LINGUIST List 6.919

Mon Jul 3 1995

Disc: He/She

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. , Disc: He/She
  2. Michael Newman, singular THEY/epicene HE

Message 1: Disc: He/She

Date: Sat, 01 Jul 1995 17:02:46 Disc: He/She
From: <>
Subject: Disc: He/She

re continuing discussion Lingistic List.


Dennis Baron mentions 1) the 18th century "worthiness" doctrine, 2) the
valorization/ranking of the genders as per Latin Grammar, and 3) the choices
of 18th century rule compilers (prescriptivists) in formalizing "everyone...
his" [and I would add, to the metaphorical victimization of "her"].

Alexis Manaster Ramer, says that the "facts" of the English h-stem feminines
-- no matter how "highly interesting" -- are useless to help us understand
the androcentric he-rule's origin and survival.


In review, my hypothesis discusses the late survival of the h-stem feminine
in historical English. 18th century English speakers were aware of the h-stem
"feminine/plural" [?] -- from Old English. It was famously used in the
singular in the poem Alysoun (early 14th century) at the time of "Summer is
Acomin' In."

Printing, in the late 15th century, spelt the death knell to the h-stem
feminine. It was replaced by "she". This sh-form had for centuries existed
alongside the h-stem feminine, and spread itself through "dialect chains" for
centuries, after the middle of the 12th century. Perhaps in some uses "she"
marked a status distinction insisted upon at times by upper class ladies.
There are several theories for *WHY* "she" began to be used and caught on,
and finally was standardized by printing.

The other major consequence of printing was that it ousted from the written
language the tremendous diversity of accusative and oblique h-stem plurals --
there were widespread regional hand written orthographic variations of
h-stems for "them" and "their". Frequently the old forms in h- and the new
forms in th- existed in the same manuscript. The diversity was unified by
William Caxton, the first printer of English -- printing taken up by him at
age 49.

The forms that were spelt out in Caxton's 18,000 pages came as a whole to be
more "worthy" than local forms. (But what does this "worthy" really mean?
(see below)). The regional orthographic diversities in the oblique plurals
and the -m singulars was a confusion to the written language as a whole; and
printing displaced many h-stem forms within one or so generations. The
diffusion theory of pronoun spread -- through dialect chains -- part of the
story, does not go far enough to account for the swift demise of the h-stems
coincident to the advent of printing.

The ProtoGermanic pronoun paradigm is seen in Old English. As examples, there
was the sharing of forms by the feminine singular and (except in the
accusative) the all-genders plurals; it is also seen in the sharing of forms
by the accusative plural (OE dative) and masculine/neuter singular.

The "worthiness" doctrine mentioned by Dennis Baron may have originally
evolved from a confusion because of what English has forgotten -- that there
was another historical sense of "worthy" built on its own Old English root.
It is much more in its semantics related to "becoming", "appropriate" and
"correct" than the other root related to "value." The history of the two
roots is traced or alluded to in the OED and in Calvert Watkins. Recent
decades have mistaken the 18th century worthy=appropriate with
worthy=superior. "Worthy" is in its restricted current English sense
equivalent to "morally deserving" and this sense has been chronocentrically
imposed on the grammarians of the 18th century. Or would some of the
connotation of the worthy=superior OE root have spilled over into
the worthy=becoming (appropriate, correct) OE root?

I would like to know how the Latin valorization rule is express in describing
Latin grammar. To what extent is the valorization principal underpinned by

Baron seems to suggest that at the time of the English language
prescriptivists, the h-stem feminine was known in colloquial and local
English usage. If this is so, "he" still carried the morphological marker for
feminine. Hence, can it any longer be considered symbolic for androcentrism
 (Ann Bodine) or the theft by men from women of cognitive space (Judith
Penelope). H-stem feminines and their variations have for two-thirds of its
history been part of English.

The development of the "his" form has not as far as I know been properly
accounted for. "His" is not to "her" as "he" is to "she". Modern English
pronoun grammar projects the modern paradigm back into history, and the older
paradigm is mistakenly left out of the discussion. "His" is mistakenly given
in contrast to "her", however the historical morphology does not fit so
neatly. Historical "his" also denoted the singular neuter, and because this
third gender is genderless (neuter=not one or the other) it may have at times
been in the 18th century thought of as "common gender", a one time apparently
academically-conceived and popular grammatical term..

