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Me, myself and I – An exploration of a weird phenomenon in Modern English

Modern English is a rather strange language. It is a basically a train wreck between Anglo Saxon (also known as Old English), Old Norse and Norman French

Here’s an example

I am mad (mad comes from Old English ġemǣdd)

I am angry (angry comes from Old Norse angr)

I am agitated (agitate comes from Latin agitatus)

These words all generally mean the same thing with with some nuance to their meanings.

Old English was an inflectional language. This means that it used inflections on verbs and endings on nouns

Here is the first line of Beowulf (written in roughly 800 AD)

Hwæt, We Gardena in geardagum

In the first line you can already see two words (gardena, and geardagum) that have been modified by endings. Inflectional languages use these endings to mark the role of nouns in a sentence. They mark direct objects, indirect objects and recipients of actions.

Here “Gardena” is the genitive (possessive) form of Gardene. “geardagum” is the dative plural of “gear-dæg” which means “days of yore”.

So this line means “Lo, we spear danes in days of old”. So you can see the language has changed a lot since 800 AD. We no longer use the word “gar” to mean “spear”, but it still remains in the word “garlic” which is literally “spear-leak”. And a construction like “geardagum” is not possible in Modern English because we no longer use endings to denote meanings. Modern English is considered an analytic language because the case system is for all intents and purposes dead, and the language over time found new ways of expressing meaning.

But what is fascinating about the developments of languages over time is that some parts survive on becoming a mark of what once was. Modern humans can’t move their ears, but there are some among us who can wiggle them. Many animals move their ears, such as dogs and cats. They do this to work out where sound is coming from. Humans used to do this but it eventually wasn’t needed. Traits that are useful for survival end up spreading. Those that are detrimental tend to die off. But those that don’t serve a purpose anymore can often just sit around minding their own business and not entirely leaving. So while we don’t need to move our ears anymore, some can still do it as a mark of who we used to be.

There is such a mark in Modern English and it is right under our noses. They are the pronouns in English. If a language has been analytic for a long time, then its pronouns will probably be entirely uniform. In Mandarin for instance, the pronouns don’t modify to indicate being the subject or an object of the subject. In English however, we still use different forms of the pronouns, even though it has become vestigial, just like moving ears. In analytic languages, word order becomes very important in denoting roles. In Modern English it is the word order that denotes meaning.

In the sentence “The dog bites the man”, “the dog” is the subject and “the man” is the object. If we change the order in the sentence, the meaning changes. For example, “The man bites the dog”. The words are the same, but the order is different. In Modern English, the order is crucial. English losts inflections and case endings along the way, so it came up with a way of dealing with this by making word order strict.

It might seem obvious that the meaning changes when the order changes, but it is not so in some other languages. German, for instance, has a freer word order because of case endings. “The dog bites the man” in German is “Der Hund beißt den Mann”. “Der” is the definite article (“the” in English) for the male gender of nouns and “den” is the accusative article for the male gender of nouns.

Because the role of the noun is marked, we can move the words around and not lose the meaning because we can tell the intended meaning from the article. “Den Mann beißt der Hund”. It still have the same meaning, but now it is has the added nuance of something like “It’s the man that the dog bites”. The words are the same but the order is different. Whereas in English moving the words around changes the meaning, in German moving the words around just changes the nuance.

So what does this have to do with English? Well, it means that since we know what role a word plays in a sentence because of its position, that now means that we don’t actually need to mark case anymore.

Do you understand the following sentences?

“I gave the book to he”
“Me walked to the shop and saw she”
“It was such a nice day that me decided to go for a run and me bumped into they”

You can probably understand that, but it certainly sounds weird. Why do they sound weird? Because we are used to hearing the accusative version (the versions used when the pronon is in object position) of the pronouns when they occur in the object position in the sentence, and the nominative (subject version of the pronoun) when they are in subject position. But pronouns are the only part that still remain of the once complex case system English used to have. English used to mark case, and it had a full conjugation system just like German.

Conjugation in Modern English is also vestigial. The only place it remains is in the third person where we add -s (e.g. He goes) but otherwise the verb doesn’t change in the present tense.

