Earliest Singular They According to the OED

I’ve long been seeing mentions that the use of the plural pronoun they to refer to a singular antecedent is older than the present attempt to introduce it as a gender-neutral option. Here’s a little history I ran across.

Dennis Baron, Professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, blogs about singular they for The Oxford English Dictionary. According to him, the oldest recorded use within the OED is from 1375, in the medieval romance William and the Werewolf.

BrLib Digital Catalogue Illuminated MSS Royal 10 E IV f12 Detail

Continues Baron:

“Here’s the Middle English version: ‘Hastely hiȝed eche . . . þei neyȝþed so neiȝh . . . þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.’ In modern English, that’s: ‘Each man hurried . . . till they drew near . . . where William and his darling were lying together.’ [original emphasis]

“Since forms may exist in speech long before they’re written down, it’s likely that singular they was common even before the late fourteenth century. That makes an old form even older.”

Since I’m a Finn and we don’t have grammatical gender in our language, singular they seems natural to me. In fact, I fail to see a reason to choose to kick up a major kerfuffle over it; after all, (normative) English already mixes up the numbers with singular and plural you.

I’m pretty sure that within the past decade or so I have spotted multiple examples from non-woke modern English sources, both television series and novels, that do use singular they seemingly unconsciously, very naturally, and entirely unambiguously. I wish I had realized to write them down for my own interest.

Image: Group of men, detail of illuminated manuscript Royal 10 E IV, f. 12, via The British Library Digital Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts (France, S. [Toulouse?]; last quarter of the 13th century or 1st quarter of the 14th century; illuminated manuscript)

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