According to the classic definition, a pronoun is a word used in
place of a noun. However, some pronouns work like adjectives,
modifying the meaning of a noun. But while an adjective may
modify or limit the meaning of a noun in a novel way, creating,
just possibly, a subset of the class of nouns that has never been
spoken of before (e.g. "a transcendental cow,"
"a nuclear teapot"), the adjectival pronoun
modifies the sense of the noun by widening or narrowing its
reference in a very limited and stereotyped way: "this
cow" (the one here with me), "each teapot"
(all of them, but considered one by one). The adjectival pronoun
can quite generally be used as a "classic" pronoun,
standing in for a noun rather than modifying one ("Have you
seen this?" "I have heard the mermaids singing,
each to each").
Whether pronouns like this, that and each should be called
adjectives when used with nouns is a matter best left to the
theoreticians. Old English scholars generally call them pronouns
to avoid getting knotted up over one very large class of them,
namely the demonstrative pronouns which in Old English are used
where Modern English uses the adjective-like "article,"
the. In Modern English the "article" can hardly
be confused with the demonstrative pronoun that, though
their functions are similar; but Old English made no formal
distinction between them. Thus you may translate se cyning
as "the king" or as "that king," depending on
Pronouns are of seven types:
personal, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite, relative, reflexive,
and reciprocal. Some classify as pronouns the possessives which are
inflected like adjectives, but Old English Aerobics (perhaps rather
arbitrarily) classifies these as adjectives. Here is a rundown of the
When a pronoun has an antecedent (a noun it refers back to), it must
agree with that antecedent in gender and number. This rule can produce
some disconcerting effects for the modern reader. For example, when
we read of the sun, æfre heo tyrnð onbutan us, the
pronoun heo looks to us as if it should be translated "she."
But heo is referring to feminine sunne and must be translated
"it": "it is always turning around us."
- Personal. The personal pronouns (Modern English I, you,
she, he, it, etc.) refer to specific objects and are marked for
person--the first person referring to the
speaker, the second person to someone or something the speaker is
addressing, and the third person to any other thing. The Old English
personal pronouns are ic, þu, he, heo, hit.
- Demonstrative. These pronouns point out specific
things (Modern English this, that). The Modern English definite
article is in origin a demonstrative pronoun, and Old English used
a demonstrative where we now use the definite article. The Old
English demonstratives are se (seo, þæt)
"that" and þes "this."
- Interrogative. Interrogative pronouns introduce questions,
either direct (e.g. "Who are you?") or indirect
(e.g. "He asked who you were"). The most common
Old English interrogatives are hwa, hwæt "who,
what" and hwelc "which, what kind of."
- Indefinite. This is a relatively large group of pronouns
that indicate that we are speaking about one or more members of some
category of things but do not specify exactly which. Modern examples
are all, any, anyone, each, few, many, none, one, and
something. Old English also had a large number of indefinites,
of which the most important are man "one,"
ænig "any," nan "none,"
hwa "anyone, someone," sum "some,
a certain," eall "all," ælc
"each," and swelc "such."
- Relative. A relative pronoun introduces an adjective clause
(also called a relative clause). In Modern English the most common
relatives are that and who; Old English used the
particle þe, the demonstrative pronoun se, or
a combination, se þe.
- Reflexive. A reflexive pronoun is used in the complement
of a clause or sentence to refer to the same thing as the subject.
It can be a direct object ("The cat grooms himself"),
an indirect object ("The president gave himself a raise"),
or the object of a preposition ("Look within yourself").
Old English commonly uses the accusative or dative of a personal pronoun
as a reflexive, or it uses the word self.
- Reciprocal. These pronouns refer individually to the things
that make up a plural antecedent and indicate that each of those things
is in the position of object of the others as subjects. That sounds
complicated, and it is; but the idea is well known to speakers of Modern
English, who use the phrases
each other and one another to express it.
Old English uses the plural of a personal pronoun, sometimes with
self, e.g. Hie hie selfe ofslogon "They killed each
other." Old English may also use constructions that resemble the
modern ones: ægðer . . . oðer or
æghwylc . . . oðer.