Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Medieval Pronouns

Medieval scholars from very early on were fascinated by grammar and analyzed it and language endlessly, trying to figure out how a word related to the thing the word signified.

Even as scholars were "complicating" things, English was becoming simpler, more streamlined. As an inflected language, for instance, English had various forms of pronouns depending on where in the sentence the pronoun was working at the time. (We still do this, but with fewer versions.)

Hwæt, I mean "Hey!" We even had a dual form when referring to just "we two" or "you two." Plurals used to be more interesting that way. (I like this, and would bring it back if I could when talking about me and my spouse versus other couples.) The plural "you" eventually replaced the singular "thou"; this was possibly a courtesy thing: plural forms of dress toward a single person seemed to be used as a sign of respect, as if the person were "more" than just "a" person. King Lear uses the plural "you" when praising Cordelia, but "thou" when speaking as her father to his daughter.

Old English also had a gender neutral pronoun, "man." It would be used the same way we now use "one," as in "I got vaccinated and boosted, as one does." It got associated with the masculine forms and disappeared.

Grammarians of more recent centuries tried to "lock down" singular vs. plural, the same way Webster tried to "lock down" American English spelling as distinct from British English. (The founder of Quakerism, George Fox, in 1660 labeled anyone who used "you" as a singular pronoun rather than "thou" was an idiot.) This created unnecessary confusion among speakers who used language in perfectly natural and understandable ways. The most prominent example of this is in the use of plural pronouns to denote singular subjects.

In 1794, an essay by three women in the New Bedford Medley used "they" as a singular, deliberately (they later had to explain) to conceal gender. A later to the editor criticized this as doing no ‘honor to themselves, or the female sex in general.’ They replied, challenging the mansplainer to come up with a better pronoun.

But "they" already was the better pronoun, and had been so for a long time. "They" was used in 1375 to refer to a singular person in the line "Each man hurried ... till they drew near ... where William and his darling were lying together."

So let us embrace "they" and its variants as useful pronouns for singular subjects following a 650-year-old tradition, and (in the words of Eomer to Eowyn) "think no more on it."

But what you should be wondering about is these men hurrying to "where William and his darling were lying together." What's that about? I've got a story to tell you next time!

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