I’ve been puzzling over a conundrum which, perhaps unsurprisingly, has me speculating about medieval language choices. This is the thorny issue of pronouns, specifically, the matter of I and me. It’s not difficult these days to summon up any number of illustrative examples of these little but important words being misused with abandon. Here’s a quote, for example, from the Australian Minister for Finance and Deregulation, Penny Wong, on the topic of same-sex couple parenting: “I do not regret that our daughter has Sophie and I as her parents.” I’m not intending to discuss the gay marriage issue on this occasion. Instead I want to throw out some thoughts on the implications of the common grammatical error of using I as an object. (Senator Wong is merely a useful illustration of how widespread this particular mistake is in Australian – and perhaps other English-speaking – cultures.)

I used to think about this as merely a matter of inaccuracy or lack of education. Knowledge is certainly part of the matrix. My own ‘vernacular’ practice is, I admit, rather variable. The difference between subject and object wasn’t something covered in English classes at my school, and I doubt very much that I was unusual in that experience. My only childhood memory of any ‘discussion’ of the difference is my father interjecting ‘Andrew and I!’, ‘mum and I!’ whenever I used ‘me’ in such combinations. (Sometimes, in retrospect, even when I was originally correct… Sorry, dad!) I only really grasped the distinction when I began to learn Latin as a University student, and even now I sometimes slip, especially in casual conversation. But reflecting on the matter recently – as a result of marking a large number of undergraduate essays – I realised that there are also many other factors at play. For one thing, there is a complicated socially embedded bias against using ‘me’, especially in combination with other individuals. ‘Me and Jane’ (or ‘Jane and me’) seems to smack of a sort of lower class patois that must be avoided at all costs if one intends to sound educated, sophisticated and culturally aware: somehow this sensation remains, even when the sentence is “Anna bought matching watches for me and Jane”, which is, of course, grammatically correct.[1] I can’t trace the origins of this emotional reaction to language, but it is as if ‘me’ intrudes itself too much upon our notice in a sentence to be considered quite polite. Perhaps ‘I’, by virtue of its particular phonemic resonances, is less obtrusive, less overt, more self-deprecating than ‘me’? Maybe because of the ways that ‘me’ is stereotypically misused as a subject among the less educated, it has acquired connotations of general linguistic impropriety? (Conversely, as The Atlantic recently informed us, the pronoun whom is undergoing an inexorable decline because “Correctness is significantly less appealing when its price is the appearance of being—as an editor at The Guardian wrote—a ‘pompous twerp.'”. So, clearly, wanting to appear educated or at least of a middling-to-upper socio-economic background isn’t the only factor at work in the sociology of language choice. And I doubt I’m telling you anything you didn’t know there![2])

In other words, the use or abuse of I and me reflect not only our level of education in grammatical theory, but also how desirable it is in a given social context to perform that education, also taking into account the particular social, cultural and emotional baggage that adheres to individual lemmas of our vocabulary.

So where’s the medieval parallel? Well, in connection with this I have been thinking about the development of the plural as a form of polite address. Grammatically speaking, it’s all wrong: when there is a single subject the subject and verb ought to be singular. For some reason, however, kings of England (and elsewhere) in the high middle ages began to be represented in writing with ‘the royal We’. By the thirteenth century, they also sometimes addressed single subjects with plural pronouns and verbs, as in the formula vobis mandamus quatenus faciatis, which, for the sake of making the point, I will translate as ‘we command yous that yous should do [whatever]!’.[3]

When I made the point in a paper at Leeds a few years back[4] that it seemed significant when kings of this period decided not to use the plural pronoun in their commands, instead instructing subjects with versions of the phrase precipimus tibi quatenus facias, it emerged in comments that some scholars working on earlier periods didn’t see why this would be rhetorically important. In their sources, tibi simply indicated that the command was addressed to one person, vobis that there must have been more than one. Their impression was that I simply hadn’t quoted the whole thing and that multiple addressees were in fact involved. But no! Rather, as I replied at the time, the use of the plural was associated with dignity, status, and respect. It was less about the grammar accurately reflecting the number of subjects or objects to hand than it was about expressing the gamut of associated social meaning.

It seems from a cursory glance at earlier medieval sources that this developed into a standard practice sometime in the mid to late twelfth century (although I would be eager to hear of earlier examples). It’s intriguing that this is also a period in which many other means of defining and demarcating the distinctions between social ranks are also emerging and solidifying. What I ask myself, in light of my musings over the modern grammar of colloquial English, is whether medieval authors were completely aware of these changes at work, or if they too, in their turn, were sometimes mystified by the use of language that seemed technically incorrect. I open the floor for yous to discuss it…

[1] Conversely, coming into contact with a large number of manual and trade workers through my other half’s work, I am sometimes astonished to hear myself beginning sentences with pearls like “Me and my sister went…”. There’s some kind of chameleonic essence to my language use that I’ve never been able to shake. As a child I reportedly spoke a broad Glaswegian brogue with my school mates and would turn around in my chair and translate into ‘Australian’ for mum and dad on request, while recently on a visit to the States I was asked if I had been born there when my accent started to ‘tune in’ to the local cadences apparently of its own accord. Fitting in is what I do.
[2] Although I am making a personal stand to bring ‘whom’ back into correct usage, and hang the accusations of twerpery. (Twerpery? Twerpitude? Hmm…) Students who use whom correctly in essays for me get bonus smiley faces in the margins. True story.
[3] Which reminds me of my favourite line in that great Australian film, Two Hands, if you will excuse me… Young thug: “Yous two are f***in dead!” (Sees two police officers walking past.) “Nah, not yous two.”
[4] ‘To dictate or delegate? The language of governance in English royal letters, 1272–1307’, given at International Medieval Congress, Leeds, 13 July 2010.