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A brief history of singular ‘they’

Singular they has become the pronoun of choice to replace he and she in cases where the gender of the antecedent—the word the pronoun refers to—is unknown, irrelevant, or nonbinary, or where gender needs to be concealed. It’s the word we use for sentences like Everyone loves their mother.

But that’s nothing new. The Oxford English Dictionary traces singular they back to 1375, where it appears in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf. Except for the old-style language of that poem, its use of singular they to refer to an unnamed person seems very modern.

Here’s the Middle English version:

Hastely hiȝed eche  . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.

In modern English, that’s,

Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.

Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.

In the eighteenth century, grammarians began warning that singular they was an error because a plural pronoun can’t take a singular antecedent. They clearly forgot that singular you was a plural pronoun that had become singular as well.

You functioned as a polite singular for centuries, but in the seventeenth century singular you replaced thou, thee, and thy, except for some dialect use. That change met with some resistance. In 1660, George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, wrote a whole book labeling anyone who used singular you an idiot or a fool. And eighteenth-century grammarians like Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray regularly tested students on thou as singular, you as plural, despite the fact that students used singular you when their teachers weren’t looking. It’s a sure bet that teachers used singular you when their students weren’t lookingAnyone who said thou and thee was seen as a fool and an idiot, or a Quaker, or at least hopelessly out of date.

murray_thou

In 1795, Lindley Murray’s popular grammar textbook still insisted
that thou was singular, you, plural.

Singular you has become normal and unremarkable. Also unremarkable are the royal we and, in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we: first-person plurals used regularly as singulars and nobody calling anyone an idiot and a fool.

Singular they is well on its way to being normal and unremarkable as well. Toward the end of the twentieth century, language authorities began to approve the formThe New Oxford Dictionary of English (1998) not only accepts singular they, they also use the form in their definitions. And the New Oxford American Dictionary (3e, 2010) calls singular they “generally accepted” with indefinites, and “now common but less widely accepted” with definite nouns, especially in formal contexts.

Not everyone is down with singular they. The well-respected Chicago Manual of Style still rejects singular they for formal writing, and just the other day a teacher told me that he still corrects students who use everyone . . . their in their papers, though he probably uses singular they when his students aren’t looking.

In 2017 a transgender Florida school teacher was removed from their fifth-grade classroom for asking their students to refer to them with the gender-neutral singular they. And in 2015, after the Diversity Office at the University of Tennessee suggested that teachers ask their students, “What’s your pronoun?” because some students might prefer an invented nonbinary pronoun like zie or something more conventional, like singular they, the Tennessee state legislature passed a law banning the use of taxpayer dollars for gender-neutral pronouns, despite the fact that no one knows how much a pronoun actually costs.

It’s no surprise that Tennessee, the state that banned the teaching of evolution in 1925, also failed to stop the evolution of English one hundred years later, because the fight against singular they was already lost by the time eighteenth-century critics began objecting to it. In 1794, a contributor to the New Bedford Medley mansplains to three women that the singular they they used in an earlier essay in the newspaper was grammatically incorrect and does no “honor to themselves, or the female sex in general.” To which they honorably reply that they used singular they on purpose because ”we wished to conceal the gender,” and they challenge their critic to invent a new pronoun if their politically-charged use of singular they upsets him so much. Apparently all words and no action, the grammar pedant did not do so. More recently, a colleague who is otherwise conservative told me that they found singular they useful “when talking about what certain people in my field say about other people in my field as a way of concealing the identity of my source.”

R. W. Burchfield, in The New Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1996), dismisses objections to singular they as unsupported by the historical record. Burchfield observes that the construction is “passing unnoticed” by speakers of standard English as well as by copy editors, and he concludes that this trend is “irreversible.” People who want to be inclusive, or respectful of other people’s preferences, use singular they. And people who don’t want to be inclusive, or who don’t respect other people’s pronoun choices, use singular they as wellEven people who object to singular they as a grammatical error use it themselves when they’re not looking, a sure sign that anyone who objects to singular they is, if not a fool or an idiot, at least hopelessly out of date.

