Etymology: "They" Re Michael Newman

carljweber carljweber at MSN.COM
Mon Jan 14 21:17:53 UTC 2002

Etymology: "They" Re Michael Newman

Carl Jeffrey Weber

Michael Newman said

> 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.

It's the problem of the "gen-" morpheme. I use "genre" instead of gender,
the root but moving it away from anatomy and physiology in the direction of

>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.

English, in its west-Germanic development, gave English three genre (of
Genre is marked in the pronouns. In pre 15th century English, in the
cases, the  feminine singular was linked morphologically with the all
genders plural.
These are the feminine/plural h-stems --  /heo/ and /hi/, etc. --. The
"-o"in heo is orthographic
only, and no one has proposed that it was pronounced except in dialect.

The evolution of  th- plural forms was with finality sealed and enforced on
the language
by our first printer (with consent of the King), William Caxton. The
paradigm shuffle was
taking place nearly three centuries before Caxton. Prior to the paradigm
blends of the
h-forms with the th- forms, the all-genders plural shared the same
morphology as the
singular feminine in the non-oblique cases (her , they/ them)  > (she/her,

In the 15th century this changed because the h-stems were not marked for
sufficiently to serve the demands of unambiguous plurality.

The Old English dative ( in "-m" ) became in the 15th century the new
"object" in the
singular and plural, him/them. singular object-pronouns shared by
and all-genders object. The feminine/plural pronoun, of the non-oblique
cases,  because
it was not marked for number, disappeared -- or perhaps went into hiding.

On the non-distaff side, the masculine singular is morphologically related
to the
neuter obliques ("not one or the other"). Says the OED, the dative
singular/plural "ousted"
(an interesting technical term to describe it)  the accusative. (The ousting
didn't take with
emphatic "hit".) The loss of the accusative entailed loss of those forms for
(1.) the
singular masculine, feminine, but not the neuter, and (2)   the all genders

This shuffle resulted from the deprivation in the verb-proper of the
possibility of a preterit
plural marker. A new synthesis was required, and the morphologies of the
h-stems and
the th-forms seemed to have merged to show unambiguous number in past tense

MN says English has no "genre" (my word) of nouns:

"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 it individuation, genericness, humanity (in the case of
 animals and babies)

(Note: "child" in English carries neuter morphology. CJW)

I said:
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, forms shared with the
neuter singular.
In such instance the (apparent) masculine singular carried also the
of "neither one or the other" -- as in "somebody lost his [i.e., "neither"
of the other
two noun genre] book". "His" can't be interpreted as a strictly masculine

The feminine/plural and the masc/neut singular were inherited
by English from the wider language family.

MN said:
> I don't think so for the reasons above. Nice theory though.

Perhaps it isn't, but the theory might offer a working grammatic
framework for studying historical English during the paradigm shift.
And the whys and whens.

Because modern English developed from historical English, noun genre is --
perhaps not
unreasonably -- still carried in the language. In this particular, carried
as markedness in
the pronouns, parallel to the preterit plural having found a home eight
hundred years
ago in the "were" auxiliary, when markedness in the verb-proper went into
hiding there.

Carl Jeffrey Weber

Ontology Recapitulates Philology

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