Gender neutral pronouns – yay or nay?

‘Gender-neutral pronouns, do they exist?’ you might be saying to yourself at home, in front of whatever device you’re reading this on.

Well, yes. Of course they do. In many languages. In English, you have two: it and one. However, it isn’t really used to describe a person, right? Kinda disrespectful since it traditionally is used on a non-human entity – tables, chairs, pets (and, admittingly, some even dislike the use of it for pets, present writer included), etc. You could use one but it doesn’t really work in certain constructions and might seem a bit formal, wouldn’t you say?

Now, though we could make a list of languages that do have gender-neutral pronouns referring to human beings, that requires us to get into a discussion on grammatical versus natural gender. We don’t want to do that just yet (you’ll have to wait for two weeks! The horror!), and so, we will focus on the Germanic languages, in which it is quite uncommon. As far as we know, only one of the Germanic languages has a recognised, widely used, gender neutral third person pronoun: Swedish!

A couple of years back (and I’m now talking from personal experience since I am Swedish and remember this quite well), around 2010 to be specific, a new pronoun started to make its way into books, magazines and newspaper articles: hen, a pronoun used when the gender of the person is unknown or if it is not relevant or desired to specify the gender of the person. (The gendered pronouns in Swedish are han, ‘he’, and hon, ‘she’)

The pronoun raised a massive debate, and a good number of jokes, both in Sweden and abroad. The main objections to it, in Sweden, seemed to be that it was not necessary, nor desired. However, despite a rather massive resistance, this little word stuck around – and how it grew! In 2014, the language periodical Språktidningen concluded that hen had grown from occurring once for every 13,000 uses of han/hon in 2011, to occuring once for every 300 hon/han in 2013. That’s a pretty massive upswing and in 2014, hen was included in Svenska Akademiens Ordlista – pretty much the Swedish equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary.

Where does this idea of hen come from, you might wonder? Well, it certainly wasn’t a new idea: it had been proposed as a gender-neutral pronoun in 1966 and then again in 1994 but it didn’t stick – perhaps because we weren’t ready for it. While we could do a long section on gender equality, I think we’ll stick with the linguistic side of things and, in this, the addition of hen is a big thing! You see, pronouns are often considered an integral part of the grammar of a language and they rarely change – or, as the linguists say, they are a closed word class.

Think of language like an onion with multiple layers: when you peel an onion, the first couple of layers are going to be bendy and soft, right? You can twist them this way or that and it’s fine. This is the ‘open class’ vocabulary of the language, the parts of language that can easily change: we might borrow from other languages, some words might fall into disuse or completely change their meaning, etc.

However, the closer to the ‘core’ of the onion you get, the stiffer the layer. Try twisting one of the inner layers of an onion and it is more likely to break into bits in your hand than bend. This is the grammar of the language, and it is here, in this stiff, unyielding part that you’ll find pronouns (remember how we said that the borrowing of they, them and their was so fascinating because of the integral part pronouns play in a language’s grammar?)

So, adding, changing, removing… All of these things tend to be (very) uncommon in the pronoun-category of a language. In Swedish, the pronoun han (he) goes all the way back to Proto-Norse, spoken around the 2nd to 8th centuries, and hon (she) goes all the way back to Proto-Germanic! During all this time, the pronouns remained pretty much the same in Swedish (spelling changed a little bit – han used to be spelt hann, for example).

The word hen itself is often referred to as a Swedish equivalent of the Finnish pronoun hän, which is also a gender-neutral pronoun. In Swedish, the word can have a different meaning too (though very few people know it since it is pretty much extinct), equivalent to the Swedish word brynsten, meaning ‘whetstone’ (you can see why most people wouldn’t know it?).

Why are we going on and on about these pronouns you might ask? Well, it was really to lead us here: you see, like we’ve said, pronouns rarely change. Generally speaking, we don’t add to them, we don’t change them, we don’t ‘delete’ one. Yet, Swedish did exactly that: it added one – and what makes this addition all the more remarkable is that this was a deliberate addition to the language! And in terms of language development and change, that is spectacular.