 

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The Right to Read

This is the post excerpt.

It’s been a bad few weeks for reading.

First a South Carolina police union pressured a high school to drop two books from its summer reading list. The problem? The books depicted cops as violent racists. The union defended its foray into censorship because, “when people don’t like the books their kids are asked to read, they call the police.”

To report what? An assault on complacency? A break in . . . of the mind?

One of the YA novels on the police do-not-read list, The Hate U Give, New York Times best-seller for 38 weeks, was banned in Texas the year before. Whatever happened to, Books don’t hurt people, people hurt people? Oh wait, that’s a different issue.

Then, as if the book police weren’t bad enough, a Detroit federal judge ruled that there is no constitutional right to read. The First Amendment guarantees the freedom to print books, but not the right to learn to read them.

Here’s what happened. A group of Detroit parents sued the state of Michigan for failing to teach their children how to read. The parents argued that Michigan requires their children to go to school. It sets the curriculum and licenses teachers. Plus, in 1999 the state took control of Detroit schools during the city’s financial crisis. In doing so, Michigan became responsible for the success or failure of Detroit’s schoolchildren. It’s true that if some students don’t do well, that doesn’t mean the schools have failed. But when most students don’t learn to read, as in Detroit, then the system isn’t delivering.

Since most of Detroit’s schoolchildren are black, the parents alleged that their children “have been denied access to literacy on account of their race, in violation of their rights under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.”

In its defense, the state insisted that the existence of a public school system “is no guarantee that the children will become literate.” So what does the state think schools are for?

Actually Judge Stephen J. Murphy, III, agreed with parents that Detroit’s underfunded, overcrowded schools are not doing what they’re supposed to do. They’re not teaching students to read or write or do basic math. That’s bad, really bad, Murphy acknowledged. But it’s not unconstitutional.

In dismissing the case, Murphy said that “access to literacy” is not a fundamental right. Fundamental rights have nothing to do with reading words on a page. They’re things like life, liberty, and guns.

These anti-literacy stories out of South Carolina and Michigan are the opposite of the usual “nobody reads books any more.” Today’s book news is much worse: there’s too much reading. There are two ways to stop it. The South Carolina way: censor the books. Or the Michigan way: don’t teach children how to read.

The South Carolina police think that reading is child endangerment. First kids can’t go to the pizza joint because they’ll be trafficked by the liberal elites. Now the library isn’t safe for them either. And in Detroit? In Detroit schools no longer have to teach children to read, so the police won’t have to worry about them reading books that expose police brutality. Or reading the Constitution, the one document that the founders might have wanted everyone to read.

Hey you guys, you is already plural

Should we get rid of the plural you guys because it’s sexist? Joe Pinsker, writing in theAtlantic, reports a growing resistance to the common use of you guys—along with hey guys, and just plain guys—to address mixed groups of men and women, as well as single-sex groups of only women. Pinsker finds that trans and gender-nonconforming people feel excluded by you guys; that teachers and business people reject you guys as not inclusive; and that lots of people want to ditch you guys in favor of something gender neutral, like folks, or people, or comrades.

Then Pinsker adds this peculiar observation by way of explaining why you guys is so popular: “English lacks a standard gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun.” He actually says this twice.

But that is flat-out wrong. English has always had a gender-neutral second-person plural pronoun: you.

You has been the second-person plural pronoun since the days of Old English. You has always been everyone’s second-person plural, from Beowulf to both the Queens Elizabeth (or if you prefer, both the Queen Elizabeths). It’s the second-person plural for Joe Pinsker, and it’s the second-person plural for me and you as well. It’s singular you that’s the newcomer.

