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In 1789, William H. Marshall records the existence of a dialectal English epicene pronoun, singular ou : "'Ou will' expresses either he will, she will, or it will." Marshall traces ou to Middle English epicene a, used by the fourteenth-century English writer John of Trevisa, and both the OED and Wright's English Dialect Dictionary confirm the use of a for he, she, it, they, and even I.
The dialectal epicene pronoun a is a reduced form of the Old and Middle English masculine and feminine pronouns he and heo. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the masculine and feminine pronouns had developed to a point where, according to the OED, they were "almost or wholly indistinguishable in pronunciation." The modern feminine pronoun she, which first appears in the mid twelfth century, seems to have been drafted at least partly to reduce the increasing ambiguity of the pronoun system....
He goes on to describe how relics of these sex-neutral terms survive in some British dialects of Modern English, and sometimes a pronoun of one gender might be applied to a person or animal of the opposite gender.
In 1770, Robert Baker suggested use of "one, ones" instead of "one, his", since there was no equivalent "one, hers". Others shared this sentiment in 1868, 1884, 1979, and even now. Others throughout this period disagreed, finding it too pedantic.
"His or Her" vs. Singular "They"
Around 1795, the language authorities Lindley Murray, Joseph Priestly, and Hugh Blair, amongst others, campaigned against pronoun irregularities in pronoun use, such as lack of agreement in gender and number. Without coining words, this can only be done in the third person singular by use of compound terms like "his or her". (This i consider cumbersome, and when used repeatedly, very cumbersome.) Grammarians in 1879, 1922, 1931, 1957, and the 1970s have accepted "they" as a singular term that could be used in place of "he" or "he or she", though sometimes limiting it to informal constructions. Others in 1795, 1825, 1863, 1898, 1926, and 1982 argued against it for various reasons. And whatever the grammarians might argue, people have been using the singular "they" for about the last 600 years, though (as mentioned earlier) it can only be applied in certain cases. If new gender-neutral pronouns are not adopted, i'm sure that singular "they" will still be a point of contention for centuries to come.
For further information on the use of singular "their" throughout the centuries, see the large body of information that Henry Churchyard has compiled on the subject.
Besides the centuries-old instinctive use of "their", people have been formally concerned about the gendered pronoun problem since at least 1795, and have been coining new pronouns for about the last century and a half. The first, sometime around 1850, were "ne, nis, nim", and "hiser". In 1868, "en" appeared, followed by a rush in 1884: "thon, thons", "hi, hes, hem", "le, lis, lim", "unus", "talis", "hiser, himer", "hyser, hymer", and "ip, ips". These things come in bursts, with a flurry of interest in certain circles while many try their hand at neologism, then an eventual dying out, only to be revived by another person in the future. (See the charts below.) Many more coinings followed between 1888 and 1891, then interest died for two decades. Interest picked up again during the thirties and forties, then died once more. Interest exploded in the seventies with the rise of a new international feminist consciousness, but it seems to have mostly died out again around in the 80's backlash. (Note that the data in the graphs is incomplete, and comes from a book that was published in 1986.) Nevertheless, interest persisted at a lower level, and has flowered into international usage in some pockets of the net. The pronouns "sie, hir, hirs, hirself" seem to have been the most widely adopted, found mainly in Usenet groups involving romantic relationships, and the alternative forms "zie, zir, zirs, zirself" also have a following. The set "ey or e, em, eir, eirs, eirself or emself" has found more limited use. Several authors have also used GNPs in recent fiction and nonfiction. See the references at the end of the FAQ for more information on these. It's curious that Baron concludes in Grammar and Gender that the gender-neutral pronoun has "failed", when eir own research shows that interest in the idea has been increasing over the decades. And the fact that some have come into common usage on the net tells me that it has in fact finally succeeded, that the peculiar ability of the net to allow easy communication between like minds that are geographically isolated has provided the missing element that was needed for GNPs to take off in sustainable way. I expect that the adoption of a standard GNP set by significant groups and individuals (such as SF or PM authors, or majority of the net community) would provide sufficient stability and recognition to allow further growth.
