7 Things You Didn't Know About The History Of Pronouns And Gender
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Politics and Activism

7 Things You Didn't Know About The History Of Pronouns And Gender

Sorry, Conservatives: Gender-Neutral Pronouns Are 800 Years Old

7 Things You Didn't Know About The History Of Pronouns And Gender
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Many have argued that the introduction of a singular nonbinary pronoun they is the invention of millennial special snowflakes. I have bad news for those people. The singular gender-nonspecific they has been around since the 13th century, and it was only as recently as the 1850s that it began, at the bidding of academics, to disappear.

1. Languages across the world acknowledge different genders for referring to people and objects.

The Niger-Congo language acknowledges 7- 10 genders.

While Indo-European languages classify words as masculine, feminine, and neuter, some Basque and Algonquin languages only differentiate animate and inanimate.

Out of 257 classified languages, 112 of them have some system of grammatical gender. That's 43% of those classified (there are more than 6,000 languages total).

2. In theory, gendered pronouns exist for grammatical efficiency.

Gendered pronouns sometimes help differentiate between speakers or objects in a sentence. But do we need gendered pronouns to do so? Linguist Gretchen McCulloch says no:

Algonquian languages actually have a particularly effective solution to this problem which doesn’t involve gender. Instead, they have two gender-nonspecific third-singular markers: one for whichever person is more central to the conversation, and the other for additional people that don’t matter as much, a system known as obviation.

3. English's root languages did not use our modern gendered system.

Historical linguists believe that Proto-Indo-European originally had two genders: animate and inanimate, but that this changed after the Hittite branch split off.

4. English is unusual in the way it genders words.

English doesn't gender every word grammatically beyond the meaning of nouns, but we are weird in one respect: we do lack a grammatical gender system. Gretchen McCulloch again:

It is quite weird cross-linguistically to lack a grammatical gender system and yet still encode natural gender on one tiny set of grammaticalized words, aka your pronouns.

5. Gender-neutral first-person pronouns have been around since the 13th century.

Singular "they" has been used since the 13th century. When Middle English evolved to stop using syntactical grammar, use of the plural third-person pronoun they was extended to the singular. You can see this in Chaucer, Caxton, and Shakespeare. It's not that revolutionary to use a plural pronoun for singular meaning after all, when you consider that the originally plural pronoun you evolved to extend to a singular you, replacing the now-extinct thou.

6. Gender-nonspecific use of 'he' was proposed by academics in the 1850s.

In the late 18th century, grammarians began insisting upon using he as a gender nonspecific pronoun rather than they, which was once again, they decided, relegated to the plural. This was met with pushback.

7. Alternative pronouns have been around since the 1850s.

Relegating "they" to the plural and replacing it with "he" obviously has patriarchal implications, and it was met with pushback by language reformers and gender activists alike. Many people, including nonbinary groups and academics, disagreed with the removal of a gender-neutral pronoun, and have been fighting back against it since the 1850s. These groups have introduced alternatives aiming to solve the problem for over 150 years, some of which never made it past the 1850s, such as heesh, or bun, bunself, while others have survived to be used by some groups that still exist today, such as xe, xir, xim, and ey, eir, em, but the most common surviving singular gender-neutral pronoun is the increasingly recognized they.

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