Welcome to the seventeenth installment of More Than Words, where I take queer words of all sorts and smash them apart and see what makes them tick. Every week I’ll be dissecting a different word, trying to figure out where it came from, how it has evolved, where it might be going, and what it all means. It’s like reading the dictionary through a prism. Feel free to send word suggestions to email@example.com.
Header by Rory Midhani
I’ve always found personal pronouns romantic. Sure, they can be very everyday — just short placeholders for names you don’t know or don’t want to keep saying. But they’re also so communal. Even as we’re each our own “I,” standing alone, we share the letter. “You” can be so dreamy or so accusatory, often beamed towards the same person, and if you have a particular “he” or a “she” in mind, the wide-scoped word narrows so easily.
All the more reason to expand our pronoun repertoire, a good chunk of which is constrained, grammatically and socially and identity-wise, by its binarily gendered structure. But since I’m methodical, we’re going to start with what we’ve got nailed down and work our way outward. The coolest flowers will come with Pronouns Pt. 2, but here are some stems to get you started.
“I”: As a letter, “I” has a boring history. It’s been a straight vertical line for ages, way back since Elder Futhark (the oldest known runic alphabet, which was used in Germanic states before Christianisation started everyone praying and inscribing in Latin).
As a first-person singular nominative pronoun, “I” first burst out of the gate in the 12 century. It was leaner and meaner than its predecessors (Old English ic, Old Norse ek) and caught on quickly, although equivalents ik and ich were hard to shake, sticking around until the mid-1300s. But the simplicity that made “I” so easy and intuitive also made it hard to differentiate from other letters when written down. Early penmen and -women spiced it up in various ways — a dot here, a crossbar there — but no one standardized these flourishes until around the 11th century, when writers began elongating solitary “I”s in order to avoid confusion with punctuation marks. Later, these were confused for capitals, and the rest is history. If this is really what happened, it’s a coincidence that makes for rich cultural analysis — as Caroline Winters writes in the New York Times, “the majuscule “I” appears only in English… the solitary “I” towers above “he,” “she,” “it” and the royal “we.” [“I” is] the towering single letter that signifies us as discrete beings and connotes confidence, dominance, and the ability to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.”
“I” is also, iRonically, the one thing I can’t train my iPhone to stop capitalizing.
“you”: Like many basic English words, “you” came from a Proto-Indo-European root suffix (*ju), up through West Germanic (*iuwiz) and Old English (eow). But the more interesting part of its history began after its spelling solidified. Although “you” now pulls quadruple duty as singular and plural (except in the Southern U.S.) and as subject and object pronoun, four different words — “thou,” “ye,” “thee,” and “you”— used to split the work. “Thou” and “thee” were technically singular; “ye” and “you” plural. In the Middle Ages, people started playing fast and loose with the actual numbers, using the plural form in all cases in order to show respect, first for superiors and then for everyone. This stemmed from a habit that was originally Roman and conceited (think the “royal we”), then became French and polite (a kind of “royal you” instead), and then caught on everywhere. The custom became so entrenched that the Quakers used it to rebel — they called everyone “thou,” “whatsoever was his degree among men,” to hammer home their belief that humans were all equal in the eyes of God. People would “take very great offence.” This is all fascinating and it also makes listening to Yeezus more fun.As Wikipedia points out, “Because thou is now seen primarily in literary sources such as the King James Bible (often directed to God, who is traditionally addressed in the familiar) or Shakespeare (often in dramatic dialogues, e.g. “Wherefore art thou Romeo?”), it is now widely perceived as more formal, rather than familiar,” but it was really the other way around! Shakespeare and God, such tricksters.
“she”: “She” comes from Old English seo, the feminine form of the demonstrative pronoun “the.” When it started converging phonetically with “he,” it dropped the “o” (am I right, ladies?).
“She” is hardly ever used to refer to anything other than a female person or animal, save for a few notable exceptions. Vehicles, for example, or nations. In his English Grammar, published in 1640, Ben Jonson noted that “we say, shee sayles well, though the name be Hercules, or Henry, (or) the Prince.” Some think this comes from the fact that the word for “ship” is always feminine in Romance languages (although why would this have crossed into English for ships and not, say, tables?). Others say that it’s because sailors love ships as much as their mothers. Because this is all vaguely weird and sexist, our friends over at the AP Style Guide have encouraged people to use “it” instead. Lloyd’s List, a leading maritime journal, listened in 2002 (thanks Lloyd!) but the US Navy still hasn’t caught up.
“he”: If you trace “he,” the traditionally masculine third-person singular nominative pronoun, way back, you get to the Proto-Indo-European root *ko, which means “this” or “here” as opposed to “that” or “there,” which means that “he” has been comparatively othering everyone else since pretty much the beginning of time. (That’s why I put “she” first in this article. I do what I can.)
People disagree about when everyone started using “him” as a catch-all for “a hypothetical person.” Patricia T. O’Connor and Stuart Kellerman of the New York Times pin it on schoolmistress and author Anne Fischer, considered by some to be “the first female grammarian.” Fischer’s 1745 guide, A New Grammar, ran for 30 editions and sold zillions. It also encouraged people to use “he” for all genders. O’Connor and Kellerman call Fischer “a feminist if there ever was one” — she ran a printing business, a newspaper, and a “school for young ladies.” On the other hand, she published the first few editions of this very grammar guide under the name “A. Fischer” so no one would know she was a woman. Some things never change.
Meanwhile, despite these allegations, in a very comprehensive study of various vernaculars and time periods, Susanne Wagner concludes “there was a rather extended period of time in the history of the English language when the choice of a supposedly masculine personal pronoun (him) said nothing about the gender or sex of the referent.” So maybe Fischer was just canonizing what everyone was already up to. In any case, her decision to use “he” over “they” in cases of unknown gender “replaced a number problem with a gender problem,” and English is still reeling.
We’ll dive into that next week, when we hack into the much less dusty and for-real exciting world of gender-neutral and alternative gender pronouns. But for now I leave you with this fun fact: Up through the 13th century, English retained a dual pronoun, “ink,” that was used to refer to two people at once (like Bettina, but all-purpose). If anyone’s going to bring this back, it’s going to be our community. I really don’t know what we’re waiting for.
**A SPECIAL REQUEST FOR READERS**
Do you use or identify with a non-traditional or alternative pronoun? More Than Words wants to hear from YOU! Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll ask you a billion questions about it.