When English started out, when the Angles and the Saxons and the Jutes left their continental homes and crossed the Channel, and Theresa May and Boris Johnson weren’t around to stop them from immigrating, they brought with them a bunch of continental pronouns, including the second-person singular thou, and the second-person plural you. By the fourteenth century, speakers of English started using you as a polite or deferential singular: a peasant might call a knight you, for example, and the knight, in turn, would take the peasant’s crops and call the peasant thou, just to emphasize the power dynamic and to remind the peasant of the vast social gap between them.

Here are two other examples of English plural pronouns used as singular: the royal we,or in countries without a monarchy, the editorial we. And singular they, which appears in English writing as early as the fourteenth century.

By the seventeenth century, singular you started to appear not just as a polite form, but in every context, and singular thou and the other th- forms, thee, thy, and thine, began to disappear. By the nineteenth century, that changeover was all but complete, andthou, they, and thy were relegated to regional or dialect speech, where they remain. For example, in D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928) Mellors, the gamekeeper, uses tha when he’s in bed with Lady Chatterley, while she uses singularyou to him. Because in England, the words you use reflect your social class, even during sex. We still use thou, thee, and thy today in standard English, but only jokingly to sound old fashioned—it’s so faux Shakespearean.

So if you has been plural for 1,500 years, what accounts for the popularity of you guys? And why did it become universally popular at the same time that another masculine form, generic he, went stake-through-the-heart dead? Because in modern English, the second-person plural and the second-person singular are the same word: you, and that creates the possibility for ambiguity: are you (one, single person) talking to me? or areyou (a whole bunch of people, plural) talking to me? Apparently, the need for a clearly and unambiguously plural you trumps the desire to be gender-inclusive, and so, for most people—not for everyone—either guys has lost its gender-marking, or what marking it may retain has become no big deal.

Back in the day, not everybody approved of the upstart singular you, but that didn’t stop the form from taking over. In 1660, George Fox, better known as the founder of the Society of Friends (the Quakers), wrote a whole book railing against singular you. Fox called anyone using you instead of thou an idiot and a fool.

fox_thou

George Fox, A battledore for teachers and professors to learn singular and plural, 1660.

Nobody paid attention to Fox’s objections. They were too busy using singular you. Yet for two centuries grammar books continued to teach that thou was the second-person singular, and you, the plural, and teachers expected students to write thou on grammar tests, even though students were using singular you when their teachers weren’t looking, and the teachers used singular you when the students weren’t around.

murray_thou

Pedantic to the end, Lindley Murray insisted on singular thou, plural you, in his popular school grammar

But singular you wasn’t the last change for the second person pronouns. Not even close. Once you became solidly singular as well as plural, people began to assume that ambiguous you was basically a singular pronoun—that’s Joe Pinsker’s assumption in hisAtlantic piece—and when they wanted to be extra clear that they were using a plural, they invented the new plurals y’all, youse, and you’uns. But like thou, thee, and thybefore them, these new pronouns carried the stigma of nonstandard or regional use. They were confined to the spoken language, not considered suitable for formal, written English.

Gender-specific masculine you guys first appears in the 1890s, but in the 1960s and 1970s, gender-neutral you guys starts popping up as well. You guys has always been informal, but unlike y’all, youse, and you’uns, it was never regional. Yes, some people in the ’70s and ’80s thought it was objectionably sexist—but apparently not being regional was a big enough plus that most people didn’t worry about the sexism part, and you guys began its gradual takeover as the emphatic second-person plural in informal, spoken English. It’s not marked for region. It’s not marked for class. It’s not marked for level of education.

