English personal pronouns
This brief survey of some of the early linguistic developments in English personal pronouns is designed to provide useful background for the studies of the early English gender system and the gender shift described in Chapters Three and Four, as some forms of the third-person pronouns in Old and Middle English will look unfamiliar to Modern English speakers. In the process, this appendix explains linguistic curiosities such as the coexistence of sh– and h– forms for the feminine personal pronouns and the dialectal use of “ 'em” in the plural.
Although by late Middle English, the language had lost most inflectional case endings on nouns, adjectives, and articles as well as grammatical gender, it preserved case and gender distinctions in the personal pronouns. In fact, Middle English not only preserved the distinctions from Old English, it also adopted new more distinctive pronominal forms: they and she. The distinct Old English thirdperson pronouns he (masculine), heo (feminine), and hie (plural) seem to have been merging in many Middle English dialects, at least in the written form, into a form often written he, about the time when the northern and midland dialects adopted the new pronominal forms they and she, which helped to preserve distinctions of number and gender in the personal pronouns. Like many of the structural changes that simplified the inflectional system and collapsed grammatical distinctions, the adoptions of the pronouns they and she appear to have been northern/east midland developments that spread southwards, preserving and/or reinforcing distinctions being lost outside the third-person pronoun system.
The basic Old English third-person pronoun paradigm (with common variants) can be summarized as follows (the charts are excerpted from Millward 1996: 100, 170):