Viking pronouns in England: Charting the course of THEY, THEIR, and THEM

Elise Emerson Morse-Gagne, University of Pennsylvania


THEY, THEIR, and THEM are of Scandinavian origin, having entered English in the wake of the 9th-century Viking settlements of northern England. In spite of having surprised and intrigued linguists for a century this phenomenon is still poorly understood. I investigate both its linguistic and social aspects through four avenues: recent historical research; the pronoun paradigms used in early medieval Scandinavia and England, as nearly as these can be ascertained; the dynamics of the dissemination of the Scandinavian pronouns through Middle English texts; and current findings on the characteristics and outcomes of different language contact situations. The pronouns did not enter English in spite of the nature of the contact between the English and the Scandinavians, but because of it. Assumptions that their relations were necessarily adversarial are not borne out by the historical evidence. The paradigms usually given for the Scandinavian pronouns and the English demonstratives are anachronistic; a closer approach to those forms permits us both to clarify the changes the pronouns underwent in the transfer to English, and to discard the idea that THEIR and/or THEM stem from the English demonstrative. Claims that the Scandinavian forms appeared very early in English (surfacing as Old English thœge and beora) depend on the belief that written conservatism disguised writers' spoken usage for centuries. This is refuted: Middle English texts, while they must be analyzed with caution, provide much demonstrably accurate evidence for the pronouns their writers used. An alternative analysis of thœge is provided. Theories that the Scandinavian pronouns were borrowed in spite of potential disruption to the structure of English, or that structural similarities between the languages permitted the loan, are examined and shown to be equally ill-founded. The data does not support the hypothesis that English speakers adopted the Scandinavian pronouns to repair homonymy in the English paradigm. Models of language contact and findings on the transfer of closed-class items are presented as possible routes towards a better understanding of why and how THEY THEIR THEM came to be used by monolingual speakers of Middle English.

Subject Area

Linguistics|Literature|Middle Ages

Recommended Citation

Morse-Gagne, Elise Emerson, "Viking pronouns in England: Charting the course of THEY, THEIR, and THEM" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3087442.