Several people have drawn my attention to a harmonic convergence of LL topics on CNN.com today: social media, gender-neutral pronouns, and linguistic time machines. The article is Elizabeth Landau, "On Twitter, is it 'he or she' or 'they' or 'ip'?", and Ms. Landau is worried that English will be unable to reach the epicene ideal, due to fundamental principles of linguistics:
Consider the sentence "Everyone loves his mother." The word "his" may be seen as both sexist and inaccurate, but replacing it with "his or her" seems cumbersome, and "they" is grammatically incorrect. […]
It turns out that an English speaker's mind can't instantly adopt an imposed new gender-neutral system of pronouns, linguists say. A sudden change in the system of pronouns or other auxiliary words in any language is very difficult to achieve.
She quotes both Steven Pinker and Mark Pagel in support of her concerns.
"The function words form a closed club that resists new members," Harvard University linguist Steven Pinker writes in his book "The Language Instinct."
"We could time travel and have very limited conversation," said Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, who led the study. "We really believe that we can probably go back 20,000 years with those really, really old words."
But in fact, neither of these eminent scientists has anything to say that should really lead Ms. Landau or her readers to fear that we might be stuck with "his or her mother" for tens of thousands of years into the future.
In fact, Language Log is here to reassure Ms. Landau that the problem has already been solved. Singular they is supported not only by the usage of today's youth, but also by historical scholarship, psychological experimentation, government regulation, and divine inspiration.
[For a more complete discussion of the historical issues (both descriptive and prescriptive), take a look at pp. 51-53, 414-416, 662-664, 666-667, 860, 901-903, of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.]
[As we've often suggested, you should definitely buy either the full or concise version of the just-cited book — the fact that a full scan is now available on Google Books makes it even more useful as a reference, since you can use the search function. And speaking of social media, just consider this review, the first one that MWDEU has gotten on the Google Books site:
My name is……………..
well I can't tell you cause my friend…(cant tell you her name)'s mom said not to give out personal info on the web. I did'nt read this book but I want to some day. From what i have heard this book is very long, and has a lot of words, AWESOMEly, I want to eat a taco at tacobell so bye,
(cant say) i'll give you a hint it starts with a……………………………………… …
What more is there to say? ]
WHAT DOES A tipping point sound like? Possibly, what I heard recently when a leaf of paper fluttered out of a credit card mailing. It offered rewards points for ordering additional cards for family members and had the heading: "No one has to know you added them for the rewards." The copywriter's use of the word "them" — instead of the traditional "him" or the more recently favored "him or her" — was the semantic straw that broke the camel's back. It was a signal that the genderless pronoun had arrived.
"Returned" might be a better way to put it. Before the mid-18th century, English writers and speakers universally referred back to an indefinite antecedent ("everyone," "anyone," "a person") with the pronouns "they," "their" or "them." This was understandable because all singular personal pronouns are gender specific. And so, Shakespeare: "God send everyone their heart's desire." The King James Bible: "In lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than themselves." Henry Fielding: "Every Body fell a laughing, as how could they help it?"
From the late 1700s through the early 1900s, much grammatical rule making took place in England and the United States, and the rule makers were offended by the use of otherwise plural pronouns to stand in for singular nouns. Their collective wisdom determined that the appropriate pronoun in all such cases should be masculine generic — that is, "he," "him" and "his." The usage is grammatically unimpeachable but, in excluding females, is not only politically but factually incorrect, leading to the publication of sentences such as, "Man, being a mammal, breast-feeds his young."
I'm not sure what he means by "grammatically unimpeachable" — those of us in the grammatical division of the reality-based community have been impeaching as fast as we can for some time — but I'll let it go, since according to Ben the tipping point was a little over two years ago in any event. ]