Can you imagine? About 2500 years of, pretty much, unchanged pronouns and then, in 2010, Swedes deliberately decided to add one – and the Swedish language, eventually, came to include yet another pronoun! In case you were ever in doubt, this is rather clear evidence that the speakers control what a language includes, not the other way around (thus kind of putting the whole idea of ‘there is a right way to use language’ on rather thin ice, wouldn’t you say?). Isn’t that just amazing?

There has been debate on whether other Germanic languages will follow suit, though that has not really happened (yet).

Tell us what you think – gender-neutral pronouns: yay or nay?

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Morning

Running a bit late today, ladies and gents! We’re blaming the fact that our little writing-mouse has managed to catch a cold and was, to be quite honest, napping.

Anyway, it’s Tuesday, isn’t it? You know what that means, it’s time for another Fun Etymology! Today’s word is “morning”!

“Morning” actually consists of two elements. Can you think of what they might be?

Well, one of them is the suffix -ing. So the other must be simple “morn”. You might not recognise that as an actual word nowadays but it used to be! Or a contraction of one anyway: the Middle English word “morwen” from the Old English, Mercian dialect to be specific, dative case of “margen” (dative “morgne”), meaning morning, forenoon or sunrise.

This Old English word comes from Proto-Germanic *murgana, meaning simply “morning”, from PIE *merk-, possibly from the root *mer-, meaning, interestingly enough, “to blink” or “twinkle”.

The Proto-Germanic form, it turns out, got around quite a bit and we thus find Old Saxon “morgan”, Old Frisian “morgen”, Dutch “morgen”, German “morgen”, Swedish “morgon”, and so on. Remember what forms that share an origin are called? Cognates, right? Then you might be interested to know that, looking at the PIE form, we may find yet another cognate to English “morning”: the Lithuanian word mirgėti, meaning “to blink”! Didn’t expect that? Well, like we’ve said before, words may change their meaning significantly and words that appear unrelated may sometimes show us that they have a distant relative or two.

Welcome back next week!

The plural with a singular referent?

Hallo to our lovely followers and friends!

Today, we’re gonna chat for a bit about the third person plural (?) pronoun ‘they’!

This pronoun appears when the antecedent (in this case, the human entity) of the pronoun is indeterminate, meaning that you simply don’t know if you should use he or she (or it might simply be irrelevant), or, as a more recent addition, when the person you are referring to does not wish to be referred to by their gender.

The latter addition has seen some critique during the last few years, for reasons that we won’t go into here because they have nothing whatsoever to do with language, but the thing is, this pronoun has been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism for centuries!

Most style guides that we’ve encountered still consider it to be less-than-standard in formal use – even though a study by Baranowski in 2002 (check it out here) showed that they was more likely to be used than the prescribed he (or she for that matter)..

In case you are wondering what we’re talking about, have you ever heard someone say something like:

“Someone left their keys at the reception.”  

Note that ‘someone’ is singular, that is, it refers to one individual. Yet, the following pronoun their is, of course, the standard plural form. Now, even though grammars, handbooks and style guides may have, and some perhaps still do, condemn the use, singular they has a long history in English.

The whole thing started in late Middle English, the OED (sense 2) traces singular they as far back as to 1375, when it was used in the medieval romance The Romance of William of Palerne. One might think that this was informal use, it’s fiction after all, however, it was also used in Wycliffe’s bible:

“Eche on in þer craft ys wijs”, (‘their’ is explained by the Middle English Dictionary (1c. sense (a)) which roughly translates into “Each one in their craft is wise”

And they has been popular ever since: Chaucer, Caxton, Shakespeare, Swift, Austen, Defoe, Byron… all of these well-recognized authors have used singular they. So what’s the problem, right?! Well, as we’ve seen previously on this blog, just because authors that we hail for their craft today used a particular form does not mean that it isn’t fair game for prescriptivism.

