Current changes in the pronominal system of English: Singular they

Sol Tovar
4 min readApr 4, 2019

The use of "they" as an epicene 3rd person singular pronoun has been on the rise for a long time in history. However, it has received more attention in the past years. Even though the use of they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun can be traced back to the fourteenth century (the Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation for a gender-neutral, indefinite they is from about 1375 from the romance of William of Palerne), it has not been until recently that the Chicago Manual Style and the Associated Press stylebook "have both announced that they will be accepting they/them/their as an example of a singular and/or gender-neutral pronoun" (Berry et al, 2017).

This case of morphological restructuring shares some similarities with the incorporation of "you" as a 2nd person singular pronoun (replacing "thou") in Present-Day English (PDE). We see a movement or shift in the pronominal paradigm, in which a pronoun that refers to the plural is adopted to refer to the singular. If we revisit history, we can trace back the origin of the use of plural pronouns to refer to singular entities. In medieval times, members of a higher rank were addressed as "you", while members of a lower rank were addressed as "thou" (Lutz, 1998). We can still see this in ecclesiastical English, in the "10 Commandments". Another case in which a plural pronoun was used with singular reference is the "royal we" or "majestic plural", in which "we" is commonly employed by a person of high office, such as a monarch, earl, or pope. William Longchamp introduced this use to England in the late 12th century, following the practice of the Chancery of Apostolic Briefs (Turner, 2007).

As Angela Lutz (1998) claims, extralinguistic factors are the main reason behind this development of the personal pronoun in the second person, which are "the long-lasting Norman French rule in the Middle Ages [...] and a series of fundamental social changes in late medieval and early modern times" (p. 191). The incorporation of new pronouns or changes in the pronominal paradigm of a language takes significant time. For example, from the 16th century onwards the use of "you" became the linguistic norm and it was not until the end of the 18th century that the Modern English stage of development was reached.

Now, as we can see in the following table, the prototypical pronoun paradigm of Standard English features only one form for the second person singular and plural.

If we consider Lutz’s data, one would venture that it would take three centuries for new pronominal forms to consolidate in a language, and therefore we would be able to incorporate "they" as a standard 3rd person singular pronoun by the end of the 23rd century. However, that is not the case. Helena Raumolin-Brunberg (1998) has studied how pronominal changes spread among English people between 1620 and 1680, in the context of the English Civil War. She discusses four changes in her paper:

"the introduction of the possessive pronoun its, the diffusion of the uninflected relative pronoun who into non-subject functions, and the increasing use of complex indefinite pronouns in -body and -one (e.g., anybody, someone)" (Raumolin-Brunberg, 1998, p. 362).

These four changes took shorter to be incorporated in standard English.

One of the theoretical issues Raumolin-Bunberg’s study addresses is the claim that the progression of language change varies according to the type of society. The character of social networks plays an important role in linguistic variation and change. James and Lesley Milroy have argued that weak ties in loose-knit social networks function as channels for the diffusion of linguistic innovations, while strong-tie networks support language maintenance and consequently hinder change (Milroy 1985; Milroy 1992, in Raumolin-Brunberg 1998). A history of foreign invasions and contacts, internal and external migration and the emergence of metropolitan areas bring about a weak-tie society. Globalisation and the widespread of social media platforms could thus explain why the use of singular "they" has skyrocketed in the past two decades.

References:

  • Berry, C. et al (2017) Gendered Pronouns & Singular "They". Purdue Online Writing Lab. Retrieved from https://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/595/04/
  • Lutz, A. (1998) The interplay of external and internal factors in morphological restructuring: The case of you. In Fisiak, J. & Krygier, M. (1998) Advances in English Historical Linguistics. Poznah: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Raumolin-Brunberg, H. (1998) Social factors and pronominal change in the seventeenth century: The Civil-War effect? In Fisiak, J. & Krygier, M. (1998) Advances in English Historical Linguistics. Poznah: Mouton de Gruyter.
  • Turner, Ralph V. (May 2007), "Longchamp, William de (d. 1197)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, DOI:10.1093/ref:odnb/16980.
  • Wales, K. (1996). Personal pronouns in present-day English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Sol Tovar

Teacher of English as a Foreign Language. Profesora de Español como Lengua Extranjera. Linguistics Enthusiast.