But pronoun evolution wasn’t done. People in the American south began to use y’all ambiguously to refer to one person as well as groups of people. Y’all became a polite singular, like you back in the fourteenth century. There are still some southerners who insist that singular y’all is an error introduced by carpetbaggers. Even when confronted with proof, they refuse to acknowledge that any real southerner would ever use singular y’all. They explain that the user is really a Yankee. Or that yes, the good ole clerk at the Gas-N-Go was clearly addressing one person—you can see it on the CCTV tapes—but by saying “y’all come back” they meant you (the person addressed) and all your friends and relatives—it was an implied plural. But enough people must be using singular y’all that it’s triggered yet another disambiguating plural, all y’all. And so at least for now, all y’all is about as unambiguously plural as a second-person pronoun can get. But unlike you guys, all y’all is still a regional form.

So what about the new campaign to oust you guys? Campaigns against particular idioms don’t work well. They didn’t work for George Fox. By the time he began his protest against singular you, it was already too late to stop the change. For more than a century, schoolteachers have waged a campaign to eradicate ain’t from English. They managed to stigmatize the word, but ain’t is still going strong. Campaigns don’t stand much of a chance of ousting you guys, either. Grammar shaming may make people feel bad about their language use. It may make them self-conscious. Or reluctant to speak. But it won’t change what people say or write, and if they’re determined to say you guys, then they’ll continue to say you guys. And if they want to go with a new second-person plural, they’ll do that too. Just don’t count on the new plural being folks, or people, or comrades. Or peeps. I mean, peeps? really?

In which Pooh tries a nonbinary pronoun

In 1929, a year after a new voting law extended suffrage to all women in England, Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin delivered a radio address on education in which he referred to children—boys and girls—as he. This prompted the well-known suffragist, Lady Annette Matthews, to write a letter to the Times complaining that Baldwin’s gaffe demonstrated “the need for a bi-sex pronoun, which would remove from the newly enfranchised woman elector the absurd position of being left to the imagination, or appearing as an afterthought in parenthesis.”

Generic he leaves women out. Matthews’ call for a nonbinary pronoun to replace it prompted men with names like Col. Tusker Mountebank, MBE, Major-General Havenot à Clue, or the Rev. L’Otherfoot, to write to the Times championing the invented pronouns vey, su, tu, oo, heshe, un, hes, lu, heoshe, and hesh. And one woman, Agnes Carter, defended singular they. Carter reasoned that, if plural you can function as a singular, then why not they as well?

Another writer, Lonely in Leeds, felt compelled to mansplain to those readers who might have missed the whole suffrage thing that a new pronoun would placate “what is known as the woman’s movement,” despite the fact that the phrase the woman’s movement had been around for about 80 years, adding his own expert opinion that “the English tongue was framed in days when women were of less account.” Having failed in their attempt to keep women from voting, men like Lonely insisted that any new pronouns should be women’s work, since the need for a new pronoun was clearly women’s fault.

pronouns_for_women

Then, in 1930, A. A. Milne, the creator of Winnie the Pooh, addressed the pronoun issue in his introduction to The Christopher Robin Birthday Book. According to Milne, in a perfect world English speakers would say heesh:

You notice that I say ‘he or she’. If the English Language had been properly organized by a Business Man or Member of Parliament, instead of living from hand to mouth on almost anybody who happened to be about with a pencil, then there would be a word which meant both ‘he’ and ‘she’, and I could write, ‘If John or Mary comes, heesh will want to play tennis’, which would save a lot of trouble. Also I could have made a much better thing of this Birthday Book. As it is, most of the quotations refer definitely to one sex, and more often to ‘he’ than to ‘she’. But you must not let this worry you. If Aunt Emily’s birthday is on July 2nd— well no, let us hope it isn’t; but if it were on April 2nd—no, that’s wrong. Well, what I mean is that the motto for May 11th, ‘He’ll know what to do’, can be read, if necessary, as ‘She’ll know what to do’, and so on and so forth, and vice versa and otherwise. I hope that’s clear. [The Christopher Robin Birthday Book, London, 1930; rpt. New York: Dutton, 1931, pp. vi-vii.]

