Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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Customized pronouns: A good idea that makes no sense (Globe and Mail)

Posted: Oct 24, 2016 13:10;
Last Modified: Oct 24, 2016 13:10


Originally published as O’Donnell, Daniel Paul. 2016. “Customized Pronouns: A Good Idea That Makes No Sense.” The Globe and Mail, October 15.

The latest thing on campus is to introduce yourself by name and “preferred pronoun.” “Hello, my name is Dan and I prefer he/him.” Or, short enough for Twitter or the name-sticker at a campus mixer, “Jay (they/them).”

The choice is not limited to “he,” “she,” or “they.” “Ze” or “zie” is common in some communities as an alternative to traditional gender pronouns, as is “ey” and “xe.” Some people even create their own. The performer Justin Vivian Bond prefers “v,” and a student at the University of Michigan chose “his majesty” to protest the fact he was being asked to specify a pronoun at all.

The movement to change pronouns belongs to a history of language engineering that became particularly prominent in the 1970s with the promotion of “Ms.” as an alternative to “Mrs.” or “Miss,” and the development of non-sex-specific terminology such as “firefighter” for “fireman,” and “letter carrier” for “mailman.”

Pronouns, however, are different in that the laws of grammar make them much harder to modify. They do change and they can be engineered (the Swedes recently created a new pronoun, “hen,” to cover “not specifically male or female”). But they cannot be customized.

This is because pronouns are, by their very nature, anti-individual. They are the parts of speech that are used to strip away the semantic qualities that make things, people and ideas unique. Asking people to use a custom pronoun is like asking them to use a custom tense other than past, present, or future. The request simply doesn’t make sense within the rules that govern our language.

This focus on pronouns is odd, moreover, because English already has an egalitarian pronoun for talking to people: “you.” Modern Standard English, unlike many other languages, makes no distinction in direct speech on the basis of age, rank, gender or even whether you are an individual or group. In English, you use “you” to address your employee or your boss, your boyfriend or your girlfriend, an individual or a baseball team. It is the same whether the person you are speaking to is male or female, gender queer, or a group holding a variety of opinions on the question.

A “preferred pronoun,” in contrast, is intended to be used when you are talking about somebody to a third party. But if there is one thing you can’t control, it is how others speak about you. Asking somebody to use a custom pronoun in this context is like asking them to remember that you are a nice person, or getting them to use a preferred nickname. In the end, it’s impossible to control.

The fact that you can’t customize pronouns doesn’t mean that they don’t change. “You,” for example, was not always as universal as it now is. We used to use different forms of “you” to speak to different types of people. “Ye/you” was for when we were talking to a group or wanted to be polite. “Thou/thee” was for individuals when they were our equals or inferiors. Over time, “thou” began to seem a little rude no matter who we were talking to, and we started to use “you” for everybody.

The opposite happened with “he,” “she” and “they.” Originally, all three pronouns began with “h”: “he” for “he,” “heo” for “she,” and “hie” for “they.” Over time, these began to sound alike, until in some dialects you simply couldn’t tell them apart. “He” could mean “he,” “she” or “they.” In this case, we began to reintroduce the lost distinctions of gender and number. We borrowed “they/them” from Norse, and developed a new form, “she,” to distinguish masculine from feminine.

We also began, more than 600 years ago, to use “they” in the singular for situations in which we didn’t know or didn’t want to say whether the person we are talking about is masculine or feminine. Chaucer used “they” this way, as did Shakespeare and Austen. Even The Washington Post began to accept “they” in the singular starting last year.

What this shows is that we don’t really need to engineer pronouns at all. We already have a very neutral one for when we are talking to somebody. And “they” exists to cover cases where the traditional gender binary doesn’t apply.

But even if you feel we do need new forms, it is important to realize that pronouns simply cannot be customized. We might be able to create a few new forms for general use, but they cannot, by definition, be tailored to the individual. Campus regulations that pretend otherwise are simply setting everybody up for disappointment.


