Tag Archives: English pronouns

they

English has a fair few basic functional words that begin with a dental fricative, usually voiced: the, this, that, these, those, there; thou and thee are not commonly used, and when used at all are usually misused now; and, most controversial, they and them.

They is controversial? Sure – in fact, I’m tempted to suggest that it comes from +hey – it seems so likely to provoke an addition of “hey!” in some contexts. It doesn’t come from that, of course; in fact, it was originally spelled with a thorn (þ) where we now have th – fair enough for such a thorny word. But, beyond that, it’s not originally an English word.

Now, that little statement may surprise people who could hardly imagine importing a word so basic from another language. But have a look at the third-person plural pronouns from Old English (see http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/courses/handouts/magic.pdf for as much information on Old English inflection as you could want):

nominative (subject): hie
accusative (direct object): hie
genitive (possessive): hira
dative (indirect object): him

Old English was, in its inflections, much more formally complex than modern English. The fact that the dative third person plural was the same as its masculine singular equivalent was not exceptionally problematic – German gets by with potential confusions between identical forms representing different persons and numbers, and we use you for singular and plural now in English. But during the Middle English period, all those inflections got simplified considerably, and so did some of the details of pronunciation. Meanwhile, in northern England, there was strong Old Norse influence (because of strong Scandinavian presence in the population!). The Old Norse third person plural pronoun þei, with its more distinctive sound, came into use, and by the end of the 1400s it had spread pretty much throughout England, displacing the older English form entirely – except for one survival: in unstressed, informal use, the him, reduced to ’em, is still often used in place of them, which requires more articulation. (Did you think this was just a simple deletion of the opening consonant? Ask yourself where else we drop that consonant at the beginning of a word. Answer: almost nowhere – it often gets lost in than after an /r/, as in “more’n” for more than, but that’s a specific conditioning environment.)

But that’s not the controversial part. The controversy actually comes from an issue with the singular pronouns. While in Old English all nouns had gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), and so did the singular third person pronouns, by the end of the Middle English period only those pronouns retained gender, and gender had become linked directly to the physical human-male/human-female/non-human distinction (in German, which still has the genders, the linkage is not so absolute; for instance, a young unmarried woman is fräulein, which is neuter). But one runs into a problem when the sex of a person referred to is indeterminate. What does one do then? Well, you would think it wouldn’t be so difficult to swap in another related pronoun. And you’d be right: we do it readily enough with you in place of one, for instance, but also, for centuries, English speakers used they for gender-indeterminate third person singular, and no one complained.

For centuries? Oh yes – pretty much until about 1800, in fact. You can find it in the King James version of the Bible: “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3). You can find it in Shakespeare: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me, As if I were their well-acquainted friend” (Comedy of Errors IV:iii). It was common and unexceptional.

And then came the age of prescriptivism. Starting in the 1700s and gradually gathering steam and influence, there was a scholastic movement to impose rules and reason on English – of course those making this move failed to notice that English already had rules that worked just fine, and that the logic of languages is not inevitable mathematical. I won’t go into depth here on all the deleterious effects of their confected rules; you can read “When an ‘error’ isn’t,” “An appreciation of English: a language in motion,” and “What’s up with English spelling” for some more details on all this. But one thing their logical processes led them to was the idea that a plural pronoun couldn’t be used to signify a singular. (By this time you was accepted as a singular, so they evaded that issue.) And what singular pronoun could be used? Well, they thought he or she was inelegant, so of course, since – as people, particularly male ones, had been averring for some time – the male was the superior, the master of the female, etc. etc., it stood to reason the masculine pronoun should be the default.

