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American Speech 77.3 (2002) 242-263

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Third Person Plural Present Tense Markers In London Prisoners' Depositions, 1562-1623

Laura Wright
University of Cambridge

THE MAIN WAY OF MARKING third person plural present tense indicative verbs in Early Modern London, so far as we can tell from written evidence, was the base form of the verb plus a zero morpheme. But for some speakers in Early Modern London, there was a proximity constraint on third person plural present tense indicative marking. For such speakers, verbs with a noun phrase subject or null subject were marked by -s or -th; but if the pronoun they was adjacent to the verb, then the verb was marked by zero (as in they go and commeth). This paper will discuss the presence of noncategorical they-constraint in a speech-based archive of Early Modern London English, including its subsequent fate as English was transported overseas. Hitherto it has been regarded as a Northern or Scots-Irish phenomenon, but I argue that this is a valid label only for Middle English, as by the Early Modern period it was present in London English too (as has already been demonstrated by Schendl 1996, 150; 2000, 264-68; and Nevalainen and Raumolin-Brunberg 2000a, 311-30). Below, I briefly sketch the diachronic evidence for the presence of the they-constraint in England, and then outline some recent work on the third person plural suffix in American speech. The paper suggests that the earliest transported prisoners to Virginia also had the they-constraint in their speech.

Previous Discussions

The main recent works dealing with this constraint in Early Modern English are Schendl's (1996; 2000). He outlines (1996, 148) previous work on what has been termed the "personal pronoun rule" and "the Northern paradigm" (McIntosh 1983, 117-18); "the NP/PRO Constraint" (Bailey, Maynor, and Cukor-Avila 1989, 294); the "Northern Present-Tense Rule" (Montgomery 1994, 83); "the Subject Type Constraint and Proximity to [End Page 242] Subject Constraint" (Montgomery, Fuller, and DeMarse 1993, 337); and "the Northern Subject Rule" (Ihalainen 1994, 221). Most of these studies look at plural verb morphology across the three persons. In this paper I concentrate on the third person plural only, and so I am using the phrase they-constraint, partly as a mnemonic, and partly because I want to avoid geographical and temporal categorization, as the construction has spread southwards and overseas and has lasted for many centuries.

THEY-CONSTRAINT IN LATE MIDDLE ENGLISH. According to McIntosh (1983, 117-18), the late Middle English distribution of third person plural present tense indicative markers was -es in the North, unless the word they was adjacent, in which case the marker was -e or zero; -en regardless of subject type "from south of the Chester-Wash line all the way to where the -eth plural begins"; and -eth regardless of subject type in the South "from Shrewsbury to the Thames estuary." There was a small pocket "which includes NE Leicestershire, Rutland, N Northamptonshire, the extreme north of Huntingdonshire, and parts of N Ely and NW Norfolk" (116-17) where the third person plural present tense indicative marker was -eth, unless the word they was adjacent, in which case the marker was -en, -e, or zero. Thus, in late Middle English, the they-constraint was operative in the northern part of the country, with the dividing line around the Wash. It seems to have been a fairly categorical rule in Northern Middle English.

By the end of the Middle English period, it looks as though noncategorical use of the they-constraint may have reached London. Table 1 reports Bailey, Maynor, and Cukor-Avila's (1989, 289) findings from the Cely Letters, which were written in 1472-88 by a family of wool merchants based in London. The pronoun they had an effect on morpheme choice, although by this point in time and space it was a variable, not an absolute rule. Zero was the preferred choice when the verb was in direct contact with they (3 instances to 37), but...


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pp. 242-263
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