Whence Did They Come?
In a recent episode of Slate’s Lexicon Valley podcast, John McWhorter discussed the history of English personal pronouns. Why don’t we use ye or thee and thou anymore? What’s the deal with using they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun? And where do they and she come from?
The first half, on the loss of ye and the original second-person singular pronoun thou, is interesting, but the second half, on the origins of she and they, missed the mark, in my opinion.
I recommend listening to the whole thing, but here’s the short version. The pronouns she and they/them/their(s) are new to the language, relatively speaking. This is what the personal pronoun paradigm looked like in Old English:
There was some variation in some forms in different dialects and sometimes even within a single dialect, but this table captures the basic forms. (Note that the vowels here basically have classical values, so hē would be pronounced somewhat like hey, hire would be something like hee-reh, and so on. A macron or acute accent just indicates that a vowel is longer.)
One thing that’s surprising is how recognizable many of them are. We can easily see he, him, and his in the singular masculine forms (though hine, along with all the other accusative forms, have been lost), it (which has lost its h) in the singular neuter forms, and her in the singular feminine forms. The real oddballs here are the singular feminine form, hēo, and the third-person plural forms. They look nothing like their modern forms.
These changes started when the case system started to disappear at the end of the Old English period. Hē, hēo, and hie began to merge together, which would have led to a lot of confusion. But during the Middle English period (roughly 1100 to 1500 AD), some new pronouns appeared, and then things started settling down into the paradigms we know now: he/him/his, it/it/its, she/her/her, and they/them/their. (Note that the original dative and genitive forms for it were identical to those for he, but it wasn’t until Early Modern English that these were replaced by it and his, respectively.)
The origin of they/them/their is fairly uncontroversial: these were apparently borrowed from Old Norse–speaking settlers, who invaded during the Old English period and captured large parts of eastern and northern England, forming what is known as the Danelaw. These Old Norse speakers gave us quite a lot of words, including anger, bag, eye, get, leg, and sky.
The Old Norse words for they/them/their looked like this:
If you look at the masculine column, you’ll notice the similarity to the current they/them/their paradigm. (Note that the letter that looks like a cross between a b and a p is a thorn, which stood for the sounds now represented by th in English.)
Many Norse borrowings lost their final r, and unstressed final vowels began to be dropped in Middle English, which would yield þei/þeim/þeir. (As with the Old English pronouns, the accusative form was lost.) It seems like a pretty straightforward case of borrowing. The English third-person pronouns began to merge together as the result of some regular sound changes, but the influx of Norse speakers provided us an alternative for the plural forms.
But not so fast, McWhorter says. Borrowing nouns, verbs, and the like is pretty common, but borrowing pronouns, especially personal pronouns, is pretty rare. So he proposes an alternative origin for they/them/their: the Old English demonstrative pronouns—that is, words like this and these (though in Old English, the demonstratives functioned as definite articles too). Since hē/hēo/hīe were becoming ambiguous, McWhorter argues, English speakers turned to the next best thing: a set of words meaning essentially “that one” or “those ones”. Here’s what the plural demonstrative pronouns in Old English looked like:
(Old English had a common plural form rather than separate plural forms for the masculine, neuter, and feminine genders.)
There’s some basis for this kind of change from a demonstrative to a person pronoun; third-person pronouns in many languages come from demonstratives, and the third-person plural pronouns in Old Norse actually come from demonstratives themselves, which explains why they look similar to the Old English demonstratives: they all start with þ, and the dative and genitive forms have the -m and -r on the end just like them/their and the Old Norse forms do.
But notice that the vowels are different. Instead of ei in the nominative, dative, and genitive forms, we have ā or ǣ. This may not seem like a big deal, but generally speaking, vowel changes don’t just randomly affect a few words at a time; they usually affect every word with that sound. There has to be some way to explain the change from ā to ei/ey.
And to make matters worse, we know that ā (/ɑː/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet) raised to /ɔː/ (the vowel in court or caught if you don’t rhyme it with cot) during Middle English and eventually raised to /oʊ/ (the vowel in coat) during the Great Vowel Shift. In a nutshell, if English speakers had started using þā as the third-person plural pronoun in the nominative case, we’d be saying tho rather than they today.
But the biggest problem is that the historical evidence just doesn’t support the idea that they originates from þā. The first recorded instance of they, according to The Oxford English Dictionary, is in a twelfth-century manuscript known as the Ormulum, written by a monk known only as Orm. Orm is the Old Norse word for worm, serpent, or dragon, and the manuscript is written in an East Midlands dialect, which means that it came from the Danelaw, the area once controlled by Norse speakers.
In the Ormulum we finds forms like þeȝȝ and þeȝȝre for they and their, respectively. (The letter ȝ, known as yogh, could represent a variety of sounds, but in this case it represents /i/ or /j/). Other early forms of they include þei, þai, and thei.
The spread of these new forms was gradual, moving from areas of heaviest Old Norse influence throughout the rest of the English-speaking British Isles. The early-fifteenth-century Hengwert Chaucer, a manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, usually has they as the subject but retains her for genitives (from the Old English plural genitive form hiera or heora) and em for objects (from the Old English plural dative him. The ’em that we use today as a reduced form of them probably traces back to this, making it the last vestige of the original Old English third-person plural pronouns.
So to make a long story short, we have new pronouns that look like Old Norse pronouns that arose in an Old Norse–influenced area and then spread out from there. McWhorter’s argument boils down to “borrowing personal pronouns is rare, so it must not have happened”, and then he ignores or hand-waves away any problems with this theory. The idea that these pronouns instead come from the Old English þā just doesn’t appear to be supported either phonologically or historically.
This isn’t even an area of controversy. When I tweeted about McWhorter’s podcast, Merriam-Webster lexicographer Kory Stamper was surprised, responding, “I…didn’t realize there was an argument about the ety of ‘they’? I mean, all the etymologists I know agree it’s Old Norse.” Borrowing pronouns may be rare, but in this case all the signs point to yes.
For a more controversial etymology, though, you’ll have to wait until a later date, when I wade into the murky etymology of she.