Reference > Usage > American Heritage® Book of English Usage > 5. Gender > § 4. epicene pronouns
The American Heritage® Book of English Usage.
A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English.  1996.

5. Gender: Sexist Language and Assumptions

§ 4. epicene pronouns

People have long noted the need in English for a third person singular pronoun that can refer to a person of either sex, thus liberating us from dependence on masculine his in sentences like Someone left _____ hat and A smart student keeps _____ papers in _____ notebook. What many people do not realize is that English once had such a pronoun, but it fell out of use, probably because the linguistic need to specify gender was so overwhelming.    1
  That pronoun is a—not the article a, but a reduced form of the Middle English third person pronouns he, which referred to a male, and heo, which was used for a female. These pronouns, which derive from Old English, came to be nearly indistinguishable when pronounced, and in some dialects they were reduced to a short syllable, spelled ha or a. Thus there existed a native English pronoun that could refer to a third person of either sex, at least in the nominative case. Unfortunately, this development created a problem that is the opposite of our modern one: people sometimes couldn’t tell which gender was being referred to! Would that be a (he) or a (she)? In part to differentiate the genders, Middle English speakers began using she for the female pronoun. Just where she comes from is a matter of some debate, but it probably was an alternate pronunciation of heo that received wider use because it could be distinguished from he.    2
  The common-gender pronoun a still survives today in some British dialects, along with the forms un and hoo or u, as a relic of Middle English he and heo. But for most speakers of English, an epicene pronoun is devoutly to be wished for. And people have been wishing for a long time. Artificial epicene pronouns for English have been proposed at least since the mid-19th century. Dennis Baron in his book Grammar and Gender has compiled a list of some eighty of these modest proposals that have been put forth over the years. We present a selection on page 174. Some of these proposals have been invented independently more than once. Some have been taken or adapted from other languages. Note that many are inflected for grammatical case just as he and she are.    3
  In addition, concerned readers have sent their own pronoun proposals to the editors of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Among these are che, chim, chis (1985); per, pers, pem (1992); ne, nes, nem (1995); and wun (1995). Wun, whose plural would be wuns or wen, would also function as a substitute for generic man, and be used in compounds as well, as in gentlewuns and wunkind. No doubt other dictionary publishers have their own files of epicene pronouns proposed by readers.    4
  Like most efforts at language reform, these well-intended suggestions have been largely ignored by the general English-speaking public, and the project to supplement the English pronoun system has proved to be an ongoing exercise in futility. Pronouns are one of the most basic components of a language, and most speakers appear to have little interest in adopting invented ones. This may be because in most situations people can get by using the plural pronoun they or using other constructions that combine existing pronouns, such as he/she or he or she.    5
  Epicene pronouns have enjoyed some success in certain forms of writing, especially science fiction. Some Internet discussion groups also make a habit of using these pronouns.    6
  More at he.    7

Date Pronoun
about ne, nis, nim
1850 hiser
1868 en
1884 thon, thons
hi, hes, hem
le, lis, lim
hiser, himer
ip, ips
1888 ir, iro, im
1890 e, es, em
1912 he’er, him’er, his’er, his’er’s
1927 ha, hez, hem
hesh, hizzer, himmer
about thir
1935 himorher
1938 se, sim, sis
1945 hse
1970 she (since it contains he), heris, herim
co, cos
ve, vis, ver
1972 tey, term, tem
shis, shim, shims, shimself
ze, zim, zees, zeeself
per, pers
1973 na, nan, naself
1974 en, es, ar
1975 ey, eir, em
1977 e, ris, rim
em, ems
1978 ae
1979 et, ets, etself
shey, sheir, sheirs
1980 it
1981 heshe, hes, hem
1984 hann
1985 herm


The American Heritage® Book of English Usage. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

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