And guess what. People bought it (along with a lot of other prescriptivist tut-tutting rubbish these cretins frankly invented). Oh, they didn’t swallow it hook, line, and sinker, not exactly. Fowler, referring to use of they and them and their for indeterminate distributive singulars (e.g., everyone took their book), noted “Archbishop Whately used to say that women were more liable than men to fall into this error, as they objected to identifying ‘everybody’ with ‘him’.” Gosh, those sensitive females! Tsk! But among their number we ought also to count such apparent males as Walt Whitman (“everyone shall delight us, and we them”), Lawrence Durrell (“You do not have to understand someone in order to love them”), C.S. Lewis (“She kept her head and kicked her shoes off, as everybody ought to do who falls into deep water in their clothes”), and Oscar Wilde (“Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”).

And of course people still do it. People still do plenty of things that those benighted prescriptivists said are wrong. But many or even most of those same people who do them nonetheless believe them to be errors (everybody drives over the speed limit, even as they know it’s illegal, so why not use “wrong” language if it’s comfortable, eh?). And so we are faced with this battle. When, in the 1970s, women started getting people to listen to them (and by “people” I don’t just mean “men”; many or even most women before then didn’t listen to women on many important matters), they pointed out that use of man to mean human and he to mean a third person of possibly either sex embodied sexist assumptions.

And of course the response was that they were being oversensitive and making things up, and this was the way we had always done it and no had ever had a problem with it before. (When I was a youth, I certainly thought so; I couldn’t see why it was an issue that he was the neutral as well as the masculine, and at one point I may even have believed that it was a particular noble sacrifice on the part of males to forgo distinctiveness in lending their pronoun to generality. But I wasn’t female, so of course I didn’t see why it would be a problem – the have-mores very often think the have-lesses are whiners.) All of this was of course utterly false. But if a lie can be well enough established for long enough, people in general will assume it’s not just truth but time-honoured truth. So even today it remains a struggle to use they in many written contexts for gender-indeterminate third person singular. This in spite of the fact that few people admire the Victorians and their ideas of propriety generally.

Of course, the issue moves farther now, as in this egalitarian society we often question the need for gender distinction in third person singulars in any context. Many other languages do without such distinction, and we do without it everywhere but this one instance. When people wonder what pronoun we could use in place of he and she, various inventions are suggested, but the one already in use is they. Now, you may ask whether we could really manage with no singular/plural distinction. But you know, most of the time it works pretty well with you. I’m interested to see where this goes…

For much of the information above, I am indebted to two articles worth reading in entirety: Joan Taber’s 2006 “Singular They: The Pronoun That Came in from the Cold” and Ann Bodine’s 1975 “Androcentrism in prescriptive grammar: singular ‘they’, sex-indefinite ‘he’, and ‘he or she” (Language in Society 4: 129–146), and to Gael Spivak, who brought them to my attention.

I

Who am I? What is this I that I perceive? The most essential thing in the universe or a pure illusion? Is it as solid as a metal beam or as evanescent as a candle in the wind?

Reflect, Grasshopper. Reflect on yourself, because your self is mere reflection. This shining I is a mere mirror, and even the mirror is not there when you – with your eye, your seeing part, which you may mistake for your I – look for it.

You look in the mirror, and you say, “I see.” And indeed I C spells the source of I: in Old English, I was ic, said sometimes as “eek” and sometimes as “each” – the two sides of the self, one of fear, withdrawing, the other of distribution, sharing, outgoing. It was sometimes after written ich. Make this capital: ICH. In a serif font, the formal way, an I is like a steel beam (an I-beam, in fact), reminiscent of an H on its side. Make it more like an H on its side and you have 工, the Chinese character for gong, “work.” But Chinese for “I” is wo – the self is only half of work, for action is the rest. The character for wo, however, is a slashing pattern of seven strokes, 我, half of which is a spear and the other half of which is said to be a hand, or grain, or another spear: fighting, action.

The self is the ready hand: the letter I began as an arm and hand, Phoenecian yod, which lost first the hand, then the elbow and wrist, and soon became the smallest of letters, a mere stroke, iota, ι, the famed jot of jot and tittle, the small wisp of Hebrew yod, י. You see the strong hand, but when you follow it, it vanishes into smoke, it is the merest small thing.

