Among and Amongst


English usage seems to be getting hipper and leaner.  We’ve nearly lost our subjunctive mood (how many American English speakers even recognize this construction on the printed page?)  and whom should certainly be on the List of Endangered Words. (Is there such a list?)  So, it’s pretty amazing to see instances of amongst popping up like dandelions across the digital landscape; it’s showing up in comments to posts on various blogs and websites, tweets and the like. I have the feeling it’s mostly men using this form, too.  In modern English, there is no meaning difference between the two sentences

  • He must decide amongst the various options available to him.
  • He must decide among the various options available to him.

Middle English had a widely used adverbial genitive form, of which ‘amongst’ is a relic. Modern English has shed almost its entire legacy of case endings that were part of Old English grammar, and modern speakers of English probably don’t have much of an intuitive grasp of the form and sense of adverbial genitives.  An echo of this form occurs in expressions such as

  • She is performing evenings and weekends at the new beach resort.

Although we interpret ‘evenings’ and ‘weekends’ as plural nouns, the ‘s’ in this case (pun intended) is historically derived from the earlier genitive/instrumental ‘s’.  A paraphrase reveals that ‘evenings’ and ‘weekends’ are not the object of the verb ‘perform’, but are really condensed adverbial expressions.

  • She is performing during the evening and on the weekend at the new beach resort.

Other examples of an adverbial genitive today, using the more familiar genitive form ‘of’ would be the artsy-sounding

  • Of a morning she would walk the dog along the river.

Note the paraphrases.

  • Mornings she would walk the dog along the river.
  • In the morning she would often walk the dog along the river.

Back to amongst.  From Old English angemang ( in + gemang ‘assemblage, mingling’) Middle English had the form among + s, the ‘s’ indicating genitive case.  The final ‘t’ is probably without etymological significance (another claim is that the ‘t’ was influenced by the superlative suffix ‘-st’). Amongst is attested first in the 16th century mostly in the south (not the north) of England. Other English words also acquired the final ‘t’ on their adverbial genitive endings: whilst, against, amidst and even betwixt (Old English betweox ‘between, among’).

I’ve seen whilst showing up in the same digital venues cited for amongst, again compare the usages for yourself:

  • They get to reap the benefits whilst others are paying the bills.
  • They get to reap the benefits while others are paying the bills.

Are whilst and amongst used to add a touch of eloquence, to appear more knightly in one’s verbal demeanor? They are a tiny shade archaic in feel — don’t these users know English has no real case endings anymore?  🙂  They are probably not on anyone’s Top Ten Hip Words List (god, I do hope there is not such a list), they carry themselves with a little more decorum than while and among. This doesn’t seem true for betwixt which really does have an anachronistic ring to it. Whilst and amongst at least convey an ersatz learnedness, but not betwixt. But, I’ll keep watch on these words whilst I read content in the blogosphere, just in case we are unknowingly bringing case endings back into English. 🙂

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This entry was posted in history of language, language change, social context of language and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Among and Amongst

  1. netta mullins says:

    A lawyer I work for uses amongst often. I usually change it to among. Never thought that amongst was an acceptable word.

    • achouston says:

      ‘among’ certainly sounds less marked, more mainstream (especially for American English), however ‘amongst’ is listed in most dictionaries as an alternate form.

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