On the antiquity of "they/them/their" as common gender

Rudolph C Troike rtroike at U.ARIZONA.EDU
Sun May 20 04:38:05 UTC 2001

Years ago, when I was studying Old Norse with the great scholar Lee
M. Hollander at the University of Texas, I read or was told that in Old
Norse, a pronominal reference to a group of males was masculine in gender,
and to a group of females was feminine, but a neuter pronoun was used for
a mixed group. Following the already-cited fact that modern second person
singular "you" was originally plural (as shown in the plural verb
agreement with "are"), we have a perfect (and, be it noted, also
sociolinguistically-motivated) historical model for the use of "they/them/
their/" as a gender-neutral singular pronominal reference. And, if you
remember your history of English, "they/them/their" comes from Old Norse/
        It has always amused me that we hang on so tenaciously to the
archaic masc/fem/neut distinction in singular pronouns (not distinguished
in most other languages), yet are oblivious to the fact that we ignore it
completely in the plural. Those who object to erasing the distinction in
the singular should start a campaign to distinguish the genders in the
plural for consistency, a la Old Norse.


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