A Short History of the Word “The” (Part 2)

This continues some earlier notes I had made on the etymology of the word “the”.

Old English is the earliest attested progenitor of modern English, so any earlier etymologies can only be done by comparing other related languages and reconstructing forms through the application of morphology rules. English is a Germanic language related to German, Dutch, Norse and Icelandic. The common ancestor of these languages is known as Proto-Germanic (PGmc)

Ringe (2006) has given the paradigm shown below. Notice that it has the same s- in the masculine and feminine nominative singular, and þ- for all other forms, as in Old English.

Demonstrative Pronoun, “that”; Proto-Germanic:
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative sa þat
Accusative þanǭ þǭ þat
Dative þammai þaizōi (?) þammai
Genitive þas þaizōz þas
Instrumental þana (?) þaizō þana (?)
Nominative þai þōz þō
Accusative þanz þōz þō
Dative þaimaz
Genitive þaizǭ
Instrumental þaimiz

Things become more speculative reaching back to Proto-Indo-European. While there is general agreement that the stem of the demonstrative pronoun is so/to, the full inflection is more uncertain. The system given most often is that proposed by Beekes (1995). His is based on the theory put forward by Lane (1961). Given the many forms of the demonstratives among daughter languages, an inflection system based on the standard method of comparison would produce an unrealistic number of stems. Lane identified a fundamental mechanism within PIE of binding a number of standard particles to a basic stem. The most familiar example of this general PIE mechanism is the development of the word “this”: The OED gives the etymology as a Norse and West Germanic formation, produced by adding se, si (from Gothic, sai ‘see, behold’) to the simple demonstrative represented by “that”, as shown by the early Old Norse runic forms, sá-si, sú-si, þat-si. Later the compound was felt as a single word and inflected at the end.

Beekes applied a similar approach, though with a different set of particles and updated with the application of laryngeal theory.

Notice though that while PIE has a larger inflection system, like PGmc, it has the same s- in the male and female nominative and t- for the neuter and all other oblique forms.

Demonstrative Pronoun, “this, that”; Proto-Indo-European:
Masculine Feminine Neuter
Nominative so seh2 tod
Accusative tom teh2m tod
Dative tosmoi tesieh2ei
Genitive(to)sio (t)eseh2s
Ablative tosmod
Locative tosmi tesieh2i
Instrumental toi (?) toi (?)
Nominative toi seh2i (??) teh2
Accusative tons teh2ns teh2
Dative toimus teh2mus?
Genitive tesom (?) tesom (?)
Ablative toios (?)
Locative toisu teh2su (?)
Instrumental toibʰi teh2bʰi (?)

Attempts have been made to find relationships between PIE and other language families. Greenberg (2002) has proposed “Eurasiatic” that groups PIE with languages as diverse as Korean, Japanese and Eskimo-Aleut.

Interestingly there is similarity between the PIE demonstrative root and the constructed ancestors of other members of this proposed group. E.g.:

Demonstrative Pronoun stems, “this,that”; Yukaghir-Uralic vs. PIE:
Yukaghir Uralic Indo-European
tiŋ (Tundra),
tuŋ (Kolyma) ‘this’;
taŋ ‘that’
* ‘this’ (eg. Finnish tä-mä);
*to ‘that’ (eg. Estonian too)
*to- ‘this, that’

Greenberg gives a general demonstrative stem of *tV, that is, “t” followed by some vowel.

Demonstrative Pronoun stem, Eurasiatic:

Once etymologies get this deep, the standard linguistic tools begin to break down. The best that could probably be done would be to perform mathematical analysis which assigns a level of correlation and generates possible forms.

If this reconstructed stem is accurate, that “t” at the beginning of our word “the” goes back nearly 15,000 years.


[1] Ringe, Donald A., From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic. 2006, p. 288-289.
[2] Mallory J. P.; Adams, Douglas Q., The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. 2006, p. 417-418.
[3] Lehmann, Winfred P., Theoretical Bases of Indo-European Linguistics. 1996, p. 158-159.
[4] Beekes, Robert S. P., Comparative Indo-European Linguistics. 1995, p. 201-204.
[5] Lane, George S., On the Formation of the Indo-European Demonstrative. Language, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Oct. - Dec., 1961), pp. 469-475.
[6] Greenberg, Joseph H., Indo-European and its Closest Relatives: The Eurasiatic Language Family, Vol 1. 2000, p. 94-101.

» Posted: Friday, February 12, 2010 | Comments (3) | Permanent Link


thanks man, our English teacher is crazy, she told us to write a 200 word essay on the history of the word ‘the’, thank you very very very much, i couldn’t find the origin anywhere on the web lol

» Posted by Anonymous on February 8, 2011 04:14 AM

Cool man never thought the would have so much may the banana be sexy but unknown

» Posted by theunknownbutsexybanana on February 27, 2013 06:52 PM

The word AL from Arabic came to Spanish. French took AL inversely as LA. But French made it in three forms like LA, LE and Lay. From these set of words Latina took LE as DE. At last DE derived to English as THE.
That’s all.

» Posted by Behzad on October 19, 2020 10:19 AM

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