Many early GNP forms were re-coined or revived in later years. Many are unimaginative and/or hideous attempts at squishing the male and female forms together, like heesh, herm, hesh, s/he, him/er, and he'er. (One rare partial success, in my opinion, is the one in use on the net: hir.) Others, like le or ze borrow from other languages. The group "ey, eir, em" is notable as being the only ones formed by a simple uniform change to already existing plurals. Some of the terms coined were completely artificial. Notable is the fact that many created just one form, such as the subject form, and ignored the others.There are currently ?? unique coined forms. The following ?? words were created by others:
ae, ar, co, cos, E's, E, e, eir, eirs, eirself, Em, em, ems, en, es, et, ets, etself, ey, fm, h'orsh'it, ha, hann, he'er, heesh, heir, heirs, hem, her'n, herim, heris, herm, hermself, herorhis, hes, hesh, heshe, hey, hez, hi, him'er, him/er, him/herself, himer, himmer, himorher, Hir, hir, hirem, hires, hirm, hirs, hirself, his'er's, his'er, his'n, his-or-her, hiser, hisers, hiserself, hisher, hisorher, hizer, hizzer, ho, hom, homself, hos, hs, hse, hymer, hyser, im, ip, ips, Ir, ir, iro, jhe, le, lem, les, na, nan, naself, ne, ner, nim, nis, on, ons, per, pers, po, rim, ris, s/he, sap, se, sem, ser, ses, (s)he, she, SHe, sheehy, sheir, sheirs, sheirself, shem, sheme, shey, shim, shims, shimself, shis, sie, sim, simself, sis, smrtz, ta, tem, term, tey, thim, thir, thiro, thon, thons, uh, ve, vim, vir, vis, xe, z, ze, zees, zeeself, zie, zim, zir, zirs, zirself.The following ?? words are all the ones i coined to complete the declensions of sets of the above words:
aes, aeself, cosself, E'sself, emsself, ens, enself, esself, fms, fmslf, hanns, hannself, he-or-she, he/she, heeshs, heeshself, heirself, hemself, heorshe, her'ns, her'nself, herisself, herm, herms, herorhim, herorhimself, hersorhis, hesself, hezself, him-or-her, him-or-herself, him/erself, him/her, Hirs, Hirself, his'er'self, his'ns, his'nself, his-or-hers, his/er, his/ers, his/her, his/hers, hishers, hisherself, hisorhers, hisorherself, hizers, hizerself, hizzers, hizzerself, hses, hseself, hysers, hyserself, ipsself, iros, iroself, Irs, Irself, jhes, jheself, lesself, nans, nisself, onsself, persself, risself, sers, ses, sesself, sheehys, sheehyself, sheorhe, shes, shesself, shisself, sisself, tas, tasself, terms, termself, thiros, thiroselves, thirs, thirsself, thonself, uhs, uhs, uhself, visself, zee, zself.
Not wishing to spend the rest of my life formatting and categorizing new GNPs, i'll put future GNPs (or newly discovered old GNPs) in the following list, unless something spurs me to do otherwise. [Note: list moved to the next page with the all other listed words.]
Words & Sets:
Although the GNP entries below are listed by word , they are categorized and evaluated by set . This is because many people have proposed sets that have a few words in common with other sets. For example, the word "es" appears twice in the list, once in the set "en/es/ar", and once in the set "en/es/em". My main concern here is to evaluate whether or not a viable set has been created.
Format: First comes a word from a set, then the date that set was proposed, then set itself. The members of the set are categorized by initials as follows:
- S: Subject
- They looked at the froggery.
- O: Object
- The froggery looked at them.
- PA: Possessive Adjective
- It was their froggery.
- PP: Possessive Pronoun
- The froggery was theirs.
- R: Reflexive
- They kept the froggery for themselves.
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