“They”: Singular present, Scandinavian past

On January 8, the American Dialect Society (ADS) voted for they used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun for its Word of the Year for 2015.” As its official announcement continues:

They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she.

To address the problem of this binary, creations such as zie just haven’t caught on. Indeed, they is already in the language.

Singular they (and its inflected forms) has also been a point of more general contention, often decried by purists as ungrammatical. Take Every student passed their examEvery is singular but their is plural. This disagreement drives some grammar scolds crazy, but we do it naturally all the time. Even Chaucer and Shakespeare did it. The alternative, traditionally just his, is gender-exclusive while his or her is cumbersome – and, for many, also gender-exclusive, hence the ADS’s vote.

Professor Dennis Baron and linguist Gretchen McCulloch both have excellent pieces in support of this singular they, whose history – and controversy – is much older than you may think. I really recommend you check out their pieces.

But as this is an etymology blog, I wanted to take a quick moment to marvel at the etymology of they. Caution: a little more linguistic nitty-gritty lies ahead.

A partial declension of English third-person singular pronouns. We could add himself, herself, itself, and…themself? “They.” Doodle by me.


They is English’s third-person personal pronoun, along with their and them. If I see Jack and Jill falling down the hill, I can refer to them as theyThey is what many linguists refer to as a function word. Its role is grammatical. I don’t want to get too wonky here, but contrast they to a lexical item like iPhone, a coined noun, or victor, taken from Latin. (Indeed, so many of the words I study here are nouns, verbs, and adjectives borrowed from Latin, which is why they is so incredible to me, as we’ll see.) Grammatically speaking, they is just operating on a deeper level in the language, suffice it to say.

But they, amazingly, is not native to English. Starting in the late 700s and ending in the early 1000s, Vikings invaded England in three major waves. The two peoples – and their two languages – got really close. So close, in fact, that the Scandinavian form (think Old Norse) for they, þei, displaced Old English’s hīe. (For its possessive and object forms, Old English used hiera and him.) The adoption was complete by the end of the Middle English period, Albert Baugh and Thomas Cable note in their History of the English Language.

Now, Old English’s he was , she waso, and it was hit, so the Scandinavian-based they might have been a welcome source of distinction from hīe. Also, Scandinavian languages, like English, are Germanic languages, so their shared history also helps the uptake. But nevertheless, as Baugh and Cable put it: “Such parts of speech are not often transferred from one language to another.” Because such function words as they are operating so deep in the structure of the language, they are more resistant to change.

But we’re not done! English’s present plural of to beare, may also have been influenced by Scandinavian forms. Again, Baugh and Cable:

When we remember that in the expression they are both the pronoun and the verb are Scandinavian we realize once more how intimately the language of the invaders has entered into English.

For those with non-binary gender identities, he or she can feel like an invasion, which, at least to the long, etymological view from this one writer, makes singular they all the more powerful.

m ∫ r ∫



A Review of Punctuation..?

I was recently delighted to receive in the mail a copy of Punctuation..?, an illustrated guide to punctuation marks, published in 2012 by UK book designer, User design. At 35 pages, it concisely treats 23 distinct punctuation marks, from the everyday comma to the more arcane interpunct (inter·punct).

Punctuation..? (2012, User design). Image courtesy of User design.
Punctuation..? (2012, User design). Image courtesy of User design.

If at times imperfect, its explanations are accessible and helpful. Its illustrations are offhanded and whimsical. Its examples are light-hearteded and playful, refreshingly plain in the way they are drawn from ordinary life. And its design is clean and minimal.

There are a few curiosity-tickling factoids, too, such as its historical thumbnail of the medieval, paragraph-marking pilcrow (¶) or, more unusual to American eyes, the guillemet (« »), used on the European continent (and around the world) for quotation marks and named for a 16th-century French printer.

Speaking of differences, I also enjoyed several, small “huh’s” and “oh yeah’s,” recalling that, say, the American period is the British full stop, compelling me to appreciate that subtle geography of punctuation conventions.

I may not consult Punctuation..? for my punctuation questions, and nor would I consider its treatment authoritative, but that’s besides the point.

This book is a beautiful little art object and a well-made book–and I really enjoy it for that.

