of related languages might have. Despite the changes, Modern Greek is recognizably the same language as the Greek spoken two thousand or more years ago.

Now look at this sample of English from about one thousand years ago.

Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.
Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum,
monegum mægþum, meodosetla ofteah,
egsode eorlas. Syððan ærest wearð
feasceaft funden, he þæs frofre gebad,
weox under wolcnum, weorðmyndum þah,
oðþæt him æghwylc þara ymbsittendra
ofer hronrade hyran scolde,
gomban gyldan. þæt wæs god cyning.
These are the first lines of Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon epic poem that was probably the first work of literature written in Old English. Here is a translation.
LO, praise of the prowess of people-kings
of spear-armed Danes, in days long sped,
we have heard, and what honor the athelings won!
Oft Scyld the Scefing from squadroned foes,
from many a tribe, the mead-bench tore,
awing the earls. Since erst he lay
friendless, a foundling, fate repaid him:
for he waxed under welkin, in wealth he throve,
till before him the folk, both far and near,
who house by the whale-path, heard his mandate,
gave him gifts: a good king he!
It doesn’t seem to be the same language at all. If you look closely, some of the words are recognizable, “god cyning”= good king, but the grammar is very different and there are even some strange letters not used in Modern English. The text looks more like a dialect of German than the English we are familiar with. This is not too surprising. German and English originated on the same branch of West Germanic in the Germanic language family. There would probably be a closer resemblance between Modern English and German if it weren’t for the infusion of so many words from French and Latin after the Norman conquest. As it is, English is less of a strictly Germanic language, at least in vocabulary, and more of a hybrid between Germanic and the Romance languages. (Paul has a couple of videos on this)
Besides the unfamiliar words, you might notice that Modern English has lost the inflections that Old English had. This may also be due to the Norman conquest, or perhaps the earlier Danish or Viking invasions. Britain seems to have been something of a magnet for settlers during the tenth and eleventh centuries and since the Danes, Normans, etc had to communicate with the Anglo-Saxons who already lived there, they used a simplified form of Old English that developed into the language we speak today.
Here are the first lines of Chaucer’s Canturbury tales, written in Middle English around 1300.
Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially from every shires ende
And the translation:
When April’s gentle rains have pierced the drought
Of March right to the root, and bathed each sprout
Through every vein with liquid of such power
It brings forth the engendering of the flower;
When Zephyrus too with his sweet breath has blown
 Through every field and forest, urging on
The tender shoots, and there’s a youthful sun,
His second half course through the Ram now run,
And little birds are making melody And sleep all night, eyes open as can be
So Nature pricks them in each little heart), On pilgrimage then folks desire to start.
The palmers long to travel foreign strands
To distant shrines renowned in sundry lands;
And specially, from every shire’s end
This is recognizably English even if the spelling looks strange. There are some unfamiliar words and some differences in grammar. Chaucer can be read by an English speaker, but it is not easy. Shakespeare and the King James Bible are the most familiar examples of Early Modern English. They are essentially the same language spoken today, but even after a mere four hundred years they already seem quaint and old-fashioned, requiring a glossary to fully understand the text.
How is it that a language like Greek has changed slowly enough over the centuries that the Greeks can read the classics of Ancient Greek literature without too much difficulty while anything written in English more than about five hundred years ago is incomprehensible to the modern reader? Has Greek been unusually conservative or has English changed faster than most languages. Maybe it is both. Latin has changed quite a bit in the transition to the Romance Languages, particularly in the loss of the noun case system, loss of the neuter gender and changes in verb tenses. The vocabulary of the Romance Languages is still largely based on Latin and I think that a modern speaker of Italian or Spanish could still get the basic meaning of a Latin text.
Part of the reason might be because Greek has a much longer written history than English. Writing does tend to make a language more conservative, at least in its written form, particularly when the older version of the language is seen as somehow more pure while innovations are viewed as corruptions. This has long been the case in Greek where until recently it was common for Greek writers to use a formal and archaic version of Greek that resembled Ancient Greek more than the Greek actually spoken. (This is actually a common phenomenon found on many languages with a long literary history.) It seems the greatest changes in English came in the centuries after the Norman Conquest when French was the official language at court and English was mostly a language of illiterate peasants. Another possible reason for the continuity of Greek as opposed to the development of the Romance Languages from Latin might be that the Greek speaking Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire survived as a nation until 1453 while the Latin speaking Western Roman Empire broke up causing regional dialects to become separate languages.
Whatever the reasons, the relatively rapid development of English from its Germanic, Anglo-Saxon origins to the useful language we speak today with its large vocabulary and relatively simple grammar has helped to make English the lingua franca of the modern world. I’m sure I’d rather speak Modern English than Anglo-Saxon, but I wish there had been a greater continuity over the centuries.
  • The Anglish Moot-They want to restore English to its native roots. The result of writing English without any Latin, Greek, or other words is truly weird and helps to demonstrate just how much English has borrowed from other languages.
  • Day of the Dead Languages (

