Old English inflection survivors
The English language has seen a widespread
reduction of inflections over the past 1000 years, but there
are a number of survivalssome surprising and others
not. For example, the common plural ending for nouns (lasers,
malaises, plates) derive from the Old English
masculine ending -as, as in cyningas "kings."
Similarly, the possessive's -'s ending (as in rocket's)
derives from the masculine and neuter genitive ending -es,
as in cyninges and scipes.
Below are some others. The last two ask
you to do some investigative work in the OED.
||From an Old English construction
using the subjunctive mood of the verb meaning "to
wille he, ne wille he
"whether he wants to or not" (lit. "whether
he may wish or may not wish")
||nights is not the
plural historically but a holdover construction where
the genitive was used to indicate increments of time.
|go get 'em
||The 'em is an oral
survival of the Old English dative pronoun him, either
singular or plural. Contrary to what you may have learned
elsewhere, it is not a contraction of them.
|ten foot pole
||The noun foot only
looks singular; historically it comes from the OE genitive
plural fota, so the older phrase means literally "ten
of feet." For similar reasons we might also say "a
ten mile walk," where "mile" was once a
genitive plural. However, we can still say "I jumped
ten feet and ran ten miles," where
the nouns have the more usual plurals.
||This is the only genuine
survival of the weak noun endings, once quite common in
Old English, where the plural ending was -an, as
in naman "names." Other, near survivors:
shoe had shoen alongside the more familiar
-s plural for centuries; of Chaucer's Chauntecleer:
"Lyk asure were his legges and his toon" (again)
alongside the more common toes. The plurals children
and brethren are 12th century inventions, where
the uncommon -en ending was added to words that
already had an uncommon plural (childru, brether).
We now use brothers regularly as the plural; the
wonder is that childs never caught on.
||The more common spelling
of this word in OE was seldan, but it was influenced
by the dative plural ending -um, which eventually came
to be spelled -om. The -um ending (dative
plural used adverbially) was once quite common. Chaucer,
Spenser, and even later writers like Dryden and Fielding
still used whilom from OE hwilum "at
||The the in phrases
like this one involving a comparative is not the same
as in "the dog chased the cat." Instead it's
a relic from an old Indo-European case, the Instrumental,
which was falling out of use even during the Old English
period, but it was retained in such constructions as the
one here. The simplest way to describe the case is that
it answers the question "by means of what?"
Today's unusual the descends from the instrumental
case of the OE definite article, spelled Dy.
So a comparative phrase like the one above literally means
"by means of more, by that much merrier."
||Look up this word in the
OED. Is the ending a survivals of an older inflection?
What about amidst, whilst?
|if I were
||Is were historically
the plural (e.g., "they were old") or a different
||What do these two words
have in common? And what do they have in common with one
of the earlier examples?