The Birthday Book presents a quote or motto from one of Milne’s books for each day of the year. The motto for July 2 is “He just happened to hiccup While signing his name” (Now We are Six). Women like the imaginary Aunt Emily, Milne seems to suggest, don’t hiccup in public. April 2 reads, “If John were Me, and I were John, I shouldn’t have these trousers on” (Now We are Six). Here Milne implies that he can’t mean she on April 2 because women don’t wear trousers. And the May 11 motto, the one that Milne suggests could be read for either sex without seeming rude, is “He’ll know what to do” (The House at Pooh Corner).

christopher_robin_and_pooh

Christopher Robin going down the stairs with Pooh, from Winnie the Pooh, 1926

A. A. Milne was not the first person to offer nonbinary heesh.The pronoun appears earlier, around 1865, and again in 1900, and it is re-invented or revived from time to time from 1930 to the present. The related hesh was coined as early as 1875 and it too reappears frequently, as does heer, another pronoun formed by blending masculine and feminine forms.

Most coiners of nonbinary pronouns toiled in obscurity, but Milne was a well-known literary figure, and today, discussions of nonbinary pronouns often repeat a truncated version of his comments from The Birthday Book because everybody knows Winnie the Pooh.

What most people miss, however, is the fact that Milne shrugs off heesh as soon as he mentions it in favor of generic he. And despite what Milne says about how to achieve a perfect language, neither the business types nor the MPs of the day were particularly versed in designing language, which really does belong to anyone with a pencil or a voice. Milne’s subtext is that no one really listens to a pronoun coiner. Even more telling is the fact that, in the absence of any real commitment to heesh, Milne concludes that he can be read as she, not always, to be sure—not in mottoes about hiccups or trousers—but certainly on May 11th and at some other times of the year as well.

That’s the problem with generic masculines: he just can’t be counted on to be generic. That was certainly the case with suffrage. In 1850, the MPs made a rare attempt to design language when they passed the Act of Interpretation, a law providing that when words denoting males appeared in statutes, they included women as well. The U. S. Congress passed a similar law in 1871. These he-means-she laws, drafted by men, some of whom actually supported women’s right to vote, prompted suffragists to argue that he in the voting laws gave women the vote. But English and American courts disagreed, ruling repeatedly that yes, he meant she when it came to obligations like paying taxes or punishments like going to jail. But when it came to privileges like voting, holding elected office, or entering a boys-club profession like law or medicine, he always meant “no women allowed.”

Women did get the vote—a 1918 law enfranchised English women who met certain property and residence requirements, and a 1928 law gave the vote to all women—as well as to men—regardless of their net worth. American women got the vote in 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. But the politically-charged pronoun he remained a sore point. In 1922, the San Antonio Evening News shrugged off the suggestion that Edith Wilmans would not be allowed to serve as the first woman elected to the Texas state assembly because the law referred to Texas legislators as he. According to the News, the faux-generic he does even worse damage: “That’s nothing. The same pronoun stands between many women and their liberty.”

1922_he_womens_rights_San_Antonio_Evening_News

A. A. Milne may have floated the idea of nonbinary heesh to get away from the damage that gendered pronouns do. But he was no social radical, at least so far as grammar was concerned, and Milne had no problem fitting generic he into the primarily boys-club world of Christopher Robin, Winnie the Pooh, and their companions in the Hundred Acre Wood.

no_girls_allowed_berenstain_bears

Another family of bears weighs in on the gender issue

 

The Babel Proclamation: Celebrating a century of banning foreign languages in America

On May 23, 2018, America celebrated the centenary of the Babel Proclamation. That was the day, 100 years ago, when Iowa Gov. William Harding banned the public use of all foreign languages: in schools, on trains, at meetings, in church, even on the phone.

They called it the Babel Proclamation. America was at war, and German—commonly spoken in Iowa at the time—was the language of the enemy. When asked why he banned all languages and not just German, Harding explained that “German intrigue does not confine itself to the German language. The fact is they find it more convenient now to use other languages.” Apparently no one thought to ask Harding, “So if German spies speak English, shouldn’t you ban English too?”

