Whom may be doomed as English evolves

Whom may be doomed as English evolves, by The Economist.

Whom is one of the few remaining vestiges of case in English. At the time of Beowulf, the great monster-slaying Anglo-Saxon epic, English nouns, pronouns and adjectives, plus words like the, all had an ending showing case. Four different cases in Old English tell you whether a word is a subject, direct object, indirect object or possessor. Other languages, from ancient Greek to Russian and Estonian, have far richer case systems still.

More than 1000 years later, that system has vanished almost entirely …

Yet fans of whom may ask: how can you dispense with case without throwing out intelligibility? It’s important to know what word in a sentence is the subject, which the direct object, and so on. That is true — so true that every language on earth has a way of solving the problem, whether it has cases or not. In English and other case-poor languages, from Swedish to Vietnamese, the solution is word order.

In Old English, Latin or Russian, subjects, objects and other words can appear in different orders; this gives speakers and writers a way to play with rhythm and emphasis. The loss of case in modern English means that word order must be relatively fixed, usually subject, verb and object in that sequence. Steve loves Sally means that Steve is the lover, Sally the loved. This could be reversed in Old English, with the meaning unchanged, because the case-endings would show who loved whom.

In English today just six words still show a distinction between subject and object: I, he, she, we, they and who.

hat-tip Stephen Neil