Gender-neutral pronouns are not the whole issue with pronouns, or this would be on transwaffle. A bit of context is helpful here, so the point of this post is to talk about other pronouns, personal and otherwise, which is just interesting anyway but also enlightening from the perspective of the distinctions we’re used to making and not making.
Okay, so to start with modern Southeastern English English, which is more or less my dialect, the personal pronouns are:
|1st||I, me, my, mine, myself||we, us, our, ours, ourselves|
|2nd||You, your, yours, yourself||You, your, yours, yourselves|
|3rd||She, her, her, hers, herself; |
It, its, itself;
He, him, his, himself
|They, them, their, theirs, themselves|
As can be seen immediately, the biggest oddity of present day English in most prestige dialects is that it fails to distinguish between singular and plural in the second person pronoun, which is very unusual. It also appears to lack polite forms, also known as the T-V distinction, from the French tu and vous. I say “appears” because historically the lost pronoun is in fact “thou”, which is the singular and familiar form, which dropped out of common use during the seventeenth century. It’s somewhat confused by the fact that the King James version of the Bible uses “thees and thous” as the phrase has it because it follows the use of the pronouns in Latin and Greek, which didn’t have the T-V distinction. This leads to the oddity that God is referred to throughout using a familiar pronoun rather than a reverent one, which makes sense in the New Testament but not in the Old.
Here’s a table for the pronouns around the time of the KJV translation:
|1st||I, me, my, mine||We, us, our, ours|
|2nd||Thou, thee, thy, thine||Ye, you, your, yours|
|3rd||She, her, hers; it, it, his; he, him, his||They, them, their, theirs|
One immediate difference is the lack of the “-self” reflexive pronouns. Instead, the objective forms “me” and the like are used in their place. I’ve also been a bit cheeky and written the “his” form for the neuter third person singular. This occurs sporadically in the KJV to refer, for example to the Sun’s rays, but doesn’t treat the Sun as masculine but as an inanimate object, since at the time so-called “natural” gender was almost universal in our language.
The earliest recorded stage of the English language which survived varies because the dialects of Old English were less in contact with each other and hadn’t yet merged from the several languages spoken on the Continent, but by the time of Alfred the Great, the Wessex dialect had become dominant. This is not, however, the direct ancestor of our language, which emerged from the speech of the East Midlands. There was also some variation in spelling within the dialect and at the time, English was primarily a spoken language with only a few literate people. Moreover, it was grammatically more complex, so this table covers only the nominative (subject) forms of the personal pronouns as they were sometimes written in the Wessex dialect:
|3rd||heo, hit, he||hie||hie|
The most striking difference is the presence of the dual number, a special form to refer to pairs of people or items, as well as the singular and the plural. The genitive and objective pronouns in the third person neuter and masculine also merge into “his” and “him”. This is because of the tendency in Indo-European languages generally to have similar forms in the neuter and masculine, which arises from the fact that the genders used to be feminine (adjectival nouns) and neuter/masculine (agent nouns), which later incidentally became associated with human females because they “were” things (e.g. judged by appearance) and human males because they “did” things (e.g. they were blacksmiths).
It’s also significant that the forms of both the feminine singular and common plural third person pronouns are unlike today’s, and there are stories behind those too. Today’s “they” is from the Danes, and is a rare example of an apparently successful pronoun being adopted from a foreign language. This only happens very seldom because the pronouns are such a key part of the vocabulary of a language that they are among the first words a child learns and are used more frequently than other words. The presence of “they” in English has been used to argue that in fact English is a Scandinavian language which has combined with Anglo-Saxon rather than the other way round, although what exactly this means is another question.
Another interesting thing about third person pronouns in English is that the singular ones are the origin of generic “he”, which is somewhat surprising and I’ve mentioned before. The West Saxon “heo” merged with “he” when the “eo” diphthong died out and was replaced with long “e”, which gave us a single word for “she” and “he”. Historically, therefore, texts using generic “he” are actually non-sexist in this respect, but to claim that they are literally non-sexist is to commit the etymological fallacy, that the history of a word determines its current meaning. This is irrelevant because when we acquire language, we don’t generally do so while having a history lesson about every word we learn. The origin of the word “she” seems to be from the feminine word for “that”, which was “seo” in West Saxon.
It’s also notable that we actually got along fine with a third person pronoun which referred both to singular and plural entities for centuries, although not in the nominative. “Him” is the plural of both the third person singular neuter and masculine and the third person plural in Old English, although ambiguity could’ve been sorted out in other ways, It should also be noted that at this early stage in the development of what appears to be our language, gender was grammatical and therefore there were more distinctions between items due to the pronouns used to refer to them than there are today. For example, “seo sunne” – the Sun – was feminine but “se mona” – Cynthia, i.e. the bright thing in the night sky with a rabbit on it – was masculine, and “se wifman” – woman – was masculine but “þæt cild” neuter (which it still is and is probably because it originally meant “womb”). Consequently there was a lot less ambiguity in situations where contemporary English would refer to two items as it. For instance, referring to a solar eclipse as opposed to a lunar one, we might say “it is in front of it” but that could be interpreted as either celestial body being in front, but in Old English that would be something like (in Modern English) “he is before her”, whose meaning would be a lot clearer. Hence it has little to do with sex or gender as we understand it today and everything to do with avoiding ambiguity, and this is generally true of pronouns.
