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October 24, 2017 AT 5:30 pm

Writing Hacks: A Deep History of the Singular They

Language is a technology. It’s a particularly strange one that’s made of squiggles and sounds and maps of meaning, but like any other technology, it’s hackable. So’s writing.

They is no longer just the word people use when “they”  need to corral a generality with a generality. They now has the ability to grant space for new expressions of gender identity. That makes it a central area of conflict among the trans community, conservative social forces, and word purists uncomfortable with the singular non-gendered “they.”

From Tedium’s excellent article:

For some word purists, the singular they is the linguistic equivalent of an ingrown hair, but for others, the solutions for getting around the problem are way messier.

For centuries, the singular they was not only accepted by the public but by some of our most famous authors—Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare, just to name three.

But around the late 18th and early 19th century, something happened: Critics of the specific usage appeared. The reason for this critical reassessment came about partly out of prescriptive vibes around the English language at the time. Long story short: We wanted English to be more like Latin, and that meant rethinking the use of plural nouns in singular contexts.

In 1975, researcher Ann Bodine broke this down in a landmark paper, Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar: Singular ‘They,’ Sex-Indefinite ‘He,’ and ‘He or She’. The text, republished in the 1999 book The Feminist Critique of Language, notes that the influence of Latin grammar played an important role in the increase of rules around modern grammar—and specifically gave the world the “generic he,” a term that followed Latin form but didn’t mesh with modern concerns about gender equality. She added that the then-recent attempts to ditch the generic he were really attempts to roll back a controversial change.

“Intentionally or not, the movement against sex-indefinite ‘he’ is actually a counter-reaction to an attempt by prescriptive grammarians to alter the language,” she wrote.

And many of those grammarians who tried to remedy the problem caused by this attempt to make English more like Latin have been tried to patch things up. For hundreds of years, English-speakers have tried to invent words that fill the English language’s most unsightly gap. Nearly all of them have failed.

University of Illinois professor Dennis Baron, a longtime supporter of the singular they, has long maintained a list of gender-neutral pronouns that people have attempted to add to the English language, the most recent example from 2015, but most of the interesting ones from the 19th century. Terms like “thon,” “e,” and “um” were among the most prominent attempts to improve the language. Additionally, Baron notes, people complaining about the common use of the singular they were fairly common during the 19th century.

Read the full article

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