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BREMEN 187 5.


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A history of the reflective pronouns in the

English language.


A11 Germanic languages agree in the use of the personal pronouns for the first and second persons in a reflective sense, but with regard to the third person we make the discovery that the greater part of those languages correspond in the possession of a separate from to express a reflective relation. The English language makes an exception from this rule, in as much as it possesses in reality no true reflective pronoun at all, or in other words, there exist no equivalents to the Latin pronominal forms ,se, sibi.“

The forms of the proper reflective pronoun of the third person in the old Germanic dialects, are as follows:

Genit. Dat. Accus.

0. H. Germ: sîn

sih Middle H. Germ: sîn

sich sich The dative form „sich“ is rarely found. New H. Germ: Genit. Dat. Accus.

seiner sich sich 0. Saxon:

(sih) (sih) (very rarely found) 0. Norse:



sik 0. Fris:

sîn Anglo-Sax:

We see, there is no form whatever corresponding to the Gothic: seina sis, sik“ existing in the Anglo-Saxon language.*)

In all other languages of German origin (Danish, Dutch, Swedish) the true reflectives occur, the same it is with all those languages with are directly derived from the Latin; so that the Anglo-Saxon and in consequence the modern English stand alone in the entire absence of them. The personal pronouns are, therefore,

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*) About the Anglo-Saxon form „8în“, used in a reflective sense, we shall have to speak below.

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to be employed in a reflective sense in the third person as well as in the first and second. At a very early time the forms with ,,self" came in use and in order to avoid speaking in an ambiguous manner, this word „self“ became much more necessary and is used to a much greater extent than otherwise would be the case. How the formation of the reflective forms was accomplished and how they gradually assumed their present shape, shall be the object of our investigation.

The origin of the reflective pronouns in the English language and their gradual development down to the present established rule, have been the object of much controversy and dissent, ever since grammarians commenced to examine this question. Nor without cause,

The present forms „myself, thyself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves, themselves“ may undoubtedly be considered as some of those which offer the greatest difficulties for a satisfactory explanation.

The best English grammarians from Joannis Wallis downwards, have either not attempted to solve this question at all, being content to lay down the rules under which those forms were used at the time in which they wrote, or they treat it with negligence, their opinions being not unfrequently ill-founded and delivered at random.

Joannis Wallis, the first who gave his countrymen a grammar which possessed no ordinary merits, says: Self" est nomen substantivum, quamvis a quibusdam pronomen censeatur. Himself“ pro „hisself” and itself“ pro „itsself“.

The custom of annexing ,self" to pronouns in the singular number only, and ,selves to those in the plural number, contributed probably to bring Wallis to this view, as the English adjective does not vary in the plural number. Another cause may have been the apparent possessive form of „my, thy“ in „myself, thyself“ etc.

The opinion of Wallis was adopted by the greater part of all modern English grammarians who were content to acquiesce in this conception, which remained the ruling one for a long period.

Even Murray and Latham incline to this view. The latter says: „In myself, thyself, ourselves, yourselves the construction is that of a common substantive with an adjective or a genitive case. In „himself, themselves“, when accusative, the construction is that of a substantive in apposition with a pronoun, when nominative, they must be considered not as two words, but as a single word compounded“.

This explanation labours under some confusion and affords us no insight into the true character of the reflective pronouns. Besides, Mr. Latham leaves it doubtful, whether „self“ in ,himself and itself" is to be considered as a substantive or an adjective; he seems, however, inclined to take it as a substantive.

Dr. Johnson appears to have entertained the first slight misgivings with regard to the substantive character of , self"; but, for two reasons, he cannot bring himself to consider

„self“ in connexion with pronouns as anything but a substantive, first on account of the plural form , selves“, and secondly on account of the apparent possessive form of „my, thy“ in ,myself, thyself“ etc.

Mr. Todd ventured to oppose the opinion of Dr. Johnson and tried to remove those doubts. With regard to the use of „selves“ as the plural of „self“, he alleges the fact that „selves“ has not been introduced into the language till after the time of Chaucer, who used selven" indifferently in the singular and plural number.

As for Dr. Johnson's second reason, he proposes the new hypothesis, that in their combinations with „self“ the pronouns are not to be considered as possessives, but as the old oblique cases of the personal pronouns. In order to explain his opinion, Mr. Todd knows nothing better than a comparison of the French moi-même, toi-même“ with „myself, thyself and he says that the reason why we do not say to-day. „I-self or Je-même“ is for the sake of fuller and more agreeable sounds.“

In these views he was supported by Mr, Tyrwhitt who, in his essay on the language of Chaucer, endeavours to put the question in the right light. It seems to me, Mr. Tyrwhitt has had no very clear ideas of the matter at all. Although his opinion accidentally approaches the true mark when he says that „my, thy" in „myself, thyself“ must not be considered as possessive pronouns, but that they are with greater probability the Saxon genitive cases of the personal pronouns, still I should very much like to hear Mr. Tyrwhitt explain his reasons for this opinion. I think, it is delivered quite at random without any serious investigations, he is merely guessing and shuns the trouble of a close examination. Especially what he says about the use of the reflective pronouns at the time of Chaucer, is, for the greater part, mere nonsense.

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Chaucer's great departure from the ancient usage was with respect to the pronouns personal prefixed to „self.“ Instead of declining them through the cases which they still retained, he uses constantly „myself for „Iself and meself“, „tbyself for thouself and theeself", ,,himself and hireself for ,,heself and sheself; and in the plural number, „ourself for weself and usself, „yourself for „yeself and youself“, „hemself' for „theyself.“ It would be vain to attempt to defend this practice of Chaucer upon any principles of reason or grammatical analogy.

Mr. Tyrwhitt expresses himself as if forms like „Iself, weself, theyself etc. had, since the Anglo-Saxon time, been in constant use in the English language until the time of Chaucer, who, against all principles of reason or grammatical analogy“ resolved on inventing or adopting instead of them the forms „myself, ourself, hemself“ etc., quite arbitrarily, just because „any regular practice was preferable to the confusion and uncertainty which seem to have prevailed before.“

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