But I was not I then. In Hebrew, when you speak of yourself, you do not say an I, you say ani. In Greek, like English an Indo-European language, “I” the speaking first person was – is – ego, written in Greek letters εγο; in Latin, it is ego written first EGO (as we ever write our selves in our own minds). These little letters we love, e g o i etc., came about later, as scribes shrank them in brisk writing: the I became a little single stroke, at risk of being taken for one half of an n, one third of an m, so they added a dot, like a finger, a flag… a flame. We are a candle burning down. No, we are not: we are only the flame. We consume the wax, but the matter of the wax passes in other forms into the air; when it is burnt, however, the flame – which was only ever an ongoing reaction, not a discrete object – is gone. Ay, gone.

Ay. This is how we say I. This is not how we always said it. Our long vowels shifted half a millennium ago. Before that, the ich lost the fricative at the end and we said it “ee”: simply the narrowest opening at the tip of the tongue. Tighten the tongue a little more as you say it, and whisper as you do so, and you have German ich. But when “ah” became “ey” and “ey” became “ee” we needed this sound of I to be more distinctive, and so we swooped into it, starting at “ah” and narrowing down, like a hand swinging through the air and pointing at a spot.

In other languages it widens from the spot. In Scandinavian languages, you have jeg – the j a glide, like our y – or similar words. In Slavic languages, you have ja and similar words. In Romance languages, you have Spanish yo, Portuguese eu, Italian io, French je – this last has a fricative, but it was once a glide, too, as its first letter has descended from none other than I. Thereby hangs a tale: what we see now as j was first an ornamental i with a tail; when the glide sound came from the vowel, it was written the same way at first, but when we decided we needed a separate letter for the glide – or for the fricative or affricate it had become – we kept the j for that. If we needed another version still, we used y. And sometimes, in English, where the i seemed too small for the vowel, we wrote y instead. See that y: like an i and a j joined. In Dutch, words once written with y – such as the river Y – are now written with ij (and the river is het IJ). The self plain and the self fancy, extended: together you have branching, division, or you have dowsing, divination, depending on your direction. Widening or narrowing: your self is your choice. Which shall you do?

We aggrandized our little i. When we stopped saying ich we were left with a jot and a dot. It was not big enough; the I does not want to pass unnoticed. So it gained an infusion of capital. In other languages, politeness may dictate the upper case for the formal other person: Sie in German, U in Dutch (which, informally, says je for “you”). Honour may dictate it for royalty and deity: Your Grace, His grace. But we, we who see ourselves as the axis of all, we plant a flagpole at our north pole of the self: I. How we forget that when all rotates around a point, the point around which is rotates has no size, no dimension. It is a perfect nothing. Without it the action could not be happening, but it is only there as a result and part of the action. It itself does not move; it is still, there. And when the action stops it is not still there.

I is not the most common word in English; it sits, according to wordcount.org, at 11th place – ay, ay, 11. The most common pronoun, in eighth place, is it. The most frequent actual noun is in 66th place, after so many function words, pronouns, auxiliaries, and staple verbs. It is what the I exists in: time.

What does the I stand for? among other things, I stands for the heaviest element commonly used by living organisms, an element rare in many places but soluble in water and so concentrated in seawater: iodine. It stains and it stings, but we need it. Without it our thyroids underdevelop, with bad effect; iodine deficiency is the leading cause of preventable mental retardation.

But our little candle, the small i, takes us to the root of this all. And if our self is defined in opposition – the spear against spear, the ego that opposes, the reversal seen in reflection, the inevitable entropy of the candle – then our self is a negative one. And the root of negative one is i: an imaginary number, not countable or accountable in the real world, but still usable for describing and calculating things in our lives. The square root of 1 is 1; the square root of –1 is i. One less than nothing, and reduced by one dimension.

This is your I, grasshopper: a useful illusion, a mere effect of and part of action. You see a line between yourself and the world, but I, the line, is all there is, and even that is nothing real.