Etymology: "They" revised continued

Michael Newman mnewman at QC.EDU
Mon Jan 14 00:55:54 UTC 2002

>Etymology: "They" revised continued
>Carl Jeffrey Weber
>Michael Newman said:
>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.
>I think:
>Very nicely put. I'm surprised, almost chagrined, that you interpret what I
>said this way, Michael. I'm not talking about "everybody.their" and
>artifacts of theoretical ideas. And I'm not talking about distortions of the
>paradigm. I'm talking about the paradigm shift and reorganization itself!!

Obviously, that's what happened in the middle ages to the extent that
the th forms replaced the West Germanic ones. However, beyond that
there is no sharp paradigm shift because there is flexibility in the
semantics. There is and never has been a strict semantically singular
= formally singular correspondence.

>And, in introspect, I don't believe that I've been overly caught up in
>anything (maybe a bit) -- but merely appropriately caught up in (1) the
>plausible explanation that the "th-" nominative plural developed to fill the
>need in the preterit for an unambiguous plural when the preterit plural
>disappeared and (2) a suggestion of a NATIVE source of "they" as a duplet
>with "the" of the OE singular instrumental demonstrative -- a suggestion
>which might explain the singular morphology of "they".
>Michael Newman said:
>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.
>I think:
>It would be nice to see one or two of your favorite examples, Michael.
Larry supplied some fine ones. I have them in my diss (published as
Epicene Pronouns, in Garland 1997) and an article in Studies in
Language in 1998, but I haven't thought about it in a while and can't
remember them off hand. I'm away from home now.

>"hot" parts of the pronouns in question are the "-ey", the "-m", and the
>  "-r". Case seems to be more significant than number when there is no
>ambiguity for number involved. I think I'm trying to make different points
>than you are commenting on. I'm trying to understand the historical paradigm
>shift itself. I can show example after example, in Late Middle English, of
>the spelling "he" being used for a female referent; similarly, I can show
>"he" used for today's "they" - in which cases, both are the feminine/plural.
>The late survival of the feminine/plural has escaped modern scholarship to a
>large extent. In the year of Chaucer's birth, 1340, in the Ayenbite of Inwit
>(Morris 1866) we find "[hi] wes a uayr wifman" (She was a fair woman). As I'
>ve written, what swept all this away was Caxton's standardization of the
>pronouns of the King's English - that it might be more uniformly understood
>in its written representation throughout the realm.
>A very good argument can be made that there WAS a generic pronoun. It seems
>absurd -- but the so-called generic pronoun, not only was real, but seems to
>have developed, in its singular morphology, from the feminine(/plural) -
>notwithstanding that these historical developments seem to have been veiled
>to modern perception.
First, I'd say "generic" isn't a great term because it has a specific
semantic meaning for type-class, something which gets involved in the
issue. I called it 'epicene' which has also brought complaints
because it refers to dual gender in Greek. Still, that's less
confusing since there is no gender at all in English, only sex
reference.  That's an issue that's important. If there is no gender
then there can be no epicene gender. Epicene is not a formal category
in English. One of the points in my diss was that the search for an
epicene pronoun made no sense because there was no such category
natural to the language. He refers to a specific (or individuated)
male human being, she to an individuated female female, it to a
nonhuman, and they to generics and plurals, but as prototypes not
categorically. Anything that doesn't fit into the prototype,
including not just epicenes, but animals, collectives, and
collections are characterized by variation, not the use of a single
pronoun. The variation is not a mystery or problem so much as a tool
that speakers use to indicate qualities that they impute to the
referent, be it individuation, genericness, humanity (in the case of
animals and babies), plurality and singularity in the case of
collections and collectives. In this way, English pronouns are not
equivalent to, say, Spanish el or ella, for example, which do exhibit
categorical qualities. But Spanish has gender. English does not.

>Michael Newman Said:
>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.
>I think:
>(We have to agree whether we are talking about contemporary English, Middle
>English, of both  -- let's talk about it all.) Chaucer's written dialect can
>'t be discounted, but as the status/prestige dialect, it was only one very
>very small part of Late Middle English, albeit of grand celebrity to modern
>eyes. Chaucer cannot be considered to represent the generalized English of
>the time. In addition, if Caxton, a century after Chaucer, is to be
>believed, the upper classes in England held in contempt those of lower
>station and the way they spoke the language. Also, the problem of "they" has
>different historical implications than those of "them" and "their" - as I've
>indicated before. I would like to see some of your examples to see if we are
>considering same page phenomena.
>The very common enigmas of English - the generic "he" and the singular
>  "they" are aspects of the same thing -- the development of the OE
>feminine/plural. Another side to this, that I haven't said anything about,
>is the affinity of forms of the masculine singular and the neuter singular -
>in which instance the (apparent) masculine singular carried also the
>morphology of "neither one or the other" -- as in "somebody lost his book".
>"His" can't be interpreted as a strictly masculine genitive. (The
>feminine/plural and the masc/neut singular were inherited by English from
>the wider language family).

I don't think so for the reasons above. Nice theory though.
Michael Newman
Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics
Dept. of Linguistics and Communication Disorders
Queens College/CUNY
Flushing, NY 11367

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