Monday, 23 January 2012

native English epicene pronouns

There have been many attempts to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun into English. I can't see the point; we already have one that serves the purpose: they. Anyway, one of the suggestions is Middle English ou.

But did this Middle English epicene pronoun ou really exist?

Dennis Baron, in Grammar and Gender (1986), page 197, says

In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular ou: "'Ou will' expresses either he will, she will, or it will." Marshall traces ou to Middle English epicene a, used by the 14th century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright's English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of a for he, she, it, they, and even I.

William Marshall, in Provincialisms of the vale of Gloucester, writes:

Beside these and various other misapplications (as they for them - I for me, &c.), an extra pronoun is here in use - ou : a pronoun of the singular number; - analogous with the plural they ; - being applied either in a masculine, a feminine, or a neuter sense. Thus "ou will" expresses either he will, she will, or it will.

So there is an epicene pronoun ou, but it's not Middle English; it's part of the Gloucester dialect. It derives from Middle English a, which in turn derives from Old English he "he" and heo "she". Baron goes on to say that by the 12th and 13th centuries, he and heo were "almost or wholly indistinguishable in pronunciation" (he is quoting the OED's etymological entry for she). It is for this reason that she appeared: in order to distinguish the masculine and feminine third person pronouns.

So was Middle English a really an epicene pronoun? Well, we have examples of it from Trevisa standing for both "he" and "she", as in these cites from the OED:

1387 J. Trevisa MS. Cott. Vesp. D. vii. 29 b, He ran home to uore & prayede hys wyf þat hue wolde helpe for to saue hym,‥bote a dude þe contrary.
- from the OED's entry heo ε. ME ha, a.

"He ran home in advance and prayed that his wife would help save him… but she did the opposite."


c1400 J. Trevisa tr. R. Higden Polychron. (Tiber. D. vii) vi. xxix, in R. Morris & W. W. Skeat Specim. Early Eng. (1884) II. 243 Kynge Edward hadde byhote duc William þat a [a1387 St. John's Cambr. he] scholde be kynge after hym ef he dyede wyþoute chyldern.
- from the OED's entry he ζ. ME e, ME–18 (dial.) a.

"King Edward had promised duke William that he should be king after him if he died without children."


It's in Shakespeare too. Here Hamlet is talking about Polonius.

1604 Shakespeare Hamlet iii. iii. 73 Now might I doe it, but now a is a praying, And now Ile doo't, and so a goes to heauen.

Modern versions have

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;

But there seems to be a difference between a and singular they. In the examples above, the antecedents have known genders. Singular they is usually not used when the person's identity has been established. What I'd like to know is: can Middle English a (or Gloucester ou) be used when the gender of the antecedent is unknown or irrelevant?

Consider these sentences with they/their:

Everyone loves their mothers, but they don't care for their fathers.
Do not speak to the driver or distract their attention without good cause.

Can Middle English a or Gloucester ou be used in this way?

3 comments :

Warsaw Will said...

"Singular they is usually not used when the gender of the antecedent is known" - but I think we do use it in speech even when we know the gender after the indefinite pronouns 'anybody' etc.

I was thinking about this when teaching a class made up exclusively of women the other day. To me "Can everyone hand in their test now" sounds much more natural than Can everyone hand inher test now", even though there wasn't a man in sight.

goofy said...

Maybe I should reword it to "Singular they is usually not used when the antecedent is a single individual whose gender is known." For instance:

"Do not speak to the king or distract their attention without good cause."

But this is the situation where ME "a" is used.

The Ridger, FCD said...

Given that the king is "we" ?

Just kidding. I think lots of people use it in things like "Someone called while you were out but they didn't leave a message" - but in general, I believe you're right, though I'd say rather that it's very rare to use "they" when the person's identity has been established.