Short answer: English probably works differently than we think it does
Long answer: People use their native language effortlessly provided they don’t have something physically wrong with their brain or any other sort of mental impairment.
Language is an amazingly complex thing. We have adjectives, nouns, pronouns, adverbs, verbs, conjunctions and all sorts of other things. When children grow up, they just hear the language around them and they just pick it up. How they actually do this is a matter of the most cutting edge research, still, after all these years linguistics have been around.
The way people speak tells us something about not only English itself but also how people think. Let’s look at the sentence “We need to move the meeting from 1pm to 2pm”. This makes perfect sense to us, but it actually reveals something about our cognition.
We view a meeting as an object and that it can be moved. But a meeting actually doesn’t exist physically. It is just an agreement amongst some people to meet at a certain time. Time itself is another concept effortlessly handled by the human mind and language but imagine someone with no concept of time. You couldn’t move a meeting because you couldn’t refer to “later”. You could only refer to “now”.
Another way we can see how language reflects how the mind works is how words carve out their own space. Mend means something slightly different to repair. Hurt means something different to inflict pain. Hound and dog are also different. People use words and those that hear them interpret them and use them to try to understand what other people are saying.
They use their understanding of the word to send their own messages and back and forth words go from person to person. The process is not perfect and no word is fixed in meaning but shifts slightly over time.
This is because people interpret words slightly differently as they hear them and use them differently to other people. Over time these slight differences add up and a word like “silly” which is cognate with German “selig” once meant “blessed”. Word change meaning over time because of people. How meanings change over time gives us an insight into the mercurial workings of the human mind.
Past tense forms of words have also changed over time. “sneaked” used to be the way people made “sneak” into the past tense. Now there is “snuck” because people looked at “stick” and “stuck” and by analogy made “sneak” and “snuck”. These constructions that are constructed by analogy are all over the place. It’s another example of how the human mind processes and uses language.
Language is not immovable, but rather a fluid and ever changing thing. People take in language from around them and instinctively work out the rules of this system they are using. People’s idiosyncratic interpretations of words and structures make small changes in words and structures and language slowly change over time.
Now, what does this have to do with “me and my friend”? Well, by a certain way of looking at things, “me and my friend” even at the beginning of a sentence is perfectly alright. I know what you are thinking, “I was thought that it has to be “my friend and I”” and “No one says “Me went”, so you can’t say “Me and my friend went””. There are lots of ways of analysing language. The people who use these arguments are merely using their own line of reasoning and that is perfectly ok. I am merely showing a different way of looking at things.
I have never liked the demonisation by some people of the construction “me and my friend”. As I have tried to make clear in the first part of my article (and by providing many examples) language is an organic entity invented and changed and kept alive by the minds of people in the world. The sentence “That way of speaking is wrong” when speaking of native speakers is simply absurd to me.
Would people look at a penguin and say “That bird should be able to fly. A flightless bird is just wrong” or “That animal has a trunk. No animal should have a trunk. It is just wrong”. I think most people would say that is a silly thing to say. I think it is because many people in literate societies hold up the written word as the best version of their language and end up disliking divergences from that version of the language.
But only about 200 languages in the world are regularly written out of the about 7000 languages in the world. Language is spoken, words are invented, die out, new constructions come in and old constructions get forgotten. The question should not be “Why do people say “me and my friend”?” but “What does the construction “me and my friend” say about English?”
Even after all these centuries of studying language, there is still so much more to be learned. People pick up language effortlessly and speak it effortlessly, yet it is so remarkably complex. It is a bit like walking. You are never taught to walk, you just walk. You aren’t taught to speak, you just speak. Just being able to do something does not always mean you cognitively know how you do it. So my point is, you can actually speak a language perfectly well and still not know how it actually works.
So let’s get to the question at hand, if “me and my friend” is perfectly valid, even at the beginning of a sentence, what does that tell us about English?
When scientists discover a new type of dinosaur in a dig, they might tell the world “this changes everything we know”. Well, I don’t think this construction in English goes that far, but it does fly in the face of what a lot of us have been taught.
So why then has “me and my friend” been so derided? Because it violates a so-called law where all elements in a subject must be in the nominative case. I say so-called because clearly this law is being violated and it is not out of ignorance. Just like the flightless bird violating the idea that all birds fly, this English construction should not be derided but rather it should lead people to ask, “why is English behaving in this way?”
Should a new species be discovered, scientists would immediately ask, “what can the emergence of this species tell us about their environment and about natural selection?”
In this case “me and my friend” is pointing to some trait of English that is a bit different than languages around it. That construction simply does not appear in other languages. Yet it is popping out of mouths of many English speakers, which following from the animal analogy should tell us that something is going on.
“me and my friend” is what is called a compound subject. The whole construction is considered a subject, but it is made up of a number of nouns. A single noun would just be a subject, but two or more creates a compound subject.
“Ego et rex meus” is a compound subject from Latin meaning “me and my king”, or literally “I and my king”. So in Latin, they clearly follow this rule that all constituents of a compound subject must be in the nominative.
What is this nominative and accusative?
Well, in English we say “I went to the store” but “He gave it to me”. “I” is the nominative form and “me” is the accusative form. When a noun is in subject position, it takes the nominative form and when in object position it should take the object form. So “He saw my friend and me” is fine because “my friend and me” are in object position so they both take the object form.
But if this was the rule then no native speaker would ever say “my friend and me” at the beginning of a sentence. No native speaker EVER says “Me go-ed to store” or “Us is here”. Clearly there are certain patterns that are followed by native speakers when using pronouns. “my friend and me” is an anomaly only if you look at it as an anomaly. It goes against what would appear in another language, but English is not Latin or any other language that would never use the equivalent of “my friend and me”.
When someone knocks on the door, and you ask “Who’s there”, you can reply “Me”. In Swedish though, people say “Det är jag” which literally translated is “It is I”. The fact that people say “me” in response in English tells us that cases behave a bit differently in English.
So why do people say “me and my friend” even at the beginning of a sentence? Because in a compound subject, the role of the compound subject itself (whether it be at the beginning of the sentence or at the end of the sentence) does not dictate the forms needed in the actual compound subject.
When looking at a construction used by native speakers we need an explanation that actually comes up with a reason for something happening and doesn’t just dismiss it as a mistake. English treats pronouns differently than other languages. When a subject such as “I” gets a noun or another pronoun added to it, the rules change. “I” becomes “me and my friend”. This compound subject can then be used anywhere in the sentence, such as “He saw me and my friend”.
In my view, this construction is common enough and consistent enough to be considered a proper part of the language and shouldn’t be looked down on. People who look down on this construction are using the standards of other languages which is never the right approach. Each language has its own history and its own ways of doing things.
But I also understand that we don’t understand. By that I mean that we don’t really understand language very well and our attempts to understand it have sometimes created theories that don’t fit 100% with reality. Trying to fully apply the nominative accusative system in the same way it is used in Latin sometimes caused perfectly natural English to be considered a mistake.
When people are taught a certain way it changes their speech patterns and in some cases leads to hyper correction where people say “He say my friend and I” which actually violates the Latin- derived rule many school teachers teach. But again, language is a part of culture and teaching is part of culture too and “my friend and I” is just as much a product of human cognition as “my friend and me” and I won’t spend the rest of this article in turn looking down on “my friend and I” because that would be a bit hypocritical after telling people not to judge.
At the very least I would like to get people to look at speech coming from native speakers with a bit more of a open mind and not to immediately condemn certain forms as wrong. Language is weird and wonderful and the more we can have fun with it rather than making it a chore, the more we can begin to discover what language can really do and what it means to us.