Early Germanic Dialects – The secrets of the HLC

We’ve come to the very end of our Early Germanic Dialect series!

I’ve simply run out of dialects! We’ve done Gothic, Old Norse, Old Saxon, Old English, Old Frisian, Old Low Franconian, and Old High German! We’ve even done a reminder, a post on the relationship between the Germanic dialects and a post on Proto-Germanic itself!

So now what?

Well, I figure that I’ve been throwing features of phonology, syntax, morphologyl, etc., etc., at you for quite some time now – how will anyone ever remember all those details?!

Instead of continuing to throw such facts at you (however interesting they may be), today, I thought I’d tell you about my very special trick – a simple one that works in (some) cases – though not all – to separate all these dialects from each other, fairly quickly. (Just don’t quote me on it – it’s just to give you an inkling of what you’re working with so that you can continue with further tests to make sure.)

So, what do I do?

Well, if presented with a new text where I am unsure of which Germanic dialect I am dealing with, the first thing I do is start looking for pronouns. But not just any old pronoun – I look specifically for the masculine third person pronoun in the nominative form!

Gosh, that was specific. But, you see, these pronouns differ a bit from each other in some of the Germanic dialects.

GothicOld NorseOld EnglishOld SaxonOld FrisianOld Low FranconianOld High German

As you can see, using this technique means that you can exclude a number of choices: if the text is using hann it is likely Old Norse; if it uses er, it is likely Old High German.

Gothic may be a bit tricky as the morphological structure may allow for excluding the pronoun itself – in that case: look for reduplication as Gothic is the only Germanic language that has retained the feature!

But, as you can also see, that won’t help you all the way: Old English, Old Saxon, and Old Low Franconian all use he. So what do we do here?

Well, here, we start looking for a-stem nominative plurals in Proto-Germanic – like arms.

And, here, we see some differences between these languages too!

Old EnglishOld SaxonOld Low Franconian

And that is it! That is really all that I do (in the initial stages – then it all needs to be checked of course).

Basically, just ask yourself:
  1. Does it use reduplication? – If YES, you’re dealing with Gothic
  2. Which masculine third person plural is it using? – If a unique one, you’re in luck. If not:
  3. Which declension of Proto-Germanic a-stem nouns is the text using?

And you’re… well, not really golden but a step closer to figuring out exactly what you’re dealing with!


And with that, I am hereby declaring our Early Germanic Dialect series at an end.

I hope you enjoyed hearing about these dialects as much as I enjoyed the opportunity to read more about them!

Next week, we’re doing a bit of a breather for you (and me) with a book review before we dive into our next topic (and no, I won’t tell you what it is – surprises are delightful!).

So, join me next week when I take a look at the  #1 New York Times bestseller Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss (and perhaps an inkling of what is to come….)!



As always, take a look at Robinson’s book Old English and its closest relatives.

For this post, I’ve also made use of Wikipedia’s entry for the etymology of day

The plural with a singular referent?

Hallo to our lovely followers and friends!

Today, we’re gonna chat for a bit about the third person plural (?) pronoun ‘they’!

This pronoun appears when the antecedent (in this case, the human entity) of the pronoun is indeterminate, meaning that you simply don’t know if you should use he or she (or it might simply be irrelevant), or, as a more recent addition, when the person you are referring to does not wish to be referred to by their gender.

The latter addition has seen some critique during the last few years, for reasons that we won’t go into here because they have nothing whatsoever to do with language, but the thing is, this pronoun has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for centuries!

Most style guides that we’ve encountered still consider it to be less-than-standard in formal use – even though a study by Baranowski in 2002 (check it out here) showed that they was more likely to be used than the prescribed he (or she for that matter)..

In case you are wondering what we’re talking about, have you ever heard someone say something like:

“Someone left their keys at the reception.”  

Note that ‘someone’ is singular, that is, it refers to one individual. Yet, the following pronoun their is, of course, the standard plural form. Now, even though grammars, handbooks and style guides may have, and some perhaps still do, condemn the use, singular they has a long history in English.

The whole thing started in late Middle English, the OED (sense 2) traces singular they as far back as to 1375, when it was used in the medieval romance The Romance of William of Palerne. One might think that this was informal use, it’s fiction after all, however, it was also used in Wycliffe’s bible:

“Eche on in þer craft ys wijs”, (‘their’ is explained by the Middle English Dictionary (1c. sense (a)) which roughly translates into “Each one in their craft is wise”

And they has been popular ever since: Chaucer, Caxton, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Defoe, Byron… all of these well-recognized authors have used singular they. So what’s the problem, right?! Well, as we’ve seen previously on this blog, just because authors that we hail for their craft today used a particular form does not mean that it isn’t fair game for prescriptivism.

The earliest known explicit recommendation to use generic he rather than they is found in A New Grammar by Ann Fisher, published in 1745. Fisher stated that “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says”. Nineteenth-century grammarians picked this up and insisted that he was the correct use due to a little something we call number agreement or concord disagreement (that is, she runs, not *she run). Furthermore, these later grammarians also insisted that the alternative “he or she” was clumsy, a practice that became widely adopted for a long time (and, we might add, can still be found in a good number of papers/articles, books, etc. written in formal English). Today, though, the practice to refer to he when you actually mean anyone, is often considered somewhat sexist.

As a result of the (still) ongoing discussion about generic they, and the nowadays inappropriate use of generic he, this has raised some discussions about a gender-neutral pronoun in English and some attempts have been made (the first one as early as in 1792!) but, so far, English lacks one.

Actually, pretty much all Germanic languages do. Except one: Swedish! Tag along with us next time and read more about the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun hen, a fairly new addition to the Swedish vocabulary but one that is, trust the Swedish speakers of this little blog, gaining influence fast! See you then!

Want to know more? Check out the OED’s brief history of singular ‘they’ here

If you’re interested in anything else in this post, please do check out our sources by following the hyperlinks in the text! If there’s anything else, don’t hesitate to holler!