Pronouns have always been political

Socially-motivated change in our pronoun system is nothing new

Pronouns are at the center of most discussions of transgender people’s challenges to the linguistic status quo. While I continue working on a few posts that touch on pronouns from different angles, I wanted to share another chapter in the history of English pronouns because it illustrates how culture and politics often drive grammatical changes.

The major pronoun shift of the 20th century was undoubtedly the move away from the generic masculine — i.e., the use of “he” as the default pronoun to refer to a person whose gender is unspecified — and toward more inclusive/less androcentric options like s/he, he or she, the generic feminine (she), or singular they. There are a number of parallels between the changes currently happening with singular they and the processes through which feminists challenged the idea that the generic masculine was a grammatical accident free of politics. But this isn’t the story I want to tell today. The story I want to tell is about you.

Let’s talk about ‘you’: How pronouns do social work

When I hear from journalists who are writing articles about language in trans communities, it is usually to ask me about the “new phenomenon” of gender-neutral pronouns. It’s clear that singular they has received more affirmation in the past few years from institutionally powerful sources (like the American Dialect Society), but presenting trans people’s use of singular they as a new practice ignores the centuries-long history of they being used in reference to a single person. It also suggests that pronoun systems are normally static, unchanging, and inflexible. This is how formal education treats pronouns, afterall. If you’ve studied a foreign language like French, German, or Italian in school, for instance, chances are you’re familiar with pronoun charts like these (though such a chart would look quite different if you studied a language like Japanese, say).

Source: Language Scarpbook [sic]

Because the distinctions made in a pronoun systems vary considerably across languages, rules of usage often accompany these charts in language-teaching materials. Because an English pronoun chart will typically have only one second person pronoun — you*— learning languages like Spanish, German, Hungarian, or Malay generally involves being taught to use “informal” second-person pronouns (tu, du, te, and kamu, respectively) when speaking to children, close friends, and animals while using the “formal” second-person pronouns (usted, Sie, ön, and anda) with elders, strangers, and others who are owed deference. Linguists refer to this pattern as a T/V distinction (from Latin’s pronouns tu and vos).

These guidelines are presented as pre-existing rules, but the reality is far less rigid. Speakers of T/V languages don’t just go down a checklist to see which form they are supposed to use; instead, they use pronouns in socially meaningful ways.

Larry David on T/V (not on TV)

One isn’t required to use the V form with strangers and T with friends; if you want to show solidarity with someone you don’t know — or to express a stance of social superiority over them — you might accomplish this by using a T pronoun. Your addressee may then choose to use a T form in return, which could be taken as a sign of either solidarity (especially if you are a social equal) or disrespect (especially if you are a social “superior”). Or they may use a V form, which could be taken as a rejection of your claim to solidarity or as an indicator that they do indeed see you as higher status than themselves. Likewise, if you want to tease a friend who recently took a high-power job about their fancy new lifestyle, a V pronoun will do nicely; alternatively, if you’re friends with your boss, switching from V to T pronouns could be a sign that you’re shifting from work mode into socializing.

Note that these differences are not only about intimacy; they are also about power relations.

Pronouns can be seen as reflecting the presence or absence of a power differential, but it is even more useful to see them as part of what creates the power dynamic.

How English speakers dropped the T/V

For several centuries, English maintained a T/V distinction. In Middle English, this took the form of a distinction between the singular thou/thee (the “T” forms) and the plural ye/you (the “V” forms). The history of the loss of this distinction is a complex one, but one of the most interesting parts for our purposes is the role of the Religious Society of Friends, aka the Quakers. You can find a variety of discussions of Quakers’ use of thee online, but they tend to focus on issues like why Quakers use only thee rather than both thou and thee (the historical equivalent of using me in place of both me and I). But for the discussion below I’ll be drawing mainly from linguistic anthropologist Michael Silverstein’s paper, “Language and the culture of gender.”** Published in 1985, this paper is primarily about the feminist-led decline of the generic masculine pronoun and how that instance of change exemplifies the connections between linguistic structure (in this case, how many/which pronouns a language has), the ways people actually use language, and speakers’ ideologies about language. But his digression into the history of the second person pronoun, you, is instructive as an example of how truly unexceptional it is for cultural change to motivate changes in a language’s pronoun system (one of Silverstein’s main points as well).