He, Ze, and Thee

September 9, 2015

Students at the University of Tennessee have been asked to use a new set of gender neutral pronouns when appropriate, as reported by the Tennessean.

University of Tennessee students have been asked to use gender-neutral pronouns such as “ze.”

The University of Tennessee Office for Diversity and Inclusion is asking students and faculty to use the pronouns in order to create a more inclusive campus, multiple media outlets report.

“Transgender people and people who do not identify within the gender binary may use a different name than their legal name and pronouns of their gender identity, rather than the pronouns of the sex they were assigned at birth,” the University of Tennessee’s Pride Center Director, Donna Braquet, wrote on the university’s website Wednesday.

Braquet requested that teachers, rather than calling roll, will instead ask each student to provide the name and pronoun he or she — or ze — wishes to be referred by. She says it relieves a burden for people expressing different genders or identities.

“The name a student uses may not be the one on the official roster, and the roster name may not be the same gender as the one the student now uses,” Braquet wrote.

University spokeswoman Karen Ann Simsen said there is no mandate or official policy to use the language.

“The information provided in the newsletter was offered as a resource for our campus community on inclusive practices,” Simsen said.

Braquet said if students and faculty cannot use pronouns such as ze, hir, hirs, xe, xem or xyr, they can also politely ask.

“‘Oh, nice to meet you … What pronouns should I use?’ is a perfectly fine question to ask,” Braquet said.

This suggestion, although not any sort of official policy at the University has met with a certain amount of mockery at the expense of the ivory towered institution completely removed from common experience and it does seem to be more than a little silly to invent new pronouns, considering that something like 99.999% of the population is quite certain which gender they identify with.

Still, I must admit that the English language is somewhat lacking in certain respects when it comes to pronouns. English does not have a third person singular pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unknown or to refer to a single, generic person. For example which pronouns should be used in the sentences, “Every student will take ______ test tomorrow. ______ will receive a grade the day after”. In a mixed class, one might use “he or she” and “his or her” but these usages, while correct, seem awkward. “It” and “its” are the neuter pronouns but they are not used to refer to persons. The grammatically correct pronoun would be “he” and “his”, since in English, as in related languages the male pronoun is the default pronoun used to refer to a member of a mixed company, but this usage has become politically incorrect. The plural pronouns “they” and “their” are often used but that is grammatically incorrect when referring to single members of a mixed group, although such usage has been attested at least since the sixteenth century. Such new-fangled pronouns as xe or ze refer to a person of indeterminate or ambiguous gender rather than a generic person of either gender and have been invented and promoted by left-wing gender theorists and are likely to be resisted by more sensible people.I am not sure what the best solution to this problem is.

Another way in which the English language is lacking in regards to pronoun is that there is no distinction in number or case with the second person pronoun. English makes such distinctions in the first and third person, but not in the second person, except for the possessive case.


Thus there is no way, except in context, to determine whether a person is speaking to a single person or to a group of persons. Since most of the languages related to English do make this distinction and often have a more formal pronoun to use. German has ‘du’ for singular you, ‘ihr’ for plural you, and ‘Sie’ for formal use. Spanish has, depending on dialect ‘tu’ ‘vos’ or ‘usted’ for singular and ‘vosotros’, ‘vosotras’, or ‘ustedes’ for plural. Usted and ustedes are the more formal you but have replaced vos and vosotros outside of Spain. Latin also has tu and vos. This is called the “tu-vos” or “T-V”. In many languages which make the T-V distraction between singular and plural you, the plural you has come to be considered more respectful and is used to address one’s social superiors.

