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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
University of Cambridge
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...