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)

On, of, and about languages.

Visual Inspiration: Now I See from Where Ents Might Have Come

As a kid, I spent time playing in the small wooded areas nearby and imagined all sorts of critters living there. I know I did, but at some point I lost the ability (or willingness, or perhaps leisure? I remember an increase in homework around the same time). By the time I read of the enormous woodlands in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I remember having trouble imagining the really large trees of Lothlórien or Mirkwood, or how Ents might be mistaken for trees.

You see, I grew up two hours south of the Arctic Circle. We have woods up there, of course, thanks to the Gulf stream. The trees may not necessarily grow very big, however—although there are exceptions—and the ones that do grow tall tend to be relatively thin and arrow-straight instead of bulky and gnarly. (Two examples here and here. Both are further south than where I grew up, but nevertheless very similar.)

So, even I can easily imagine how a forest might invoke stories of elves, trolls, ents, and other creatures on the basis of photos of Wistman’s Wood in Dartmoor, Devon, England.

Flickr Andy Walker Wistmans Wood

Flickr Clifton Beard Wistmans Wood

Flickr Natural England Peter Wakely Wistmans Wood

Isn’t it breathtaking? It’s like there are Ents about to walk out from behind a tree at any moment!

Images: Andy Walker (CC BY-ND 2.0) via Flicker. Clifton Beard (CC BY-NC 2.0) via Flickr. Natural England/Peter Wakely (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) via Flickr.

The Visual Inspiration occasional feature pulls the unusual from our world to inspire design, story-telling, and worldbuilding. If stuff like this already exists, what else could we imagine?

Medieval Realism: Holding a Distaff Under One Arm While Feeding Chickens

As usual, some days ago while doing something quite different I found an intriguing detail I wanted to look into. Finally I had the time to chase it down.

So: I was struck by this scene from an English illuminated manuscript.

British Library Add MS 42130 f166v Feeding Chickens
Add MS 42130, f.166v via British Library (England; 1325-1340; illuminated manuscript)

The way the woman in the image is holding a distaff under one arm while she feeds chickens from a bowl feels incredibly authentic. I may not have to spin my own yarn nor feed chickens in 2018, but I have often held a thing under my arm momentarily while taking care of a small, short task. Such a lovely, realistic detail.

I do have one question for the artist, though: what on earth is that chick doing, standing on top of the hen and pecking her? (“Mom, look, I’m up here! Mom? Mom? Mooom!”) LOL!

The manuscript is from England and known as The Luttrell Psalter. Fortunately for us, British Library has digitized the whole manuscript. In addition to the chicken-feeding one above, the illuminations include a slew of other everyday scenes, like a miller in his windmill, bear-baiting(!), a wattle pen full of sheep, and various stages of tending fields and preparing food.

Being a textile nerd, I enjoyed the image of two women preparing fibers into yarn: one is using a spinning wheel, the other is carding.

British Library Add MS 42130 f193r Spinning Carding
Add MS 42130, f.193r via British Library (England; 1325-1340; illuminated manuscript)

The coloring is quite lovely. I do wonder, however, what’s with the awkward poses. The chicken-feeding image felt much more natural in that respect, too.

Images via British Library

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.