Etymology: "They" (long)

Michael Newman mnewman at QC.EDU
Thu Jan 10 16:03:02 UTC 2002

I have little knowledge of the historical background, but a lot on
singular they (my diss), which has led me to bump into some
historical issues.  So, let me say a couple of things on Carl's

1) It's possible to get too caught up with the apparent novelty of
the use of 3pp pronouns with 3ps antecedents, as some kind of
distortion in the paradigm, but that is an artifact of a theoretical
idea that pronouns match antecedents in number and gender. In fact,
cross linguistically the agreement rules between pronouns and
antecedents are loose and often obey semantic/pragmatic principles as
much as mere feature matching.

2) In contemporary English, one of a number of principles governing
pronoun agreement is that use of the they, them, etc. tend to signal
generic (i.e., general, abstract, nonspecific) referents. Use of the
singular forms signal individuated ones. This is why it is possible
to find singular they with sex-definite referents, as indeed I have
from a variety of places when that referent is clearly generic. It is
also difficult to get sex-indefinite ones with specific referents
whose sex happens to be unknown.

3) When I looked at different ms.s of Chaucer's Prologue to the
Pardoner's Tale, which contains a good number of generic referents, I
found tremendous variation between tendencies to use He, him, etc.
and They, hem, etc.  I presented this once at a conference, and
someone who works on Old English said that she found equivalent
examples in OE. She was supposed to send me the citations, and never
did, and I never followed up.

Michael Newman
Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
Dept. of Linguistics and Communication Disorders
Queens College/CUNY
Flushing, NY 11367

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