From reader JM:
My son Chris (age 26) e-mailed me to ask which was correct: “younger than me” or “younger than I”. He had been watching “The Patriot” (the movie with Mel Gibson), and noted the use of “younger than I.” I assume that this would have been the standard in the late 1700s. When he and I saw the movie “Lincoln” last weekend, I noted that Daniel Day Lewis pronounced what and which, etc. as [hw]. I gather (from Wikipedia, etc.) that the more common pronunciation in both the U.S. and the U.K. is now [w], but couldn’t find anything about the time course of this merger. Is it known for sure that Lincoln said [hw]? Just curious….don’t know anything about how much effort film directors put into this kind of historical accuracy.
The discussion of than in MWDEU suggests that 18th-century usage of "than I" or "than me" would have been a coin flip. As far as I know, there's been no empirical work on how that coin was biased over time (and space, and register, and social stratum) — this would be a good term project in a linguistics course, and maybe even a good thesis topic.
With respect to Lincoln's use of [hw] or [w], there's a survey of relevant evidence in Donca Minkova, "Philology, linguistics, and the history of [hw]~[w]", and Lesley Milroy, "An essay in historical sociolinguistics?: On Donka Minkova's 'Philology, linguistics, and the history of [hw]~[w]'", in Anne Curzan and Kimberly Emmons, Studies In The History Of the English Language II: Unfolding Conversations, 2004.
Minkova quotes Jespersen 1909 about British usage:
And she sketches the following trajectory for the U.S.:
Grandgent 1893 suggests that the change to [w] had by then produced only "a few scattering votes" from northern Ohio and Indiana — but on the other hand, self-reported intuitions about a stigmatized change-in-progress are likely to underestimate the spread of the incoming variant:
The later evidence is described by Labov et al. here:
In Kurath and McDavid's Pronunciation of English in the Atlantic States , the distinction of /hw/ and /w/ in whale and wail, which and witch was shown to be characteristic of the North and the South, but not the Midland. In fact, the southern limit of the /hw/~/w/ distinction bundled tightly with the lexical isogloss separating the North and North Midland through Pennsylvania.
Since the LAMSAS data was gathered, the distinction has rapidly eroded. Map 8 shows only 71 of 587 speakers who maintain it. In this case, "Distinct" includes all those who were heard by the analyst as pronouncing the voiceless bilabial clearly (62 cases) or not quite clearly (9) cases. There were 3 individuals who thought that the pairs were different, but made no distinction in production; they were considered to be merged.
As Stephen Oates explains in With Malice Toward None: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (1994), Lincoln's native accent was lower-class south midland:
So the evidence, as I read it, suggests that Lincoln probably would have acquired and retained the merged pronunciation apparently characteristic of the midland region (at least in a later time period) — but [hw] in his mouth is not obviously wrong either.
Some other LL posts about the authenticity historical, regional, and ethnic variation in the entertainment industry:
(If you're confused about what [hw] means, "Hwæt about WH?", 4/13/2011, may help.)
(And PLEASE read the link before giving us your analysis and opinions about "than I" vs. "than me"…)