The history of pronominal subjects in the languages of northern Europe

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Linguistics Philology and Phonetics


This project looks at subject pronouns ('I', 'she', 'they') and how their form and functions change over time. Languages create new pronouns (neither 'she' nor 'they' are directly descended from Old English). The ways pronouns are used can vary: 'She and I both left' (with coordination of two pronouns) is fine in English but its literal translation is not possible in French. Hence, pronouns can change from one pattern to the other: French used to be more like English in this example, and it is usually thought that French pronouns have in some sense become 'weaker', leading to this change. Some languages allow pronouns to be omitted: 'I speak Italian' is 'Parlo italiano' in Italian, with no word corresponding to 'I' (the '-o' ending of 'parlo' indicates the subject). Whether a language can omit pronouns can change: French was once more like Italian in this respect and has become more like English. Even in Italian, pronouns are sometimes used. When a pronoun is appropriate depends on complex factors, for instance, to do with what is the current topic of discussion and when it was last mentioned. These rules too can change over time. The central question that this project aims to answer is how and why so much to do with subject pronouns is variable over time. We do this by looking in-depth at the history of subject pronouns in three language groups broadly speaking spanning northern Europe: Celtic (Welsh, Irish, Breton etc.), Slavonic (Russian, Polish, Bulgarian etc.) and Germanic (English, German, Dutch etc.). While Germanic is relatively well studied in this regard, work on Slavonic is less well-developed and many questions remain unanswered, and relevant work on Celtic is still in its infancy. We annotate historical texts from the history of these languages to establish what patterns were found in the past. We then try to explain the patterns and changes against the background of existing approaches, such as the idea that pronouns undergo a cycle of weakening and replacement or that omission of subjects is linked to the number of different forms a verb has or to aspects of a language's word order. In this way, we hope both to shed light on the histories of the languages under investigation and to address broader questions about how and why pronominal systems and language in general change over time.


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Description Partnership with Humboldt University Berlin 
Organisation Humboldt University of Berlin
Country Germany 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We are collaborating with the research group of Prof. Roland Meyer at Humboldt University Berlin, sharing experience of creating parsed digital historical corpora of Celtic languages and analysis of historical pronominal patterns in those languages.
Collaborator Contribution Our partners are pursuing parallel research goals, primarily focusing on the Slavonic langauges. We share experience, knowledge and expertise.
Impact Each team has gained expertise and insights from the other but publish outputs separately.
Start Year 2021