Etymology–the study of the origin of words–is one of my favorite categories of trivia. In line with the kind of facts that I’m most likely to remember, it’s not useful for anything. But if we’ve spoken in person, I’ve probably enthusiastically told you at some point the origin of some word or other.
A recent favorite is ‘check’ whose origin is from shah, Persian for king. All uses and meanings of check in the English language come from king. Via chess. Etymology is so interesting!
Something that you quickly learn, when regularly utilizing tools like the Online Etymology Dictionary, as I do, is that words often change pretty wildly over time. A great example that I learned in high school is ‘sanguine’– a word that originally meant bloody or bloodthirsty now means optimistic or happy, somehow vaguely connected to changing connotations of the color red. How odd?!?
Or ‘nonplussed’ which usually means utterly surprised and confused but, because Americans never learned what it meant, can now also mean unperturbed. Total opposites. The inversion of word meanings is one of my favorite things about etymology because it is the clearest example of what I like to say was my one-line lesson from my BA degree: everything’s a social construct.
Here’s a very unusual grammatical/etymological tidbit that will be especially relevant for people who have studied certain other languages. The reason we say ‘you are’ for singular, even though ‘are’ is a plural conjugation of be is because you is plural. Always. Even when it’s singular. There used to be a singular second person pronoun in English and now there isn’t! Originally, as with many languages, English had a formal you pronoun, one to use when addressing someone you ought to show respect or deference to. In German, Sie. In Russian, Вы. In French, vous. You get the point.
But for some reason, English speakers just became overly formal to everyone. They started using the plural, formal pronoun in all situations. And so the original singular second person pronoun–which was thee/thou— has vanished from daily use. Indeed, now we like to think of thee and thou as especially formal, antique language. In fact, ye and you (there used to be separate nominative and objective forms of each pronoun, don’t worry about it) were historically the formal ones!
This may all be tremendously boring to you. And I feel that. Not everyone has the same interests and I’m well aware of how niche this interest is. But, if you’ve stuck it out this far, please bear with me a little further because there is an actual point that I’m trying to make.
Imagine if, historically, there had been different English pronouns for Catholics and Protestants. It would’ve increased specificity, conveying additional information in an efficient manner, but that information may have been actively harmful in many situations. At many points in time, it would have been very socially useful to know immediately whether the person you were talking to was Protestant or Catholic, but such knowledge would also have likely resulted in increased oppression, suffering, and death.
That’s not all that directly analogous to the question of gender but surprise, that’s where I’m going with this. People probably wouldn’t be too concerned, at least in my neck of the woods, about abolishing such religious pronouns entirely because it’s simply not an important distinction any more. Language would lose some level of specificity but I think we’d all manage just fine.
Likewise, gendered pronouns IN THEIR ENTIRETY are not actually necessary. Many languages simply do not have them. As you’ve just heard, perhaps for the first time, English used to have a singular second person pronoun. And now it doesn’t. An entire pronoun disappeared because the distinction became obsolete. We didn’t get rid of the concept of formality, we just didn’t need our language to reflect formality in the same way.
I can easily imagine a future English where there is only one third person pronoun: they. Not because the concept of man and woman are abolished but because we don’t need our language to reflect those concepts in the same way. English would simply recognize that having only he and she is an ineffectual way to categorize people and so pronounce usage would change.
We’re not there yet, obviously, and I’m not advocating that we all use they pronouns effective immediately. I’m just trying to point out that language evolves, should evolve, and that it evolves as the ways in which we see the world, as collective language speakers, also evolves.
We can’t all just say words mean whatever we want them to mean. But social changes are reflected in language. Languages changes. It’s not one person doing something crazy that no one understands. We’re all pretty aware of some people using they as their preferred pronouns. So if someone asks you to address them differently than you might expect, just do it.
Change can happen if we wish it. The world can be more kind if we make it so.
And as a reward for reading through to the end (and not just skipping to the pictures) here are some cats.