On translating sense and syntax in Old English

Posted: Jan 25, 2014 13:01;
Last Modified: Jan 25, 2014 13:01


A student in my Old English class asked a good question today in her class blog:

I’m confused. The point of this class is to be able to read Old English. Does this mean we are supposed to be building a lexicon that would eventually become so engrained in us that the words don’t require as much of a “translation” as an innate understanding of the meaning of the text? This seems rather frightening. When I hear the words “nominative accusative singular” sweep one after the other my head begins to spin. I have to look at the dictionary three times in three minutes to remember what one word means.

I think what process seems natural to me would be to translate a sentence, and after knowing what the words are in modern English, to determine what words are nominative, objects, etc. in the translated sentence. At which point I would then transfer this over to the Old English. Is this wrong? Is the point to learn to do that without first translating it into Modern English? If so, I feel like I should break a bad habit before it starts.

The question touches on the two main issues we face in translating from Old English to Modern English: Lexis (i.e. the meaning of the words) and Syntax (i.e. the grammar that ties the words together in a sentence).

The short answer is that translating (or learning to read) Old English requires both: you need to know what the words mean and you need to know what the syntax is telling you about their relationships to each other. This means that there are really three discrete things we need to do in translating:

Although, because OE is often very close to Modern English in Syntax, it might look like you can translate the meaning of a sentence accurately by just looking up the meaning of the words and writing them out (i.e. doing a lexical translation alone or first), there are enough differences that this will lead to trouble when you get more complex Old English (especially poetry).

You can see this in Modern English if you consider the following group of words: Because had Friday money no on on Saturday Store Suzy the to Tom went.

Although we understand what all of these words mean lexically, the “sentence” they form doesn’t make any sense to us because the syntax doesn’t conform to any rules of Modern English (I just arranged the words alphabetically). In order to get a real sentence out of this, we need to know more about the intended syntax as well, which in Modern English means the intended word order. If I put the words in a word order that reflects Modern English syntatic rules, the sentence suddenly makes sense: Because Tom went to the store on Friday, Suzy had no money on Saturday.

Note that in the above example, the only difference between the nonsensical and sensible versions was word order. The first version did not make sense because we didn’t understand the syntax, not because we didn’t understand the meanings of the individual words.

The primary equivalent of this in Old English is its inflections: nominative, accusative, dative, genitive, etc (Old English relies on word order as well, but word order is less important than inflection: there is some evidence to show that scribes fail to understand sentences that have appropriate word order but errors in inflection; in Modern English, we almost always assume that word order is correct and the inflections are wrong if there is a contradiction between the two).

In order to understand fully a sentence in Old English, therefore, we need to know what endings are associated with each word in the sentence and what those endings indicate about the relationship of the word to the rest of the sentence. Because Modern English doesn’t rely on inflections as much as Old English, our “translation” of our analysis of this syntax will be reflected in the word order we choose.

Now, because Modern English is descended from Old English, word order in the two languages is often identical and you can “get away” with just translating the words: e.g. Sēo sunne is miċel, “The sun is big.”

The problem is that you can’t rely on this: Old English and Modern English word order can diverge even in simple sentences; they do diverge in more complex sentences and especially in more literary contexts like poetry or artistic prose. If you haven’t got into the habit of analysing the Old English grammar as well as translating the meanings of the words, you can run into real problems when you hit a sentence where the word order is different from what we can allow in Modern English.

Here’s a simple example to show what I mean:

Þone stān slōh þæt wīf

The lexical translation of this sentence (i.e. just a translation of the words), would be as follows:

The stone struck the woman

This sentence makes sense in Modern English, so if you only translate the words, you will be tempted to stop here.

But if we analyse the endings, we’ll see that a purely lexical translation gets things exactly wrong. Here is an anlysis of the endings in the sentence. ASM = accusative singular masculine, NSN = nominative singular neuter, 3SPast = 3rd person, singular, past tense:


(note: although stān and wīf don’t have any endings, we know their grammatical information because of the demonstrative pronouns that precede them: þone and þæt respectively)

Anglo-Saxons use the accusative to indicate direct objects (amongst other things), and the nominative to indicate subjects. In Modern English, we normally use the first position in the sentence for our subjects, and the first or second slot after a verb for our direct objects. So in order to translate the sentence correctly, we also have to “translate” this syntax by moving the words around in our final translation:

The woman struck the stone

This is a simple example that could easily be real Old English (it implies that the Anglo-Saxon author wanted to emphasise that it was a stone the woman hit). But translating only the words produced exactly the wrong translation. When sentences get more complicated, the chances for things going wrong increase greatly!

