It’s Me, not I? Why?

Sue asks you to look over her letter, one she wants to be a bit formal. The only correction you make is from “Paul saw neither Peter nor I” to “Paul saw neither Peter nor me.” Sue asks, “Why is that?” Talk about a loaded question. Why does language have rules and what went wrong with this one? Further more, how does language get and maintain these rules and even more, why are people unaware of the rules and know only a handful of usually false rules from the school room?

IOW, how does language work? Even deeper, why language?

Languages are for human communication and human expression.

It is natural to ask what form of language is better. We do that because we listen to others and find that some are more eloquent and fluent than others in their speech and writing. Many languages use their great literature as a model. Unfortunately for English, we chose something else. While language has an appended science, linguistics, that science did not develop along with the other sciences in the English-speaking world. A mania for regulation, finding the laws by which things worked, gripped England in the 17th and 18th centuries, leading to great discoveries and opening up whole fields of knowledge, even whole realms. Sadly, language was not subjected to the basic rule of science: observation. Instead, we got armchair regulators, often very learned people………. in theology and Latin, making up rules to make it seem as if they had not found the laws of language but made the laws. This is entirely different from the way science works; we don’t decide what the laws of physics should be and then make them up.

This mania for regulation and law-making in language produced hilarious results like John Simon’s horrible little screed that found even the most critical commentators on English to be themselves deficient according to the Simon standard. That book was written in mid 20th century but it has imitators even today determined to make people so self-conscious in using their own language that they become tongue-tied. This topic has been covered copiously and this blog has a list of the most helpful books on it.

Fortunately, another Englishman kicked off the founding of the field of linguistics by noticing, while serving in India, that the ancient Sanskrit language of India was incredibly similar to Greek and Latin. His observations, the first step in science, led to a truly amazing outpouring of scholarship over the next century. Those scholars sought to find laws, also, but they did so by observation, thus giving birth to the science of linguistics.

In that same century, the earlier, misguided sort of English studies were given a boost by mass education. Again, a good thing with a downside. Millions of children in English-speaking countries were assured that proper English does not end sentences with prepositions nor “split” infinitives. A good teacher would restrict this nonsense to formal written language, but most school children were unable to make that distinction and just assumed that if they did not, could not, follow this plethora of rules (there are actually only about 15 of them), then they were just no good at speaking their own language. And please don’t tell me you have never heard someone say they don’t speak English “very good.”

Another boost in that century was given by Romantic Nationalism, the movement to create nation states that required a national myth and national language. In order to inspire revolution against empires, activists rallied the troops by telling they spoke a superior language. These languages were often suppressed in the empires or suffered an inferiority complex in the face of French, German, and other Western European languages. The combination was toxic. People were encouraged to believe romantic nonsense about their language while at the same time believing that the French spoke the language of art, the Germans the language of science, and the English the language of commerce. And on and on. A study of 19th century nationalism and Romanticism will reveal more absurdities.

Once we got into the 20th century and linguists had access to non-Western and non-Indo-European languages (languages related to English), we really got going as they tried to account for the variety of forms of communication along with documenting the ultimate adequacy of all languages to express their culture. The lack of a word for electricity in a 15th century Central American language surely should not be seen as evidence of inferiority any more than the lack of that word in 12th century English should be an indicator of inferiority in that language.

So after all that, we come back to the question, how does language work to express the need of humans to communicate and to express themselves?

That is the business of linguistics and cognitive psychology. It is no accident that both Steven Pinker and George Lakoff are both linguists and cognitive psychologists since language occurs in the brain. The Great Chomsky posited that since infants learn language in an inevitable unfolding that always takes certain patterns, there is a language acquisition device (LAD) we inherit as humans. The corollary is that all languages must have something in common. The linguistic imagination was inspired in the 20th century by work on so-called exotic languages, meaning those outside the orbit of major civilizations, i.e. Amerindian, African, Oceanic and many languages existing marginally on the edge of the great civilizations like Dravidian, Caucasian, Philippine, and Uralic languages, and the mysterious Basque located between Spanish and French. Their exotic features were simply not found in European languages. Even some Indo-European languages like Urdu have features like ergativity, so exotic features are not restricted to exotic languages. Chinese is certainly very unlike German or Swedish but is not considered exotic.

I have gone into this helter-skelter way of discussing language to give a taste of the confusion in the popular understanding of what language is. The early 20th century focus on the exotic and the immense difficulty of decoding languages like Navaho shifted the focus to the differences among languages but Chomsky brought the focus back to what languages, and thus humans, had in common. As one linguist put it, all languages have something kind of noun-y and something kind of verb-y. Leaving for a moment the fact that adjectives in Japanese have tense and seeing that most of the world’s languages have word order either Noun-Verb-Object (English) or Noun-Object-Verb (Japanese) and a sprinkling of Verb first or Object first order forces us to realize that none of this is hard-wired, it can change, as when Latin Subject-Object-Verb order gave way to Subject-Verb-Object order in French. And now we see a strange – to European sensibilities – development in Spanish where Verb-Subject-Object order is emerging.

