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Other languages have gender-specific third-person plural pronouns (e.g., ellos and ellas in Spanish). English does not, despite the masculine/feminine/neuter distinction being obligatory in the singular.

Is there a historical reason for this situation? Was there a time when English had gendered versions of "they"?

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  • This is a good question; why the downvote? Feb 13, 2011 at 8:50

2 Answers 2

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Old English not only had many plural personal pronouns, but it also distinguished between the nominative, accusative, dative, and genitive cases. See Wikipedia.

By about 1400 they (which was originally a masculine plural demonstrative pronoun borrowed from Old Norse) gradually replaced these personal pronouns.

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  • Old English nearly always used the same plural pronouns regardless of whether it was referring to a group of feminine things, of masculine things, of neutral things, or a mixed group of things. Look at your Wikipedia link. Nov 24, 2019 at 16:53
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There are other languages that have cases more analagous to the English system of distinguishing gender in the singular, but not the plural.

In the singular, the complication doesn't arise of which pronoun to select when the members of the group referred to aren't all of the same gender. However you distribute the usage of, say, "ellos" and "ellas" (or, more notably, "nosotros" vs "nosotras", where there seems to be more variation in usage) when applied to groups of a mixture of sexes, one word in the pair is liable to be used a smaller fraction of the time, hence the chance for the other word to "oust" it.

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