History of pronoun gender with attention to singular they.
Hey there. I’m going to make a useful and informative post of sorts for once. It’s about pronouns. Since my field is English and particularly Old English literature, I have a good deal of insight into the history of the pronoun situation of the English language. And it’s a pretty neat history, which I’m going to walk us through, and we’ll see what nifty things we can learn about English pronouns and gender neutrality.
So pronouns. They’re fun and hip and way more interesting than nouns in English because they retain the most of our old inflectional system. While nouns in English no longer change to indicate their role in a sentence, except to indicate possession through the genitive case, pronouns are a bag of fun - they change forms in pretty nifty ways. We’ll be sticking to the third person personal pronouns, however, because they have what we’re interested in - gender.
Nota bene here - I’m editing in here a guide to the cases that will be named often during this essay, so everyone has a basic sense of what’s going on. I wasn’t expecting this to hit the main page, so I thank you for your patience. This will be the quick and dirty version and not complete - I’ll do more complete write-ups in the future, but these are the basic primary uses of these cases in English.
(All examples are in the order of 1st person singular, second person singular, third person masculine, third person feminine, third person neuter, first person plural, second person plural, third person plural):
Nominative - subject words. The one doing the action. I, you, he, she, it, we, you, they are all nominatives. In Old English the nominatives were ic, þu, he, heo, hit, we, ge, hie.
Accusative - object words. The most common use is that these are what a verb confers action to - in the sentence I hit the ball, ball would be accusative.
Me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them are all accusatives. In Old English the accusatives wereme, þe, hine, hie, hit, us, eow, hie. There were also mec and þec, which were used in poetry.
Genitive - possessive. This is the case for possession - I hit his ball, Jon’s feet smell, the girl’s dress was pretty, their game was fun - the his, Jon’s, girl’s, and their are all genitive.
My, your, his, her, its, our, your, their are all genitives. In Old English the genitives weremin, þin, his, hire, his, ure, eower, hira.
Dative - this is where most everything else in Old English wound up. Things you did tasks with were dative, as well as times like to or from whom the object of a verb is given. If ball is the object of the verb an accusative, I hit the ball to Jenny makes Jenny dative. I took the ball from Timmy also makes Timmy dative. There are other uses, but they’re less common.
In modern English the datives are the same as the accusative: me, you, him, her, it, us, you, them. In Old English the datives were me, þe, him, hire, him, us, eow, him.
Now back to our original post.
In Modern English we have these third person pronouns, which can be broken into four categories - masculine, feminine, neuter, and plural. Essentially, and it’s always been this way in English, plural functions as a special gender in pronouns with its own verb conjugation to boot. It’s really quite neat that way, and that’s why I look at English as having not three, but four genders. For reference, here they are:
Everything seems pretty clear-cut with these. None of them particularly overlap, and broadly we have different forms for all cases. Neuter singular uses the same for subject and object, while feminine singular does the same with object and possessive, but on the whole everything is fairly separate. This has the potential to make it seem that English has strict delineation between genders built into the language, but we do have four genders and the history shows us that things once overlapped a lot more than they do now.
Before we start tracking backwards through the history of the language, it’s worth commenting briefly on the gender-neutral pronoun debate as it exists. The way English works now, the neuter singular is not a viable option for a gender neutral pronoun for people - its connotations rest entirely with the non-human, so to use the neuter is a dehumanizing prospect, even if technically correct from a strict grammatical point of view.
Using either of the masculine or feminine alone invites trouble. Though gender-neutral he has been considered traditionally correct, dating to Anne Fisher’s 1745 A New Grammar, it really is not a viable option. She detested the use of a plural as a singular, but she also detested attempts to force English to be like Latin. Thus, she chose he to serve as her neutral pronoun, becoming the first grammarian to suggest such a thing.
Without resorting to the somewhat cumbersome s/he, she or he, he/she, (s)he options, creating new pronouns like xir and hie (which you’ll find out is a native English gender neutral plural), or using it, the best option within the language is our fourth gender - the plural. It’s always already been gender neutral, it’s used to refer to people, and it has a longer history of being used to refer to singular antecedents as a neuter pronoun than he has. It’s my preferred gender-neutral pronoun of choice for all of these reasons, though I would not be opposed to the rise of hie again.
But let us move back a little, to Middle English. The bottom part of this chart is where we’re interested.