Baron seems to state the case in ways similar to Ann Bodine (Androcentrism in
prescriptive grammar: singular 'they', sex-indefinite 'he', and 'he or she',
1975). But he doesn't use Bodine's "androcentric motives" when he says
"Initial calls for a gender-neutral 3 pers. sg. pronoun in the 19th c.
emphasized that the generic masculine pronoun agreement practice based on the
worthiness doctrine violated the equally stringent requirement that pronouns
agree with their antecedents in _gender_ as well as number."

As I would paraphrase Bodine: for the indefinite antecedent pronoun, the
grammarians had a choice between "he" which would violate the gender concord
and "they" which would violate the number concord. The worthiness
(=superiority) doctine of masculine over feminine (of the androcentric
culture) insured that the "he" discord violation for gender would triumph
over the "they" discord violation for number.

(As an aside, is there any supporting evidence that number and gender are
interchangable as has been suggested? Doesn't Icelandic extend gender to the

As I have said, the late survival of the h-stem feminine suggests that past
grammarians were not ignorant of the h-stem feminine morphology, and that it
was known in the colloquial. If this is so, doesn't the feminist
interpretation that during the middle ages <"he"="masculine" only> lose
support (as in Judith Penelope, Speaking Freely, 1990, Pergamon)?

In an 18th century grammar:
"<he> and <his> having formerly been applied to neuters in the place now
supplied by <it> and <its>." OED see NEUTER 1755.

"He" had a meaning 1) "not one or the other, i.e., neither gender" feature
inherited through a ProtoGermanic association of the masculine singular and
the neuter singular, and "he" had a meaning 2) as a common gender form, in
its singular nominative formal association with the h-stem feminine -- this
last association is not in archaic English, but is one which arose in the
changing sounds of the language as it moved after the Norman conquest into
the medieval period. The terminal vowel of OE <heo> weakened and dropped. The
masculine and feminine personal nominative came in many dialects to share the
same h-form, which in many dialects existed alongside the sh-form.


Re Alexis Manaster Ramer

<<<Surely, the "androcentric" "he-rule" is not restrictde to

I didn't know that "he" existed in any other of the world's other 5,999


I am especially interested in input about the Latin valorization rule
(translations of Latin grammar texts please).
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Message 2: singular THEY/epicene HE

Date: Thu, 29 Jun 1995 08:45:44 singular THEY/epicene HE
From: Michael Newman <>
Subject: singular THEY/epicene HE

I can't tell much about any androcentric motivation of 18th century
grammarians, but I do want to correct the widespread notion that the use of
HE in epicene contexts, including notionally plural ones such as anaphoric
to EVERY-N, was in some way invented by them. This idea appears to come
from Anne Bodine's 1975 article in Language in Society which sort began the
whole modern singular THEY industry. She doesn't seem to say so outright,
but she has been understood as implying that HE was not used in epicene
contexts extemporaneously before they attempted to foist it upon a
previously happily THEY using public out of fealty to Latin and/or male
hegemony. (see most recently Mulhausler & Harre and Zuber & Reed).
Preprescriptive English texts are hardly difficult to find, and a perusal
shows variation between epicene uses of HE and THEY. For example, in my
1992 article in Lang Soc I cite the variations found in different
manuscripts of the same passage of "The Prologue to the Pardoner's Tale."
This variation makes sense because [Epicene] like [Higher Animal],
[Collective], and so on, is not a formal category in English. It probably
wasn't then, and it certainly isn't now. In fact,I think it is unlikely
that [Masculine] and [Feminine] is either, but that's another discussion.
However, while SHE for example can mean "female person," and HE can mean
"male person" it is hard to think of how a word can mean "person of unknown
or indeterminate sex." Incidently, perhaps that is why the use of HE in
otherwise epicene contexts is, in fact, sexist.

Bodine, Anne (1975) "Androcentrism in Prescriptive Grammar *Language in
Society* 4, 129-146
Mulhausler, Peter & Harre, Rom (1990) *Pronouns and People: The linguistic
contrsution of social and personal identity* Blackwell
Newman, Michael (1992) "Pronominal Disagreements" *Language in Society* 21
Zuber, Sharon & Reed, Anne (1993) "Generic he and singular they." College
English, 55 515-530

Michael Newman
Dept. of Educational Theory & Practice
The Ohio State University

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