So what is going on as these languages shift things around, slur their syllables together so that Latin acqua becomes French oh while good old conservative Italian keeps it acqua? William Labov did detailed studies of speech communities, some in big cities like New York, others in island communities like Martha’s Vineyard. He offered several major principles to the field, one of which was the “defended cities” theory that old ethnic neighborhoods in Northern cities intensified their local speech features to distinguish themselves from the Black immigrants coming in from the South. He identified a sort of vector person, a person in the neighborhood who modeled the in-group features seen as desirable and worthy, a sort of Identity Linguistics.

The process by which the constantly changing, kaleidoscope-like, features of pronunciation, intonation, lexical items aka words, grammar, syntax aka word order, adjust and adjust and adjust to achieve the goals of language: communication and expression. But communication with who?

Now we begin to get the outline of the answer to Sue’s question. Sue wants to communicate. She thinks of her target. The target appears to be a person to who it would be appropriate to use formal English. So rather than write as she speaks, Sue searches her mind for forms with the label “formal.” All languages have formal and informal levels called registers. Those without anthropological background might assume that languages spoken by few and illiterate people would not have linguistic registers, but they do. Just as you approach the Big Man on your knees or backwards or with head bowed to show respect, so you speak using special forms. One Japanese admiral made the Emperor’s Court cringe when he spoke to the emperor because he used language like, “and that there guy did good”, just a rough old sailor.

Sue knows that very often when she would normally say “me”, her teachers would correct her to “I” or “she”. So she wound up responding on the phone in a very stilted way, “This is she” instead of the normal, “That’s me” or “This is her.” But she is totally uncertain as to why. Her friends, family, and acquaintances have been infected with the same insecurities about their speech and writing, so she first says to herself, “Paul saw Peter and me.” Perfectly good English, also correct and proper, if you will. However, “Paul saw Peter and I” sound more elegant. Now this guy is telling me I was right the first time! What’s going on?

Individuals adjust their language to fit in the communication patterns around them. That is why there are no distinct dialects in the West of the U.S. compared to the East Coast where people lived relatively isolated from other regions for several centuries, allowing dialect features to develop. Labov did work on vowels as pronounced in large cities in several regions in the East, places like Pittsburg – a Southern, a Northern and a Canadian vowel shift.  Here you can hear him discuss these phenomena:

This field is a subdivision of linguistics called sociolinguistics, the use of language in society. It is related to the earliest linguistic work tracing the history of the Indo-European languages because the various groupings – Germanic, Slavic, Indo-Aryan, Greek, Romance, etc. – correspond to ethnocultural groups. The aforementioned cognitive psychology is closely tied to psycholinguistics; comparative linguistics gives us formulations like the above syntax typology of Noun-Object-Verb, Noun-Verb-Object, and so forth. And there are others, some blending into earlier fields like philology, Classics, comparative literature, and literary analysis. Philology and Classics focus on ancient texts and hermeneutics focus on religious scriptures.

With each field are many subfields, including phonetics, dialectology, creolistics, and on and on, and that is just in the general field of linguistics. All of these scholars are trying to answer Sue’s question about a specific piece of text, why is that? How is it that people adjust their speech to each other, to their social surroundings, to expectations, to their own moods, all in the service of either communication or expression. We adjust our register, moving from familiar to casual to colloquial, to formal, and each of those can be represented in speech and writing. For years it was considered improper to reproduce colloquial or familiar and non-standard speech in writing, so that the old man steering the barge on the river was made to sound like a Shakespearean actor. But knowing that just a couple of centuries earlier, the idea of an educated person writing in English instead of Latin was thought absurd and vulgar. Patrick O’Brian has his ship’s surgeons in his naval series set in the early 19th century consulting each other in Latin. A respected pediatrician of Jamaican origin who surely knew Jamaican patois became furious with my wife and me when we suggested that the patois was a worthy language in itself.

In the final resolution of Sue’s question, we can only say that she is in the throes of adjusting her speech to expectations and thought she was doing right by substituting “I” for “me”. Grammatically, in Standard English, “me” is called for because the pronoun is the object of the verb “saw” and so must be in the oblique form rather than in the subject form. The confusion results from old rules derived from Latin where the predicate nominative was in the nominative or subject form (case) and so it was determined it should be the same in English. Even the exalted French language, in the mouth of Miss Piggy, says “C’est moi”, “It’s me,” not *C’est je, It is I. Imagine yourself pointing to your image in a family vacation photo and exclaiming, “Oh, look! That’s I there.” No.






  1. 伟思礼 says:

    I still use “me” in predicate or after preposition. But it seems to me that “I” has become so widespread it might be time to consider it now part of the language.

  2. Pat Barrett says:

    After preposition is standard and any grammar curmudgeon would agree with that. It is the predicate where the problem lies, basing English usage on Latin usage. Notice how in Spanish, if someone asks you if you are the American, you answer “soy yo” or even “yo lo soy”, depending. But in French you use the disjunctive pronoun, c’est moi. Notice also how people will say “It is I” but “It’s me,” indicating an awareness that the former is formal and so forbids contractions.
    Right off hand, I’d say the most definite example of a non-English usage that has become standard is the double negative injunction. Non-standard speech universally uses double negative – “I can’t get no satisfaction” – but, taking myself as an example, I have to consciously apply a double negative; it just was never in my inventory (due to my mother who had spoken Appalachian English as a child and wanted to expunge it from our usage).

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