There’s a lot more overlap here. This is what our pronouns looked like from around 1154-1485. Spelling was not fixed, hence the huge variance and endless number of forms. Of note before we get too deep into this is the fact that the accusative and dative cases, which in modern English have collapsed fully into the object case, weren’t fully merged yet. The process was definitely underway - in the masculine the merging was complete, but the other three genders were more of a free for all. Dative him in the neuter was on its way out in favor of (h)it. The feminine was a mass of optional spellings, but accusative her would eventually win. In the plural the accusative þem wound up winning, becoming modern them and displacing the earlier form hem (originally in Old English the dative him), the dative þam, and other competitors.
Pertaining to our interests, there is a lot more overlap happening here. Throughout Middle English the masculine and neuter shared a common genitive case, and the outgoing dative neuter was identical to the masculine object him. The feminine paradigm was doing all kinds of realignment within itself but remaining largely the same and making clear progress toward its modern forms. The plural was doing much the same, though the genitive strongly resembled some of the feminine accusative/dative forms. When we get to the Old English pronouns this alignment between masculine/neuter and feminine/plural should become a bit clearer.
It was during this time that grammatical gender in English began to break down fully. Modern English does not use grammatical gender - we only have gender in pronouns and a few adjectives/nouns that we have imported from French or Latin, for example: alumnus/alumna/alumni/alumnae or blond/blonde. This movement away from grammatical gender in favor of natural gender in language was probably what dealt the death blow to him as a dative neuter and his/hys as neuter genitives. The late 16th century saw the first written instances of its, creating a genitive in line with the basic form paradigm of the gender.
Distinguishing more clearly between pronouns of different genders was necessary with the erasure of gendered noun endings, as now his/hys could be difficult for an increasingly literate population to distinguish the possessor. I looked to him and þer was Ion, stonden on the hill, hys beutie was plane to seen, for instance might be ambiguous as to what the speaker looked to (John or the hill) and what’s beauty was plain to see (John’s or the hill’s). Earlier in the period there was less literacy, but there were also more helpful clues in the language to tell us whether something was masculine or neuter. With the standardization of the as an article regardless of gender and other markers of gender disappearing, it became harder to distinguish when a pronoun was neuter rather than masculine, and so we started chucking the masculine forms within the neuter aside - removing dative him and creating a new genitive from scratch.
And we got on well with singular they in everyday use - John of Hildesheim is our first reliably attested use of it in 1400*, and it’s never been out of use since. Some grammarians, like Anne Fisher, saw singular/plural as a strict dichotomy, probably not being aware of the vestigial dual which existed in Old English. Others, seeking to mold English to follow Latin grammar (Latin was, for a time, considered the only language with true grammar) seized on Latin rules and the rules of Latin-based languages to declare he able to function both as masculine and neuter.
*A brief note before we time travel again - writing always tends to fossilize older forms than the current usage. That John of Hildesheim, writing in the mid-late 14th century used singular they indicates that it was probably quite common usage by his time. This example comes from his Three Kings of Cologne, a translation of the Historia Trium Regnum:
“Noman* was hardy in all þat countrey to sette aȝens hem, for drede þat þey hadde of hem.
No one was hardy in all that country to set against him, for they had fear of him.
* man was, in Old English usage, a word that did not indicate a particular natural gender and was used as a generic stand-in where human would be appropriate, and in Old English also was a hint that passive voice was being used. Its sense in Middle English was similar, only becoming masculinized in reference to people after the decline of the words were and wight. In the future I’ll do a post on the history of the word man.
Let’s time travel back in time some more, though, to look at Old English. Up until about 1154, when English had taken on so many Norman French influences that it no longer resembled its usage prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066, what we call Old English was English, and if you encounter it you may not recognize it. There were various dialects, but we’ll take the West Saxon dialect, which was dominant toward the end of the Old English period as our example here.
English as this time was a language with a full gender system like German. Thus, we had nouns that while grammatically masculine or feminine we referred to with gendered pronouns. By the way, referring to ships with feminine pronouns does not date to Old English - OE scip was a neuter noun.
What is clear with Old English pronouns, however, was that there was a collapse occurring. The masculine and neuter shared genitive and dative forms, and the plural dative was also the same. Similarly, the feminine accusative was identical to the plural nominative and accusative, and feminine genitive and dative had collapsed and closely resembled plural genitive.
Generally when a language begins to see this degree of collapse, we can expect the neuter to be squeezed out of existence except for in vestigial forms. In Spanish, for instance, lo is the neuter article and mainly goes with adjectives in their masculine forms and expresses conceptual things. Lo mejor - the best, lo problematico que - how problematic, lo moderno - that which is modern. That’s how vestigial the neuter gender in Spanish is. Without the Norman Conquest, English may have continued along similar lines, becoming a trinary-gendered language with masculine singular, feminine singular, and plural forms with a vestigial neuter hanging on at the fringes.