And the overall effect of its design, explanations, illustrations, and examples leaves me with a feeling of punctuation as–how should I describe it–intuitive. This is in part because the text is unpretentious and unthreatening, particularly in an age where still too many tout grammar as the ability to uphold historically arbitrary rules or bemoan “the end of English” because perfectly useful concepts like YOLO are codified in dictionaries.

But it is also in part because of the clever incorporation of the punctuation marks into its illustrations, such as the way the semicolon is used to link the illustrations, rendering the content the form, as seen below:

Semicolon; image courtesy User design.
Semicolon; image courtesy User design.

Punctuation can be so abstract and so intimidating. So I admire how Punctuation…?, infusing the marks into its images, makes punctuation concrete, and with a quiet simplicity. Punctuation is to serve our human communication needs, after all, not the other way around.

Here at the Mashed Radish, I resonate with that concreteness. I strive for it, working to pull out of word origins those core phenomena–those essential actions and objects, the raw materials of human language–preserved in our many words. To this end, what might the origins of some of the names for our punctuation marks reveal..? We’ll have a look in upcoming posts.

m ∫ r ∫

*sekw- (part i)

What could the World Cup possibly have in common with the conflict raging on in Iraq? Screens have been streaming soccer and headlines have been screaming sectarian, and both words, unlikely as their connection may seem, ultimately go back to the Proto-Indo-European root *sekw

Consequential Social Sects

In soccer, we saw university slang at work on association. If we it strip all back, we’re left with socius, a Latin word meaning “companion,” “ally,” and most literally, as we will see, “follower.” SocietySocial? I think you can see how they follow. And “follow” indeed, for behind this socius is what is also behind Latin’s sequi, a verb meaning “to follow.”

A blockbuster sequel, a dire consequence, the subsequent effects, an unusual sequence of events–all of these follow from Latin’s verb for “follow.”

Another form of the verbs–secutus–sticks around in Engliish’s consecutive, execute, persecute, and prosecute, all featuring prefixes and metaphors hard at work. Obsequious, too, features the root, from the Latin for “to comply.”  Sequester started out as a “trustee,” “agent” or “go-between,” particularly in financial senses. And from the root’s French fashioning, we get pursuepursuitsue, and suit–both what you might wear and what you might file in court.

From an earlier form of this secutus Latin also had secta, a “path” (something followed), “method,” “school of thought,” and “way of life,” inter alia. Hence, a sect. During the English Commonwealth in the mid-1600s, Presbyterians and Independents were referred to as “sectarians” based on their competing notions of Puritan church organization, which is when we first see the word sectarian. This was the point in every history classroom where you either got really, really into English history or really, really lost by all the power changes (me).

But perhaps I should have first mentioned second, from the Latin secundus, a very productive word meaning “following,” “next,” and “favorable.” No, in English, we don’t say twoth, we say second. Such a borrowing might seem jarring, but this is an intrinsic quality of English–of language. Indeed, this intrinsic is from Latin’s intrinsecus, meaning “on the inside,” joins intra- (“within”) and secus, “alongside.” Its counterpart, of course, is extrinsic, from extrinsecus, “on the outside.” It features exter (think extra, “outward,” “outside”).

Alas, those glittery, scintillating sequins are not related. Those sequins are from French’s rendering of the Italian zecchini, a medieval Venetian gold coin, or ducat. It comes from Italian’s zecca, “mint,” in turn from the Arabic sekkah, a “die for coining.” Such a die is a metal rod that strikes one of the faces of a coin.


Socioussequisectasecundus–all of these display Proto-Indo-European’s *sekw- at work. A warning: Technical grammar stuff is ahead, but it may give you a refresher on why words take different forms.

Recall that Proto-Indo-European was a very inflected language. Inflected? Stems took on endings to change words’ meanings and functions. It’s very simplified now in English, but we still see it in I sing vs. he sings. That s is important: it signals a particular meaning and function, specifically respect to person, number, and tense.

Words also changed their vowels to change meaning and function: I sing, I sang, I have sung. English irregular verbs preserve this once very active system of vowel change called ablaut. *Sekw- changed its vowel and added a suffix to become *sokw-yo. And the core vowel of Proto-Indo-European, scholars have proposed, was the short e, and this change from e to o in its grammar was an essential one.

We’ll have to follow up with *sekw-, though, for it has produced some other surprising derivates.

m ∫ r ∫