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?

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!

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!

EnglishIcelandicDanishNorwegianSwedish
theyþeir/þá/þær/þaudedede
themþeimdemdemdem
their(s)þeirraderesderesderas

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!

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!