Now those Old English plurals don’t look much like modern they, and that’s because they’re unrelated to the modern word. We actually wound up taking they and its forms from Old Norse þeir, the masculine plural in that language (Old Norse did distinguish gender in the plural). Of course, as we know from other borrowings, gender is a trait of words that is not always carried over. For every blond(e) there’s a Schadenfreude - and can you tell what gender Schadenfreude is? Well in English it’s neuter because it isn’t a person or familiar animal and so we can’t just ask (if a person) or look at its genitals (if animal) to determine what to say. However in German, she’s feminine and she’d prefer if you leave her alone, okay? (But you won’t, and so you’ll derive Schadenfreude from your treatment of Schadenfreude - holy metalanguage, Batman!)
Of course, with all the changes happening as a result of the Norman Conquest, the complete collapse of masculine and neuter did not happen. Neuter instead began to differentiate itself as our case system simplified. The collapse of the dative and accusative led to the traditional neuter situation of nominative and accusative being the same winning out, eliminating him as a neuter pronoun. The language followed up with the removal of all masculine pronoun forms from the neuter with the invention of it’s, following the rule for nouns that the genitive should be marked with an apostrophe to mark the e/y that was now missing (our nouns wound up following the masculine paradigm en masse in this case) - example: Goddes bones became God’s bones, and waspys nest became wasp’s nest. It’s eventually lost the apostrophe to avoid confusion with the contraction we use today.
Pronouns are often some of the words most resistant to change in language, which means that the degree of change that our pronouns have undergone is striking. Rather than the complete collapse of the masculine and neuter and partial collapse of the feminine and plural that appeared to be coming, English instead wound up adapting, strengthening the difference between its pronouns until there was no more overlap between the four pronoun genders, and minimal overlap within any individual gender. This is rather amazing, especially compared to other European languages.
In Spanish we have él and ella (and vestigial lo) in the singular, and ellos and ellas in the plural. Case has been eliminated almost entirely, with neuter le(s) for indirect objects of all genders (becoming se when appearing before a direct object pronoun), and lo(s)/la(s) as the masculine and feminine direct objects.
In German we find a complex case system and some degree of collapse, now holding steady. The masculine and neuter share some commonalities; while they do not share nominative and accusative forms, the dative ihm and genitive seiner are shared (and masculine accusative ihn could eventually be rolled into this if German undergoes any major sound changes). The feminine and plural have undergone more thorough collaspe in German - nominative and accusative for both genders is sie, and the genitive ihrer functions for both. In the personal pronouns, they only differ in the dative, with feminine ihr and plural ihren.
West Frisian, the language most closely related to English, maintains separation between masculine and neuter pronouns, but the feminine and plural have undergone complete collapse.
French has a vestigial neuter in the singular, on, but is otherwise completely binary in the nominative. The dative has collapsed to where you cannot tell the gender of a French indirect object pronoun from its morphology. The same has happened in the accusative plural, leaving only the singular masculine and feminine to different forms: le and la respectively as direct object pronouns. There is no neuter dative or accusative.
The closest situation to what English has exists in Danish and Swedish, though I don’t understand the dynamics of those languages enough to comment extensively. Swedes are pushing to introduce a singular neuter pronoun and an existing personal pronoun system of similar complexity to English. Meanwhile, Danish has a fuller gender system in pronouns (masculine, feminine, common, neuter, plural) than it does for nouns (common, neuter, plural forms for each), giving it the option of gender neutrality at one’s pleasure should they choose to use the common den (normally not applied to people) rather than the masculine han or feminine hun (If we have any Danes here and this is not something people do with the common pronoun, please let me know and I can remove this. I’m taking a guess).
English is, to my knowledge, unique in using its plural gender to achieve gender neutrality for singular purposes. And that’s pretty neat. Over the years rather than a narrowing of the pronouns, English has done what only a few other of its related languages have done - it’s expanded its pronouns, reversing the collapse toward a strict binary like in French and Spanish and remaining quaternary. In doing so, English has preserved options and has the luxury to find gender neutral pronouns acceptable to all, whether by using our existing plural gender or by creating new pronouns (as the Swedes and some of our genderqueer friends have been doing). And that, I think is a good thing. And it’s something that an appreciation of the history of English pronouns can help us understand.