So a Modern English translation actually has two translations built into it: a translation of the Old English words into Modern English words, and a translation of Old English inflections into Modern English word order. It is only when you have done both that you can be sure you understand what the sentence means.


Grimm's Law and Verner's Law Notes

Posted: Mar 05, 2007 14:03;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05


Grimm’s Law

Grimm’s law concerns an unconditioned sound change that affects all
Indo-European stops. In this change (examples mostly from Brinton and Arnovick),

Voiceless stops became voiceless fricatives

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiceless stops Voiceless fricatives
*p *f PIE *peisk- vs. OE fisc ‘fish’
*t PIE *tenu ‘to stretch’ vs. PDE thin
*k *x or *h (word-initial) PIE *krewə ‘raw meat/blood’ vs. OE hrēaw ‘raw’
*kw *xw or *hw (word-initial) PIE *kwod ‘what’ vs. OE hwæt ‘what’

Voiced stops became voiceless stops

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiced stops Voiceless stops
*b *p PIE *kan(n)abi- ‘cannabis’ vs. PDE hemp
*d *t PIE *dekm vs. PDE ten
*g *k PIE *grənom vs. PDE corn
*gw *kw PIE *gwei- vs. OE cwicu ‘alive’

Voiced aspirated stops became voiced fricatives and then voiced stops.

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiced aspirated stops Voiced fricatives Voiceless Fricatives
*bh *b PIE *bhrāter vs. OE broþer
*dh *d PIE * əndhero- vs. OE under
*gh *g or *h (word-initial) PIE *wegh vs. OE weg ‘road, way’
*gwh w *g or *w PIE *gwher ‘to heat’ vs. OE warm

Verner’s law

The first group mentioned above (voiceless stops) underwent an additional change in certain contexts due to the change from variable accent in Indo-European to fixed initial accent in Germanic. When these sounds appeared in a voiced environment (i.e. not initially or finally or next to other voiceless consonants) and were not immediately proceeded by the Indo-European stress, they went on to become a voiced stop. Under the same conditions, Indo-European */s/ became Germanic */r/.

PIE PGmc Examples
Voiceless stops Voiced fricatives Voiced stops
*p *b PIE *septm vs. Gothic síbun ‘seven’
*t *d PIE *pətēr vs. OE fæder ‘father’ (medial sound: d rather than t)
*k *g PIE *dukā vs. OE togian ‘tow’
*s *z *r PIE *ghaiso ‘stick’ vs. OE gār ‘spear’

A mnemonic

A useful way of remembering these sound changes (taught to me by Philip Rusche of UNLV) is to diagram each row of the above tables as a triangle:

To find the result of Grimm’s law, go one step clockwise around the triangle. Thus using the first triangle, we can see that PIE *bh became Gmc *b, PIE *b became Gmc *p, and PIE *p became Gmc *f. Verner’s law only affects the consonants at the top of the triangle. To see what they became after the effect of Verner’s law, go two steps clockwise around the triangle: so PIE *p became Gmc *b when it was subject to Verner’s law.


Old English Metre: A Brief Guide

Posted: Nov 21, 2006 21:11;
Last Modified: May 23, 2012 19:05


Although the Anglo-Saxons left no accounts of their metrical organisation, statistical and linguistic analysis of the poetic corpus has allowed us to come up with a good idea as to how their verse worked.

Like all early Germanic metres, Old English verse is accentual and alliterative. With very few exceptions, end rhyme does not play a structural role. And even when it is found, it never takes the place of alliteration (initial rhyme) in the earlier verse.

Stress and line division

The basic line consists of four stressed syllables and at least four lesser-stressed syllables (conventionally described as ‘unstressed’). A very strong caesura (metrical break) is found between stresses two and three. This caesura is so strong, indeed, that we tend to describe the verse in terms of half-lines: the half-line before the caesura is known as the a-verse or on-verse, the half-line after the caesura as the b-verse or off-verse.