Another largely ignored source of potential confusion in, as far as I know, all Indo-European languages is the lack of a distinction between inclusive and exclusive “we”. Many languages have different words for “we” according to when the person being spoken to is included or excluded. Tok Pisin (New Guinea’s English-like language) does this, and also has a dual number, meaning that it has no fewer than four versions of “we”. It’s done quite straightforwardly with the words “yumi” and “yumitupela” – “you and me” and “you and me two fellows”, the second being dual. The trouble with speaking a language without inclusive and exclusive “we” is that once you realise that distinction does exist in other languages it becomes maddeningly confusing to realise it doesn’t in your own. Proto-Indo-European, however, is thought to have had both, and it’s somewhat sad that it disappeared.
Another distinction regarding gender which is usually absent in English and which we seem to get by without very easily is with “I” and “you”. The peculiarly located Indo-European Tocharian languages, spoken in Chinese Turkestan and now extinct, did make this distinction in the first person – there are feminine and masculine versions of their word for “I”. I personally also make this distinction although it’s invisible to most people because I never refer to myself in the masculine and nobody else does this. I use a lower-case “i” for masculine “I” and a capital for feminine “I”. It’s far more common to have a distinction in the second person, and in a sense this can occur in formal English when we say something like “Is madam having the plaice?” or something (I assume restaurants where the waiters do this are not vegan). But in Arabic, there is always such a distinction. It might be tempting to build up some kind of social theory here about Arab societies being sexist, but in fact this is unlikely to work because the cultures where no distinctions are made for gender in third person pronouns actually tend to be more sexist than ones where they do, so it’s more just a quirk of various Semitic languages that they do this.
I’ve concentrated so far on the personal pronouns, but there are also the demonstrative ones “this/these” and “that/those”. English has a fairly simple system making two distinctions, near and far. Many other languages make three distinctions: “this by me”, “that by you” and “that over yonder”. Some South American and Papuan languages make many more distinctions than those. Also, a language as familiar to the West as Latin fails to make a distinction between the third person pronouns and the demonstrative ones, meaning that it has “hic” for this, “iste” for “that by you” and “id” for “that over there” but all of these words also mean “she/it/he”. There is also less ambiguity in these.
Scandinavian languages also make a distinction, found elsewhere too, between reflexive pronouns referring to the same item earlier in the clause and ones which refer to other items. So for example, on my FB it can say
X samlar in pengar till ett välgörande ändamål i samband med sin födelsedag.
But it’s also possible to say:
X samlar in pengar till ett välgörande ändamål i samband med hennes födelsedag.
In English the translation for both these sentences is “X collects money for charity for her birthday”, meaning either “her own”, in the first case or for some other female person in the second. This distinction doesn’t exist in English in spite of the fact that we used to have the word “sin” and still have reflexive pronouns.
Then there are the WH-question words, which in English double as relative pronouns. These are “what”, “who”, “whose”, “whom”, “why”, “where”, “when”, “which”, “how”, “whence” and “whither”, plus a number of others which append a preposition to the word “where”, and they parallel a series of words beginning with “th” or “h”. The first five of these were originally different forms of the same word used in different cases. “Why” is particularly interesting because it’s the instrumental case of “what” and used to have a parallel “þy”, which still exists as “the” in phrases such as “the more the merrier”, which if you think about it doesn’t use “the” in the usual way. The odd thing about “why” is that it wasn’t replaced by “wherefore” but replaced it, even though “þy” was replaced by “therefore”. Many languages distinguish between such words used as question words and those used as relative pronouns, and in fact we used to use the word “þe”, which is not the same as “þe” which became “the”, for all cases of this including “whose” and the like. “Whom” is an interesting one because it was once used for inanimate objects which were the recipient of actions, which would have been referred to as “what” in the nominative and accusative, and the current use of “whose” for inanimate objects is similar, and is similarly disappearing because people feel like they’re referring to a person when they do it. The loss of the “what”/”whom” distinction marked the final demise of a morphological dative case in English.
To sum up then, and I’ve only really scratched the surface here, there’s scope for many more pronouns than we in fact have, although many distinctions have never been made in English. We currently have seven personal pronouns, each of which has various forms. We could also have a reflexive pronoun of the “sitt” type found in Swedish and other Scandinavian languages. We could also have three rather than two numbers, inclusive and exclusive versions of “we”, polite and familiar versions of the second person pronouns, a three-way distinction for the third person and three genders. This would give us, in my estimation, fifty-six personal pronouns, and personally I think it’s a great pity we only have seven, but that’s just me I expect.