The history of the second person pronoun, you, is just one example of cultural change and political values shaping the English pronoun system.

Old English second person pronouns did have a singular/plural distinction – actually, it had a three-way distinction between singular, dual (2 people, “you two”), and plural (more than 2). The use of this singular/plural distinction as a T/V system for establishing power relations and intimacy, however, is thought to be a result of contact with the speakers of French who populated the English elite following the Norman conquest. Over time, however, the V pronouns, ye and you, came to be used as the default second person forms among this elite class. This opened up the possibility of imitation by those with class aspirations, a growing segment of the population as changing economic systems made class mobility more possible. A major part of achieving a middle class status was mastering the language of those in power (this is the point where we first see a proliferation of grammar guides with prescriptions for speaking English “correctly”). Eventually, the T forms came to be associated with speech directed at a social inferior; Silverstein’s examples show how calling someone thou or thee could even function as an insult all on its own. By 1700, the T/V distinction in English had all but disappeared in favor of the once-plural V form, you.

A woman addresses a meeting of Quakers in London. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Of course, these economic and social changes were also happening in other parts of Europe, where speakers of languages like French, Italian, and Spanish retained a T/V distinction, so this is not a simple cause and effect relationship. But one important aspect of the history of English that differs from that of the romance languages is the way Protestantism emerged as part of a larger sociopolitical upheaval that challenged the types of power that institutions (including the Roman Catholic church) could assert over individuals. The rise of Protestantism, which contrasted itself with Catholicism in part by emphasizing the individual’s direct relationship with the divine (unmediated by the papacy), had a number of linguistic implications. Among these was a high value placed on “plain speech,” particularly among Puritans and later the Religious Society of Friends. One manifestation of plain speech for Quakers was a conscious refusal to speak more deferentially to those with greater power, for instance by maintaining a T/V distinction. Instead, the thee pronoun was seen as a better reflection of the Friends’ egalitarian worldview. In the language log post I linked to above, Mark Liberman quotes Society founder George Fox’s Epistle 191, written in 1660, which calls on Friends to “train up your children in the same singular and plural language” and to “speak singular, thee and thou [when speaking] to one [person].” As Silverstein explains, the accumulation of meanings attached to thee — as a potential insult, a marker of distaste for social hierarchies, or as a sign that the speaker is a Quaker — created the conditions for the loss of the T/V distinction in most dialects of English.

Back to gender

With this history in mind, the expanding recognition of singular they is not as exceptional as it seems. It would be far from the first successful attempt to shift English pronouns in order to promote a new set of social or political values. Nor does its success seem so far fetched considering how many far more drastic changes have taken place in the English pronoun system.

Major changes in English subject pronouns: loss of dual/plural distinction for 1st and 2nd person, loss of singular/plural distinction for 2nd person, & loss of gender distinction in the plural 3rd person. (Assembled from numerous texts).

Even among linguists, language change is often treated as a matter of pure historical accident, but this simply isn’t true. We can’t always find simple one-to-one connections between changes in linguistic structure and cultural change, but linguistic change always happens in a social context where the older forms have one set of meanings and the newer forms have another. When cultural changes are afoot, skirmishes frequently take the form of debates over appropriate language use, and this is exactly what we see in discussions of singular they. The important thing to keep in mind that there is no apolitical stance we can take on pronouns. Pronouns are one of the primary tools we use to refer to other people, implicating them in the construction of social categories and relationships. Pronouns have always been political, and that’s not going to change.

*English is often described as having only one second person pronoun. This is not strictly true, as several varieties of English have frequently used second-person plural pronouns like y’all, yous(e), yinz, and phrases like you all or you guys. (The last two aren’t pronouns grammatically, of course, but they function similarly as words that refer to the person(s) being addressed). Clearly, though, English does not have the same kind of T/V distinction it did prior to the 18th century; in fact, it is now the plural form that now tends to suggest intimacy or solidarity rather than the singular.

  • *Silverstein, Michael. 1985. Language and the culture of gender: At the intersection of structure, usage, and ideology. In Elizabeth Mertz & Richard J. Parmentier (eds.), Semiotic Mediation: Sociocultural and Psychological Perspectives, 219–259. London: Academic Press.