In modern printed editions, on- and off-verses are separated graphically by a gap of three or four spaces, as in the following except from Cædmon’s Hymn (ed. O’Donnell 2005, adapted from the transcription of Tanner 10 [T1]):

Nu sculon herigean    heofonrices weard,
meotodes meahte,    ond his modgeþanc,
weorc wuldorfæder—    swa he wundra gehwæs,
ece drihten,    or onstealde!

Now we must honour the guardian of heaven,
The might of the measurer, and his thoughts,
The work of the father of glory—as he, the eternal lord,
Created the beginning of each of wonders!

In Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, poetry is written from margin to margin, as in the following facsimile (reproduction) and diplomatic transcription from the same manuscript (adapted from O’Donnell 2005)1. While Anglo-Saxon scribes did not place each line of poetry on a separate line in their manuscripts, they often did mark line boundaries and caesuras with a raised point or other punctuation. There is also considerable evidence to suggest that they were aware of metre as they copied (see O’Brien O’Keeffe 1990 and O’Donnell 1996).

Detail from Oxford, Bodleian Library, Tanner 10 showing the beginning and end of Cædmon's Hymn. Contrast and colour balance has been artificially enhanced to show detail.

[ Approx. 28 characters omitted ] Nusculon herıgean heofon|
rıces ƿeard meotodes meahte ⁊hıs 〈mod〉geþanc ƿeorc|
ƿuldor fæder sƿahe ƿundra gehƿæs ee{c}e 〈a{d}〉rih〈t〉en or on|
stealde· he ærest sceop eorðan bearnū heofonto hrofe|
halıg scyppend· þamıddangeard moncynnes ƿeard ece|
drıhten æfter teode fın{r}um foldan frea ælmıhtıg· [ Approx. 3 characters omitted ]


The half-lines are tied together by alliteration. The rule is that one or both of stressed syllables in the on-verse must alliterate with the first stressed syllable in the off-verse. The second stressed syllable in the off-verse must not share in the alliteration. The following lines show the standard pattern of alliteration (alliterating syllables in bold):

meotodes meahte,    ond hıs modgeþanc,

weorc wuldorfæder—    swa he wundra gehwæs,

ece drıhten    æfter teode

Consonantal Alliteration

When the alliterating syllables begin with a consonant, the sounds must be identical. Hence s alliterates only with s, b only with b, and so on. This is also true of certain consonant clusters beginning with s: stressed syllables beginning with sp only alliterate with other stressed syllables beginning with sp, stressed syllables beginning with st only alliterate with other stressed syllables beginning with st, and stressed syllables beginning with sc alliterate only with other stressed syllables beginning with sc.

Two exceptions (though they may not look like exceptions to the beginning student) are stressed syllables beginning with the characters 〈c〉 and 〈g〉. For most of the historical period, these characters were used to represent two distinct sounds each: 〈c〉 was used for /ʧ/, the sound at the beginning of Modern English church (Old English cyric), and /k/, the sound at the beginning of Modern English king (Old English cyning); 〈g〉 was used for /y/, the sound at the beginning of Modern English yard (Old English geard), and /g/, the sound at the beginning of Modern English good (Old English gōd) (see Campbell 1959/1991, Chapter 1).2 Except in the latest Old English poetry, however, poets do not distinguish between these sounds in their alliteration: stressed syllables beginning with the letter 〈c〉 alliterate with other stressed syllables beginning in 〈c〉 regardless of whether the sound being represented is /ʧ/ or /k/; likewise, stressed syllables beginning with the letter 〈g〉 alliterate with other stressed syllables beginning with 〈g〉 regardless of whether the letter stands for /y/ or /g/. Thus Old English cēap ‘bargain, purchase’ (Modern English cheap) alliterates with cyn ‘race, tribe’ (Modern English kin) in Beowulf 2482:

heardan cēape;    Hæðcynne wearð

…a hard bargain; to Hæðcyn was…

More common is alliteration between /g/ and /k/ (e.g. as between begoten ‘covered’, golde (Modern English gold), and gimmas ‘jewels’ (Modern English gems) in The Dream of the Rood, 7:

begoten mid golde;    gimmas stōdon

In the tenth-century or later, poets do distinguish between these sounds in their alliteration (see Amos 1980). Thus in the late poem The Battle of Maldon, 32, the 〈g〉 in gārrǣs ‘Spear-rush’ and gafole ‘tribute’ (both of which would be pronounced /g/) alliterate with each other, but not with the 〈g〉 in forgieldan, which would be pronounced /j/ (compare Modern English yield which shares the same etymology)3:

þæt gē þisne gārrǣs    mid gafole forgielden

…that you repay this spear-rush with tribute…

Vocalic Alliteration

All vowels and diphthongs alliterate with each other (i.e. stressed syllables beginning in a can alliterate with stressed syllables beginning in æ, a, e, i, o, u, y, ea, eo, or ie). No distinction is made between short and long vowels or between vowels and dipthongs, and in practice better poets tended to avoid alliterating like vowels with like. It is for this reason perhaps better to understand ‘vocalic’ alliteration as reflecting the absence of consonantal alliteration than alliteration in its own right. Cædmon’s Hymn has three examples of vocalic alliteration:

ece drihten    or onstealde4

he ærest sceop    eorðan bearnum

ece drıhten    æfter teode

Accentual Patterns

Most half-lines in the Old English corpus belong to one or another of a limited number of accentual patterns. These patterns, which are traditionally called metrical types, are distinguished by the way in which the stressed, unstressed, and semi-stressed syllables are arranged.

Sievers types

Traditionally, there are said to be five major metrical types, organised according to a system first developed by Eduard Sievers, the late nineteenth-century German linguist who first identified them. The patterns (known as Sievers types) are named by letter, in descending order of frequency:

Type A: /×/×
Type B: ×/×/
Type C: ×//×
Type D: //\×
Type E: /\×/

(In this system of scansion, / is used to mark metrically stressed syllables, × is used to mark metrically ‘unstressed’ syllables, and \ to mark metrically ‘half-stressed’ syllables.)

Each of these types has a number of subtypes. These generally involve variation in the number of unstressed syllables or the replacement of an unstressed with a half-stressed syllable. Additional variants involve the placement of unstressed syllables before the first stress of Type A, D, and perhaps E lines (a technique known as anacrusis). A separate type of very long line—known as hypermetric and found particularly in the Dream of the Rood—is built along comparable principles. A useful beginning-level discussion of the various subtypes can be found in Pope and Fulk 2001, 129-158).

The following Modern English ‘poem’, adapted from Mitchell and Robinson 2001, p. 165, can be used to help you remember the different types:

Type A (/×/×) Anna angry
Type B (×/×/) And Bryhtnoth bold
Type C (×//×) In keen conflict
Type D (//\×) Drive Don backwards
Type E (/\×/) Each one with edge

Whether or not a syllable is metrically stressed depends on its length, word-stress and clause-stress.

Syllable Length

Syllables can be long in three different ways:

Long by nature

Syllables are long by nature when they contain a long vowel (marked with a macron in many textbooks and dictionaries). Stressed syllables that are long by nature (marked in bold) include:

Long by position

Syllables are long by position when they are followed by two or more consonants in the middle of a word or one or more consonants at the word boundary. Examples, marked in bold, include:


Resolution is a purely metrical phenomenon where by short stressed syllables are counted as long if they are followed by an unaccented syllable that is not necessary for the metre; resolution is marked using a tie symbol: to connect the stressed and unstressed syllables. The following examples (bold) are all long because they can be “resolved” using the following (unstressed) syllable (italics):

Resolution depends on the metrical context: some sub-types allow the present of short stressed or unstressed syllables. The following example, for example, does not show resolution:

Primary stress

In Germanic (the ancestor of Old English and other languages like German and Dutch), primary stress fell on the first syllable of all words. In Old English, this rule is largely preserved, meaning that primary stress falls on the first syllable of all simple words and most compounds5:

unnytt, ‘useless’; giefu, ‘gift’; standan, ‘to stand’