As for prayer, Harding told the Chamber of Commerce, “I am telling those who insist upon praying in some other language that they are wasting their time, for the good Lord up above is now listening for the voice in English.”

Oh, and that First Amendment business in the Constitution? Welp, according to the governor, freedom of speech is guaranteed only if you speak English.

babel copy
Excerpt from second page of the Babel Proclamation

When the U.S. entered World War I, it mounted a war on German as well as Germany. Almost all American schools stopped teaching German. In Iowa, German books were burned. German-language churches were trashed or torched—and a couple of Danish churches too, because Danish sounded so German. Several women were fined for speaking German on rural party-line telephones. And German speakers were physically attacked by mobs.

Gov. Harding assured Iowa’s German speakers that his language ban was for their own good: it would protect them from the violence that their speech provoked. But the Babel Proclamation had the opposite effect. It became a license to hate. Law or no law, from Nebraska to Texas, people speaking foreign languages were beaten, tarred and feathered, made to kiss the flag, hauled before an inquisition, or hanged in effigy. One pastor was even strung up by an angry mob for speaking German, but police managed to intervene and cut him down before he died.

German words were even banned from English, at least for the duration. Remember when the Congressional cafeteria served “freedom fries” because the French didn’t support America in the First Gulf War? During World War I, patriotic Americans stopped eating sauerkraut, forcing desperate sauerkraut producers to rename their product “liberty cabbage.” A bill in Congress would have stopped the Post Office from delivering mail to any city or street named “Berlin.” And West Point reported an outbreak among the cadets of “Liberty Measles.”

After the War, the Babel Proclamation expired, but America’s war on language continued. Foreign language study never returned to anything like pre-war levels. And an immigration “reform” in 1924 effectively removed foreign languages, and their speakers, from America’s streets.

A second reform in 1965 opened immigration up to nonanglophones once again, but once again, English speakers struck back to defend their embattled native tongue. In 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an engineer who had been speaking Telugu with a colleague, was shot dead in a bar in Olathe, Kansas, by an America-firster shouting “Go back to your own country.” A few years before that, Dallas police were writing tickets for “non-English speaking driver” for drivers who were speaking Spanish even though there’s no law in Texas that says drivers have to speak English.

dallas_ticket

This renewed war on language is why, almost one hundred years after the Babel Proclamation, a lawyer in New York berated workers at a deli who were speaking Spanish to one another, threatening to call ICE on workers he decided were undocumented just because they weren’t speaking English.

And it’s why a Border Patrol agent stopped and questioned two women for speaking Spanish to each other while buying milk at a gas station in Havre, Montana. When the women asked why they were being detained, the agent replied, “It has to do with you guys speaking Spanish in the store, in a state where it’s predominantly English-speaking.” Plus they were near the border—the Canadian border.

That ICE agent didn’t say, “Montana is the new Iowa.” He didn’t say, “Speak English or I’ll throw you in a detention camp.” Or, “I don’t care if you are American citizens, because speaking Spanish means I can revoke your citizenship if I want to or at least make your lives miserable.” He didn’t have to.

It doesn’t dawn on these defenders of the language that English is also an immigrant tongue in the New World, one that swam ashore, illegal and uninvited, in the 17th century and immediately pushed out all the competition.

America won its war on language long before the Babel Proclamation, and yet American nativists seem bent on reviving the foreign language ban. The English Language Unity Act (HR 997) would make English the official language of American government, raising the groundless fear that government workers might suddenly start speaking some other tongue. And a new immigration proposal would require anyone seeking a visa to be a fluent English speaker before they apply.

These bills won’t reinforce English—newcomers to the United States learn English as quickly as they can. What the laws do instead is send a message to nonanglophones: “We don’t want you. Go back where you came from”—even if where they came from is Des Moines, or Havre, or Olathe.