The earliest known explicit recommendation to use generic he rather than they is found in A New Grammar by Ann Fisher, published in 1745. Fisher stated that “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says”. Nineteenth-century grammarians picked this up and insisted that he was the correct use due to a little something we call number agreement or concord disagreement (that is, she runs, not *she run). Furthermore, these later grammarians also insisted that the alternative “he or she” was clumsy, a practice that became widely adopted for a long time (and, we might add, can still be found in a good number of papers/articles, books, etc. written in formal English). Today, though, the practice to refer to he when you actually mean anyone, is often considered somewhat sexist.

As a result of the (still) ongoing discussion about generic they, and the nowadays inappropriate use of generic he, this has raised some discussions about a gender-neutral pronoun in English and some attempts have been made (the first one as early as in 1792!) but, so far, English lacks one.

Actually, pretty much all Germanic languages do. Except one: Swedish! Tag along with us next time and read more about the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun hen, a fairly new addition to the Swedish vocabulary but one that is, trust the Swedish speakers of this little blog, gaining influence fast! See you then!

Want to know more? Check out the OED’s brief history of singular ‘they’ here

If you’re interested in anything else in this post, please do check out our sources by following the hyperlinks in the text! If there’s anything else, don’t hesitate to holler!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Hour

Ah, Tuesday. Wonderful, amazing Tuesday.

Why is it wonderful? Well, it sure isn’t because of the Scandinavian weather, but because it’s time for another fun Etymology!!

Speaking of time, we’ve been working a bit of a theme here and today is no different! Today’s word is “hour”.

Originally meaning “divine office prescribed for each of the seven canonical hours; the daily service at the canonical hours”, the word comes to English from Old French “ore”, meaning “one-twelfth of a day”, from Latin “hora”, meaning “an hour” or, a bit more poetically “time of year, season”. The Latin word itself comes from Greek hōra, which was used to indicate any limited time within a year, month, or day, and comes from PIE *yor-a-, from the root *yer-, meaning, of course, year.

Now, that’s some trip! But, you might remember that we promised you a treat last week? “Minute”, we said, is very similar in many Germanic languages, yet “hour”, we teased, is not.

And that’s indeed true. In the Scandinavian languages, the word for hour is “ti(m)me”, from Old Norse “timi”, which you could properly guess would simply be “time” in English.

That was the easy one: in German, the word for “hour” is “stunde”. Can you find an English equivalent? Maybe not? Well, there is one: stound! This word comes from Proto-Germanic *stundō, meaning “point in time, hour” from PIE *stā, meaning “to stand”. Aside from English, this word is found in the Scandinavian languages as “stund”, meaning “a short while, a short period of time”.

So, while there are different words for “hour” in the Germanic languages, it is often the case that we find parallel words with a somewhat altered meaning in the other Germanic languages. These words are cognates, meaning simply that they share an origin, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they mean the same thing today. Do you know of any interesting cognates that you want to share with us? Please do and let us all learn a bit more, and welcome back next week for more Fun Etymology!

They, them and their(s) – the non-English pronouns

Hello friends!

We’re back! Isn’t that awesome?!

Today, we’re going to make an assertion that you may not like: you know the third person plural pronouns in English, i.e. they, them and their(s)?

Well (you’re gonna hate us): they aren’t English.

Okay, so that may not be exactly true. Let’s say: they weren’t English to begin with.

It’s actually a rather amazing evidence of borrowing – in this case, English borrowed from a little language called Old Norse, spoken by the Vikings.

You might be sitting at home thinking that we’re talking absolute BS right now, pronouns are rarely borrowed from other languages because they are so integral in the language’s grammar, right? (Okay, you might not have known that, but now you do!) Bear with us and let’s have a look at the same pronouns in all modern languages that we know comes from Old Norse: Icelandic, Danish, Norwegian and Swedish!


Shockingly similar, don’t you think?

Well, perhaps not so shockingly. After all, they all come from the same thing: the Old Norse plural pronouns.

Why, exactly, English decided to borrow these are somewhat lost in the mysteries of time. Old English, of course, already had the plural pronoun hīe, so why borrow?

Well, while we are still not sure exactly how this borrowing took place, Old English and Old Norse were in close contact for centuries in the area of densest viking settlement (the Danelaw), so forms like these were likely borrowed between the two languages to make communication easier. It might also be that the Old English plural pronoun had grown too similar to the singular pronouns (m.), hit (n.) and hēo (f.) in pronunciation that it started to become an issue. Both of these explanations are possible.

