This article deals with the use of deictic pronouns this/these and that/those as demonstrative determiners in person-referential terms in Early and Late Modern English personal letters. The material for the study comes from the Corpus of Early English Correspondence and its Extension. The data chosen for this study cover personal correspondence between 1600 and 1800. The main purpose of the study is to show the link between the use of such demonstratives and what e.g. Tajfel & Turner (1979; also Hogg & Abrams 1988) call social identification. Since previous research has shown that the use of person reference in Present-Day English is biased towards group distinction, linking positive characteristics to members of one's in-group and distancing people in the out-group with negative reference, it is probable that this was the case in historical language use as well.
The study shows that most of the referents in the letter writers’, and in many cases also in the recipients’, in-group are indexed with positive descriptions and reference terms in positive contexts, whereas identifiable out-group referents mostly receive negative descriptions. The negatively, positively and neutrally evaluative functions were found to be central during both centuries. The neutral function is more prevalent than the others in the seventeenth century, but the negative and positive gain more emphasis in the eighteenth century. This shows that when both pronouns increasingly started to appear as connotative demonstrative determiners, their use as mere indexicals decreased. Overall, we can conclude that although the historical use of demonstrative pronouns as determiners in reference did not show a similar bias towards negative foregrounding to their Present-Day English equivalents, there is some indication that a change towards a more specialised use was on the way from the eighteenth century onwards.