Etymology: "They" Re Michael Newman

carljweber carljweber at MSN.COM
Tue Jan 15 03:12:00 UTC 2002

Etymology: "They" Re Michael Newman

Carl Jeffrey Weber

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

 "Gender" does mean 'kind.'    It's generally not a good idea to replace
terms that have been around for a long time and are standard.  This has
nothing to do with anatomy and physiology.

I know. That's why I used the example "kind". "Genre" does mean "kind" too.
"Gender" has too many associations with other "gen-" words -- "gen-" coming
into English in ten-or-so different basic senses of the root . When "gender"
was adopted for grammatic use, it meant "genre", i.e., "kind" -- if memory

Maybe I have missed something, but most scholars have claimed that the -o in
heo was pronounced. There are numerous spellings and forms that show
conclusively that the word must have been he-o at one time.

There are a profusion of feminine "he" and "hi" in the 15th century. This
has been
often overlooked. When Roman orthography was put to the task of representing
the English
language, the final letter of "heo" is presumed to have been pronounced and
written down. This second syllable is also seen in other Germanic languages
sharing the same
morphology in the pronouns as the feminine/plural. But in English, after
1200, it seems to be a
shakier picture as the pronouns in "h-" and those in "th-" suffle out.

Things changed. I don't believe I've come across any
scholarship that says "heo" was not basically a spelling form by the 15th
century. I have many examples from the manuscripts of Piers Plowman showing
feminine "heo". I have, as I said, looked at every form in the OED. In the
Piers manuscripts, in addition to the "heo" form, there are many instances
of feminine "he" and "hi" right up to the historical edge of printing. "He"
and "hi" as
feminine pronouns were in much wider use until a much later time than
standard histories seemed to tell.  The OED set the tone for this when it
said "heo" was beginning to sound like "he" in 1200.  This is the whole
theory behind the Alysoun Poem (c1200). The boy calls the girl "he", and
now, we just can't have that, can we. That's the orthodox position of the
"need" for "she".

Else how would we get 'sho'? The question of 'dialect' is really irrelevant
for Old English--everything was 'dialect'.  Only with the rise of London as
the power center of England do we come across what was to become the
standard.  I think you need to be more specific with the term 'dialect.'

I couldn't be sure. I try to be consistent and always mean "written dialect"
as demonstrated in a particular text. "Written dialect" is useful for me as
basically naming the consistency of forms in a particular representation.
I'm interested in the developing standard, also in the dead ends. The OED
says the forms of masc <he> and fem <heo, hio, etc.) were merging. What else
could this mean than what Pyles/Algeo suggest: "The feminine pronoun had a
variety of nominative forms, one of them [had become] identical with the
corresponding masculine form [and all-genders plural] -- certainly a
well-nigh intolerable state of affairs, forcing" the lover to say "he".

It would be interesting to see the scholarship that maintains that
generalized "heo" forms in the 15th century have the "-o" pronounced. I
concluded, once, now it turns out, perhaps incorrectly, that the "-o" of
"heo" had gone the way of the last letter in "blonde". I have alsways got
the impression from scholarship that the feminine h-stem pronouns dropped
out early. This seems not to be the case at all, as demonstrated in the
manuscripts of the A-Version of Piers. My observation on Piers is that the
h-stem feminine had great currency right up to the time of printing. Perhaps
this [hi] is the best candidate for the sought after "epicene".

Is the "-o" pronounced, or is it an orthographic marker like the "-e" in
"blonde".  English had a great resurgence in the later 1300s, when English,
after centuries as a second language, had once more become official. Poets
of the court gave up early the h-stem feminine, and since even earlier, the
h-plural had not been used  -- in courtly company, that is. Chaucer's
pronouns were not the pronouns of the folk. Those in the seventeen
manuscripts provide a more random inventory. The h-stem plural lost favor to
the th- plural because the former could no longer show number in the
preterit plural. That was very early. Next was the adoption of "she", which
seems to have been the status and prestige form, based on the very French
assumption that "he' and "she" should be distinct words. It was perhaps at
the insistence of the ladies of the court.

Printing enforced the already widespread "she". "They" was very much
historically in place already in the written dialects at the time printing
began. However, the greatest shift wrought by printing was the enforcement
of "them" and "their" over their h-stem counterparts. In merely a generation
or two, the tremendous written presence of the h-stems for "them" and
"their" is apparently booted out of the official language, but they may be
hiding in the colloquial as in "give it to 'em" in the singular and plural,
and "give it to 'er" in the singular and non-plural.

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