Modern English entirely lacks the T-V distinction, but this was not the case in early forms of English. Old English or Anglo-Saxon had a full complement of noun and pronoun inflections which Modern English has largely dropped, including a singular and plural you. English did not make the T-V distinction between formal and informal you until after the Norman Conquest when English speakers picked up the idea from the French speaking Normans. Here is the full set of Old English Pronouns.

First person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative ic, īc wit
Accusative mec, mē ūsic, ūs uncit, unc
Genitive mīn ūre uncer
Dative ūs unc
Second person
Case Singular Plural Dual
Nominative þū git
Accusative þēc, þē ēowic, ēow incit, inc
Genitive þīn ēower incer
Dative þē ēow inc
Third person
Case Singular Plural
Masculine Neuter Feminine Masculine Feminine
Nominative hit hēo hiē hēo
Accusative hine hit hīe hiē hīo
Genitive his his hire hiera heora
Dative him him hire him him

Note that þ is pronounced “th” , so “you”in the nominative case would be thu and ye. They also had a dual form in the first and second person.

By Middle English the dual form was dropped and the pronouns are closer to Modern English

Personal pronouns in Middle English
The Modern English is shown in italics below each Middle English pronoun
Person (gender) Subject Object Possessive determiner Possessive pronoun Reflexive
ic / ich / I
me / mi
min / minen [pl.]
min / mire / minre
min one / mi selven
modern (archaic)
þou / þu / tu / þeou
you (thou)
you (thee)
þi / ti
your (thy)
þin / þyn
yours (thine)
þeself / þi selven
yourself (thyself)
Third Masculine
him[a] / hine[b]
his / hisse / hes
his / hisse
sche[o] / s[c]ho / ȝho
heo / his / hie / hies / hire
hio / heo / hire / heore

hit / him
hit sulue
us / ous
ure[n] / our[e] / ures / urne
us self / ous silve
modern (archaic)
ȝe / ye
you (ye)
eow / [ȝ]ou / ȝow / gu / you
eower / [ȝ]ower / gur / [e]our
Ȝou self / ou selve
Third From Old English heo / he his / heo[m] heore / her
From Old Norse þa / þei / þeo / þo þem / þo þeir þam-selue
modern they them their theirs themselves

So in Middle English, depending on dialect, nominative singular you is thou, thu, tu, or theou and nominative plural you is ye. The objective singular you is thee and the objective plural you is eow or you. The distinction between singular and plural you was retained in Early Modern English, which most people are familiar with as the English of Shakespeare and the King James Bible.

Personal pronouns in Early Modern English
Nominative Oblique Genitive Possessive
1st person singular I me my/mine[# 1] mine
plural we us our ours
2nd person singular informal thou thee thy/thine[# 1] thine
plural or formal singular ye, you you your yours
3rd person singular he/she/it him/her/it his/her/his (it)[# 2] his/hers/his[# 2]
plural they them their theirs


Here singular and informal you is thou and thee while plural and formal you is ye and you. Most people today use thou and thee believing that they are the more formal and respectful way to address person, particularly in prayer. They have it entirely backwards. Somehow, between Shakespeare’s time and our own, the formal plural you has replaced every other second person pronoun.

I don’t think anyone who speaks English really misses the T-V distinction when it comes to addressing someone formally or informally. Most English speaking countries have become fairly democratic and have tended to eschew the idea social hierarchy implied by the T-V distinction. The inability to distinguish between singular and plural is another matter, especially in translation from languages that do make this distinction. English speakers are instinctively aware of the lack and are always trying to invent pronouns such as you all, y’all, you guys, or youse to make up for the perceived lack, only to be told by grammarians that such usage is informal and improper. Why? We do need the pronoun.  I would propose that we go ahead and make “you all” the formal second person pronoun with y’all, youse, etc as examples of informal or regional, but still acceptable usage. Formally recognizing existing usage would be better than inventing a whole new set of pronouns or trying to resurrect the older pronouns. I think, however, we can do without ze and xe.

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