Whether a language is analytic (like Modern English) or inflectional (like Old English) is called linguistic typology. Each typology has its own ways of doing things and they each train their speakers to think in a certain way. In Modern English, we use a lot of extra words to clarify a meaning. “It is the dawning of a new age”. Here “of” links “dawning” and “new age”. In an inflectional language you would probably put an ending on “age” to indicate that the dawning actually belongs to “age”. One thing native speakers don’t do though, is track the case of a word in a sentence. It’s position, and the words around it define the meaning.

I wrote an article a while back talked about why people say “me and my friend” at the beginning of the sentence. I defended that usage by saying that people pick up usage from around them at that usage has become common. But I also mentioned that when more than one noun is used in a subject, people often end up using “me”. I guessed that this was because “me” was actually the base form and it was “I” that was a special situation.

Maybe that was wrong. Maybe it is just a consequence of the breakdown of the case system. Modern English speakers don’t track case, so really, what form a pronoun comes in sometimes is almost random. “Bob and me went to the shop” and “Bob and I went to the shop” mean exactly the same thing, there is not even a nuance difference. The only difference is what people think about the use of “me” in a compound subject in the beginning of the sentence.

It’s obvious to Modern English speakers what form to use when there is one word in the subject and one word in the object. But what happens when there are more than one? Well, people tend to use the accusative form. One of my friends suggested this is simply because we hear “me” more than “I” and so when forced to choose a form, we simply pick the form that is more common. As I explained earlier, case is no longer strictly necessary in Modern English, so “mistakes” like “Me and bob” or “They gave it to Bob and I” don’t impede comprehension, they simply triggered alarm bells in people who have learned how things are “supposed” to work.

I certainly was one of those people who got annoyed with hearing “Bob and I” in the wrong place. But I eventually decided it was more interesting to wonder about why people said things like that, rather than getting upset that they weren’t upholding the standard usage. I put supposed in quotes because the standard is just a construction. Language is always in flux and language is messy. My personal view is that unless what you wrote is a complete impediment to understanding, then I am not going to bother correcting them. There is a place for showing people how the standard works and why, but those discussions should be reserved for the right places, and not in the middle of an argument in the comments of a youtube video, for instance.

Since the system has broken down, it has allowed these words to take on other forms and roles. In a language like German, you actually need to use the right case because its an important part of the system. In Modern English though, those words can and do change forms and those altered forms have started to attract a certain attitude to them.

“Me and my friend” is considered informal and people are advised to use “I” in the subject no matter whatever else is in the subject. Now that these forms are able to be changed out for something else, people have started abandoning the old rules and started creating new ones.

I remember getting highly annoying at the apparent misuse of the word “myself”.

“Who is going to be living in the apartment?”
“It will be John, Greg and myself”

“Myself?! That’s the object position! You need to use “me”!!” I said to myself. “Myself” as I just used it at the end of the sentence, is a reflexive. It is used when a pronoun refers to itself. “I wash myself”, is an example. We don’t say “I wash me”.

But now that the system has broken down, “me” has stopped being a purely functional word and has started getting this aura of informality and childishness about it.

“Who wants ice cream?” a parent might say
“Me! Me! Me!” a child would respond

An adult might respond, “I would like some”

Stuck in this odd situation where people don’t know whether to use “I” or “me”, some have chosen to use an entirely different word. Maybe they are saying “I am sick and tired of this mess, I am just going to use something that is neither so I don’t have to choose”.

Another weird thing that happens is the overuse of the “Bob and I” form (i.e. using a subject form in a compound subject when the old case system would have expected an accusative one). “He gave it to Bob and I”. This usage also used to frustrate me because it was a violation of the very rule that the “Bob and I” form was supposed to fix. People, according to teachers, overused “Bob and me” so they was told, over and over and over again to use “Bob and I”. And now “Bob and I” is everywhere. I have even heard people say “It is Bob and I’s book” which from a linguist point of view is simply fascinating and I love it, but my old grumpy book worm side howled in terror.

“I’s”?! I have never heard of such a thing in my life!

But it all a part of a larger phenomenon. Living languages aren’t perfect. They are messy and ever changing. In 1066 William the Conqueror invaded England and changed English forever. I think the English language is still trying to put itself back together. Maybe it will stabilise at some point. But for now we have this glorious, expressive and exciting mess to live with. And me, myself and I couldn’t be happier to explore this wonderful thing we call Modern English 🙂

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