What we do know though: English borrowed a lot from Old Norse, probably more than most native-English speakers realize. As a matter of fact, some of the most common words in English are Norse in origin (for example, egg; knife; skirt; eye; sister, and so on). The nordic languages (except for Icelandic) are making up for it though and borrows extensively from English today (in Sweden, we even have commercials at bus stops using English terminology). So don’t feel bad about it, English, buuut…

Tune in next week when we’ll keep going at it with the English pronoun they – is it always a plural pronoun?

Can’t wait? Check out the etymology of they, them and their in the meantime! 

See you next week!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Minute


Today is Tuesday! Again! Gosh, where does the time go?! Speaking of, in today’s Fun Etymology Tuesday, we’ll continue to look a bit closer at time – particularly, we’ll trace the time measurement ‘minute’ throughout.. well, time.

So, ‘minute’ means the sixtieth part of an hour and it came to English from Old French ‘minut’ or directly from Latin ‘minuta’, meaning minute or short note, during the late 14th century. The Medieval Latin form, in turn, comes from Latin minuta, an inflected version of minutus, meaning little or small, which hails from the PIE root *mei-, meaning small.

Oh, if you remember last week, we had the secunda pars minuta? Well, the minute is the minuta prima, meaning ‘first small part’, a term first used by a mathematician to describe one-sixtieth of a circle.

What’s interesting to note among these time measurement is the close similarity in many PIE-languages: minute (English), minut (Swedish), minuut (Dutch), minute (French), minuto (Italian), minat (Hindi), minút (Frisian)… you get the drift?

Next week, though, we’ll introduce you to yet another concept of time, one which is significantly different in some of the Germanic languages.. Tune in then and listen (read) to the tale of the hour (or should we say ‘timme’ or ‘Stunde’?)!

See you next week!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – Second

We’re sneaking this in at the last second, but it’s Tuesday—time for Fun Etymology!

Speaking of, for our second etymology of the year, our word is: ‘second.’

You can play second fiddle, be someone’s second in a duel, or second the motion. All these connotations stem from the sequential idea that the second is the one after the first. Our modern meaning tightly marries ‘second’ to the number 2, but the Latin root ‘secundus’ more broadly means “following, next in time or order”, itself coming from PIE *sekw-, “to follow”.

So why do we say there are 60 seconds in a minute? We borrowed this meaning from Old French ‘seconde’, which comes from Medieval Latin ‘secunda’, a shortened version of ‘secunda pars minuta’ meaning roughly “second diminished part”. (‘Secunda’ here is, of course, just a form of ‘secundus’.) Here’s the logic: the first time you divide an hour by sixty, you get minutes (the ‘prime minute’, the first little part). The second time you divide an hour by sixty, you get seconds (the second little part).

Can you believe this is our second Fun Etymology of 2019? Can you believe this is our second year at the HLC?! Those diminutive parts of an hour sure fly by, don’t they?

Dr. Samuel Johnson – Patron Saint of January, 2019

Followers, friends!

It’s the first weekend of a new month! You know what that means: a new Patron Saint! Let us introduce you Dr. Samuel Johnson!

You probably know him from the “what-did-I-just-read-meme”, which is actually not all that far off from Dr. Johnson’s actual profession as a (among other things) literary critic, and one of the most famous ones at that!

Dr. Johnson was born in Lichfield, Staffordshire, on the 18th of September 1709. He attended Pembroke College, Oxford, for about a year until he had to drop out as his family could no longer afford the fees of attending the prestigious school. Dr. Johnson worked as a teacher for a while and then moved to London (supposedly reaching London by walking, which is roughly a two-day trip). In London, Dr. Johnson supported himself by writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine and wrote a number of poems and tales that are still hailed today as innovative and moving.