The main exceptions (stressed syllables in bold) to this rule include

  1. The prefix ge-, which is never stressed, on any part of speech, e.g. gehwǣs, ‘of each’; gesittan, ‘to sit’; gesceaft, ‘creation’.
  2. Most ‘prefixes’ on verbs and adverbs, e.g. wiþsacan, ‘to refuse’; ætdere, ‘together’.
  3. for- and be- can be either stressed or unstressed on nouns: _forbod, ‘prohibition’ vs. forwyrd, ‘ruin’ (see Cambell 1959/1991, § 74).
Secondary stress

Secondary stress (italics) falls


Although every word in Old English has at least one stressed syllable, not all stressed syllables are equally prominent within the clause or sentence. As in Modern English, stressed syllables in nouns and adjectives tend to be more prominent than stressed syllables in pronouns or conjunctions:

Would an apple be as sweet?

On the other hand, words that usually take low sentence stress receive much heavier stress when they are out of position (compare the stress on I in the following):

I went up the mountain
Up the mountain went I

Stress and Word classes

In general terms, it is possible to classify Old English words in to three main metrical classes:

This metrical distinction reflects an underlying linguistic difference: words that are always stressed in Old English all belong to the open word-classes. Words that are rarely stressed all belong to the closed word-classes. The middle category, sometimes stressed involve categories that include words belonging to open and closed word classes.

Scansion of Cædmon’s Hymn

The following is a scansion of Cædmon’s Hymn using a modified form of the Sievers system. Letter names followed by a number (e.g. A-3 refer to common subtypes of the main five verse patterns. See Pope and Fulk 2001 for a detailed listing.

(A-3: ×××/×)Nū scylun hergan      hefaenricaes uard(E: /‿×\×/)
(A-1: /‿××/×)metudaes maecti      end his mōdgidanc(B: ××/×/)
(D-2: //(×)\×)uerc uuldụrfadur      suē hē uundra gihuaes(B-2: ××/××/)
(A-1: /×/×)ēci dryctin      ōr āstelidæ(A-1: /×/‿××)
(B-1: ×/×/)Hē āerist scōp      eordu barnum(A-1: /×/×)
(A-1: /‿××/×)heben til hrōfe      hāleg sceppend(A-1: /×/×)
(B-1: ×/×\)thā middungeard      moncynnæs uard(E: /\×/)
(A-1: /×/×)ēci dryctin      æfter tīadæ(A-1: /×/×)
(A-1: /×/×)fīrum foldu      frēa allmectig(D-1: //\×)

Other scansion systems

The Sievers system is generally considered to be descriptively adequate but theoretically deficient by contemporary metricists. As a result, considerable effort has been devoted over the last half-century or so to developing alternative accounts of the metre. The most widely accepted alternative system currently is the stress foot system, developed and described most thoroughly by Russom. Its details are beyond the scope of this short introduction.

Further reading

Excellent introductions to Old English scansion can be found in Mitchell and Robinson 2001, Appendix C, and Pope and Fulk 2001, 129-158. The original work by Sievers can be found in Sievers 1885-1887 and 1893. Most Anglo-Saxonists use a version of Sievers system developed by Bliss (1962/1993). The Stress-Foot system is developed in Russom 1987 and 1998; see also Bredehoft 2005 for some useful revisions.

Works Cited


1 For the conventions used in this transcription, see O’Donnell 2005, § ii.6.

2 Many introductory textbooks distinguish between these letters, using 〈ċ〉 to spell /ʧ/, 〈ġ〉 to spell /y/, and 〈c〉 and 〈g〉 to represent the sounds /k/ and /g/ respectively. These letters are not found in the original manuscripts, however; they are a modern development.

3 If forgielden shared in the alliteration, the line would be unmetrical, since, as we’ve seen above, the second stressed syllable in the off-verse must not share in the alliteration. While the metre of the Battle of Maldon is unusual in many respects, the poet does seem to observe this constraint.

4 onstealde does not share in the alliteration because the accent falls on steal not on.

5 A thorough and accessible discussion of Old English word stress (from which this account largely is derived) can be found in Campbell 1959/1991, Chapter II.


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