Sunday, September 11, 2011

Who, Whom and Wham

In the last post I quoted a newspaper columnist’s dismay at the degradation of English, particularly the incorrect use of who and whom. Linguistics professor John McWhorter mentions this particular pair of words in Lecture 19 of The Story of Human Language. In this lecture, titled “The Fallacy of Blackboard Grammar”, McWhorter argues that the idea of speaking “incorrectly” is a property only of the minority of languages which have a written standard. For most of the world’s languages – which are oral only (think Amazonian natives) – this notion would be absurd.

The rules of English grammar were first encoded by two authors writing in the 1700s. Their books A Short Introduction to English Grammar by Robert Lowth (1762) and English Grammar by Lindley Murray (1794) set out for the first time rules for English speakers. Many editions and similar texts followed – their influence lives on more than 200 years later.

There are two different approaches to linguistics. Lowth and Murray were following the Prescriptive approach – telling people how they ought to speak. Modern linguists prefer the Descriptive approach – describing how people actually do speak. To be fair to Lowth and Murray, English was, during their time, becoming an international language and standardization of the spoken and written language would be useful. They were also writing long before the modern science of linguistics had developed.

Lowth and Murray believed that Latin and Greek were superior to Modern English because of their many case endings in both verbs and nouns. They rescued the few remaining case endings of nouns that had not already been lost from Old English and standardized them. Many of these are pronouns with different words for subject and object: I/me, he/him, she/her, and who/whom. Imagine if there were sets of 4 or more (not just pairs) of these for every noun! My older brothers studied Latin in high school and found these case endings a chore to memorize. I’m grateful that English has been greatly simplified, at least in this respect.

Let’s look at who/whom for example. In Old English there was a different word for each of the following noun cases:
                  Case                              OE    Modern           Example
            Nominative (subject)   hwā     who     Who gave you my book?
            Genitive (possessive)  hwæs   whose  Whose book do you have?
            Accusative (object)      hwone whom  Whom did you see with my book?
            Dative (recipient)         hwām  wham  Wham did you give my book?

The modern form of the dative case wham is italicized because it does not exist in any dictionary. Its role is adequately covered by “to whom” and, I think it’s safe to say, it has never been missed. According to Wikipedia, the Dative case is completely absent in modern English, having merged with the Accusative case during the Middle English period to form one Objective case. McWhorter’s argument is that like wham, whom is also unnecessary.

The demise of whom is predicted by many, not just because it is a relic of an archaic system, but because of the observation of its declining use in everyday speech. This demise is not imminent, however, as the loss of whom is a grammatical change, not a lexical one, which typically takes much longer - often centuries – to complete. Language purists strive to slow this process even more but their cause will eventually fail.

The more I think of it, the more I like wham. Let’s start a movement to bring wham back into the English language. Wham shall we direct this movement first?


  1. Russian nouns have six cases.
    English grammar is very simple in that most nouns do not change from one case to another. Its biggest problem is what you see has little relevance to what you say. That is because of the many languages which are all folded into English, i would guess..

  2. Yikes - 6 cases! And we can't keep "who" and "whom" straight and keep saying "Billy and me..." instead of "Billy and I...".
    The biggest problem in English you refer to is its irregular spelling? I plan to write about that next.

  3. Is is pronounced "hwam" (like a Batman graphic) or "ham"?

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