Present Indicative Plural Concord in Brittonic and Early English


  • for David R. Howlett

  • This paper was written in 2008 for a Festschrift for David Howlett; the volume was to have appeared in January 2009 as a special issue of the journal Anglo-Saxon. Publication, however, has been long delayed, and I now thank the managing editor of Anglo-Saxon, David N. Dumville, for approving an exchange of contributions. Robert D. Fulk, as co-editor of Anglo-Saxon, reviewed much of this paper in draft, and I am grateful to him for discussion and various improvements. My thanks are due also to readers of a later version privately circulated (it is noticed in Language 85 (2009), 903): Donka Minkova, Rolf H. Bremmer Jr., Roger Lass, Alasdair MacDonald, Patrick V. Stiles, and Keith Williamson. To Owain Edwards I am indebted for discussion of the Welsh citations; to Stephen Laker, for editorial good offices; and to Margaret Laing for confirming that the northern subject rule’s first decisive attestations in Middle English are indeed of the fourteenth century (see now the on-line Linguistic Atlas of Early Middle English, In summary form the paper was presented at the University of Stavanger, in a symposium (25–26 April 2008) celebrating completion of the Middle English Grammar Project’s on-line textual corpus (see; I thank Merja Stenroos for the invitation. Translations are mine throughout.

ILOS, University of Oslo
Postbox 1003 Blindern
N-0315 Oslo


In northern Middle English and Middle Scots, a verb in the present indicative plural ends in -e (later zero) if the subject is an adjacent personal pronoun; otherwise it ends in -s. This ‘northern subject rule’ is generally supposed to have become established in early Middle English. Its history is undocumented, but the idea that it arose from contact with Celtic has recently gained ground. The case is here reviewed, and though still far from compelling, is found better than has previously appeared. Regardless of language contact, it is shown that the system evident in the rule is independent of the suffix in -s, and could have arisen very early in Old English. Central to the account are the origins of the reduced inflection, and the loss at syllable boundaries of Old English h (Germanic χ).