Now, you might know Dr. Johnson (aside from the meme) as the author of A dictionary of the English language, a massive work that took Dr. Johnson 8 years to complete (though, in all fairness, it took 40 French scholars 40 years to finish theirs, so Dr. Johnson work was fast (!)). The work, while neither the first of its kind or unique, became hugely popular and was the most commonly used and imitated dictionary until the completion of the Oxford English Dictionary was completed in 1928. Dr. Johnson’s work was, of course, extremely impressive and there is no doubt that it was made at a perfect time in history: many had expressed a dissatisfaction over the dictionaries available and that almost certainly is a part of the dictionary’s popularity.

Following the completion of his dictionary, Dr. Johnson, who was eventually given an honorary doctorate by both Trinity College and Oxford, continued to write quite a LOT, primarily articles in magazines and prefaces to other authors’ works, but also an annotated edition of William Shakespeare’s plays; an apologue about happiness called The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia; and a popular travel narrative called A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland; and a work called Lives of the Most Eminent English Poets, which includes short biographies and critical appraisals of 52 poets (primarily from the 18th century).

Though the dictionary may be the crown jewel of Dr. Johnson’s long career, his marvellous contribution to the linguistic and literary fields, as well as his continued influence today, some 235 years after his passing, earns him the place as the HLC’s very first Patron Saint of 2019!

Ye Olde Poste of Ye New Year

Welcome one and all to the Historical Linguist Channel – 2019 edition!

This is our very first post of the year! Isn’t that wonderful – a new year of language fun!

Today, we’ll be visiting merry old England and “ye olde” – specifically, we’ll be looking at one little word there: “ye”.

You’ve probably seen it around, right? On pubs, restaurants, mills… The list can go on. But what if we told you, that this “ye” is based on a centuries-old confusion of two letters?

It’s true! The “ye” of “ye olde”, used to suggest a ‘merry, old time, showed up during the late 18th century and  hails from a scribal abbreviation used during Middle English and early Modern English.

However, let us be clear: the scribal abbreviation was not (as far as we know) pronounced “ye”. In fact, it was actually pronounced as…

“the”! Not as much fun as you expected? And now, you’re probably sitting there, wondering how the h*ck that happened, right? Well, during Middle English, and for a little while during early Modern English, English had a letter called thorn. Thorn was originally a rune, pronounced as either a voiceless or voiced dental fricative, that is [θ] or [ð]. Today, you find these sounds in words like “thing” (British English [θɪŋ]) and “the” (British English [ðə]). In writing, though, it looked like this: þ.

Now, for a rather long period of time, in cursive writing, it was common for scribes to write  “the” by using thorn with an <e> placed above it, like this:

Okay, so you know that this is actually a thorn with an <e> above it, so you know that this is a “the”. But see the very thin line at the top of the thorn below the <e>? This line is not always visible in the manuscripts: perhaps it was sometimes not written or perhaps time has taken it from us. Point is: occasionally, it may be exceedingly difficult to determine whether a letter is a thorn or a y. And someone kinda messed up and said that this, this little abbreviation, is spelled “ye” in modern English, and the mistake stuck!

So do like the HLC and smile a bit the next time you pass a “ye olde pub”, knowing that they have decided to print a huge spelling mistake on their wall.

Enjoy the knowledge and welcome back to the HLC!

Fun Etymology Tuesday – -teen

Ladies and gents!

Welcome to 2019 and the very first Fun Etymology of the year!

Speaking of the new year, this year is the last -teen-year of the century (nineTEEN, that is)! In honour of that, today’s word is more of a word-forming element: you guessed it, it’s -teen!

This word-forming element marks cardinal numbers from 13 to 19 and means “ten more than”, so “ten more than 9” = 19.
It comes to us from Anglian Old English -tēne, West Saxon -tiene, which developed from an inflected form of Proto-Germanic *tehun, meaning “ten”. The Proto-Germanic word comes from Proto-Indo-European *déḱm̥t. In this element, we can see a real sound change happening: the English element -teen is cognate with Italian -dici, from Latin -decim. Notice that the PIE word which they come from starts with a <d> and so does the derived word in Latin and Italian? But in English, it starts with a <t>! Isn’t that just a beautiful example of Grimm’s Law?

Welcome to the year two thousand and nineteen, friends, and to another year of language fun!