The other day I had occasion to use the pronoun “they” in the new way, referring to a specific person. Not your grandfather’s singular “they” with its generic meaning — “A student can hand their paper in early if they want to” — but “they” as in, “Roberta wants a haircut and they also want some highlights.”
I wangled it, but it required a bit of conscious effort. Pronouns sit deep in our cognition, used constantly and bound by habit. “It’s their turn to use the kite, don’t you think?” I said, thinking consciously about my sentence in a way that I don’t have to usually.
I know some find it wearying. Why does language have to change all the time with all we have to think about? But we are not unique: There are times when the language firmament shifts under people’s feet, and they get through it. In the 1700s, English speakers had to get used to a new idea that double and triple negatives were “wrong.” Shakespeare could write, “There’s never none of these demure boys come to any proof” for Falstaff in “Henry IV, Part II,” but now we had to deal with the idea that two negatives signify a positive, despite no one being taught this about French and countless other languages.
In standard English, “thou” as the singular second-person pronoun fell away and one used “you” in both singular and plural. For a while, people used singular verb forms with “you.” John and Abigail Adams did it all the time. “I wish you was nearer to us,” wrote Abigail — these days embodied in our minds as, say, Laura Linney’s prim portrayal — in 1775. But grammarians didn’t like it, so people had to shape up and start saying even to one person “you were.”
What seems to gall some people about the new singular “they” is that people are requesting to be addressed in a novel way that feels counterintuitive to many. But then just some decades ago, some will remember how disorienting it could be to adapt to using Ms. rather than delineating women as married or unmarried on the basis of Mrs. and Miss. Now that custom can look somewhere between coarse and hilarious (think of the “Schitt’s Creek” scene where Roland deceptively introduces Stevie as “Miss Felmington”).
I remember how it felt to be an English speaker in the late 1980s when seemingly overnight, one was to say Asian rather than Oriental, Latino rather than Hispanic, and shortly thereafter, African American rather than Black, with Oriental, especially, considered from then on offensive (while Black has made a return as an adjective). And yet the earth kept spinning, and references to “Orientals” are now as antique as Atari and McDonald’s hamburgers in Styrofoam boxes.
Because pronouns are used so much, it’s easy to think that the way they are at a given time is the way pronouns are supposed to be. But there is a language in New Guinea called Berik in which there is one pronoun for second person; one pronoun that means “he,” “she,” “it” and “they”; and only in the first person is there a difference between “I” and “we.” They manage quite well. I know someone given to a quirk of referring to himself archly as “we.” In doing so while also referring to people with the new singular “they,” he is using an English where you don’t differentiate singular from plural in any pronouns at all. Yet he manages just fine.
Language change is a spectator sport. It isn’t whether, but how, things will change over time, and getting to witness a major change like what’s happening to “they” is a kind of privilege, a top ticket.
Just as people said “you was” in the singular for a while, there will probably be some flutter in terms of how we deal with singular “they” and verb agreement. Already we are taught that the “proper” use of singular “they” is with plural agreement — “they are ready for their highlights now.”
However, there will be a natural temptation to use the third-person singular form with “s” with singular “they” — “they wants to see you now.” My guess is that this will be especially common in Black English, where using “s” with “they” is already an aspect of its grammar and thus will feel correct. Just possibly, this will influence standard usage, given the impact that Black English often has on general American these days.
Another guess is that there may be a call to differentiate singular “they” in writing by capitalizing it. Maybe that will catch on. Maybe not. But discussion will be as lively as the one in Sweden over the gender-neutral pronoun “hen,” which has dug in for real.
You just never know how things are going to morph. Way back in Old English, the word for “she” was “heo,” and over time that started to sound so much like “he” that in some dialects you just said “he” for men and women. Were things going to stay that way, given that a great many languages have gender-neutral pronouns of that kind? One may have wondered. But instead, English developed a new pronoun. Possibly it was by yanking a new feminine pronoun from a word that meant “that,” used with nouns of feminine gender. Or possibly it was something mysterious that happened in northern England and Scotland; theories are various, but the result was a new pronoun, “she.” And most likely, some people at first didn’t like it.
They died, and here we are. As the school year starts, I’m seeing yet more interesting things. A linguistics professor I know tells me that when she presented “The boy wants to see a picture of herself” as a mistaken sentence — a classic kind of blackboard example in linguistics since the 1960s — a couple of students said that these days, that sentence can actually be used by some people. I’m already listening around for examples.
They tell you mountains become sand, but you never get to see it happening. Language change happens faster, and you actually get to witness it. It’s something to treasure.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now, and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism,” forthcoming in October.
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