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Why does English use the singular they instead of making a new word for it?

In my native language there's a word dia which has the same meaning as he/she, but it doesn't give information about the gender of the person.

I've seen questions close to this, but they don't provide the reason of not making a new word.

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    People have proposed new words. See Arjan's answer to a very frequently viewed question on this site, Is there a correct gender-neutral singular pronoun {“his” vs. “her” vs. “their”}? – sumelic Sep 17 '18 at 5:39
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    Why questions about language are almost always poor candidates for good answers as they are often subject to personal opinion. Language is what people make of it, and, at least currently, the use of the singular they is seeing a resurgence. – Jason Bassford Sep 17 '18 at 7:34
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    Why does your language just have one word dia which doesn’t specify whether you’re talking about a man or a woman? Why haven’t they made up a pronoun that specifies the gender? – Janus Bahs Jacquet Sep 17 '18 at 10:59
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    Why make a new word when singular "they" has been in use for centuries? – chepner Sep 17 '18 at 13:10
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    You could just as easily ask: Why not use singular they? Why make a new word to distinguish its meaning when "they" works just fine? – only_pro Sep 17 '18 at 16:18
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People have created new gender-neutral pronouns. (A good list of currently used ones can be found here.) Furthermore, the move to create gender neural pronouns in English is quite old. However, none of these pronouns were ever very successful. Few people are even aware they exist. Currently, these new pronouns are usually confined to the transgender community, but even there singular they is preferred by the majority.

People often say they don't like the way these new pronouns sound (example). Pronouns are used very frequently, and it's definitely jarring to not hear what you're expecting. It's even worse when speaking, having to think and make a conscious decision to switch every single time you use a pronoun. This is mentioned in the book What is Morphology?:

One generalization we can make is that while content words are an open class and it is possible to coin new ones, function words are a closed class. A person cannot easily invent a new preposition or conjunction. Perhaps most telling is the long history of people trying to invent a gender-neutral singular pronoun for English. Suggestions have included co, et, hesh, na, e, and thon. Some linguists have recently proposed tey (on the analogy of plural they, which is gender-neutral), with further forms tem and ter (modeled on them and her). None of these novel words has caught on, while novel content words like modem and cell phone enter the language relatively smoothly.

The Guardian has a very good summary of the history:

Baron’s blog walks you through all the failed attempts – starting with the mid­ 19th century’s ne, nis, nim, and citing sci-­fi’s contributions of neologism: co; xie; per; en. As early as 1878, Napoleon Bonaparte Brown argued that the need for a new pronoun was “so desperate, urgent, imperative that ... it should long since have grown on our speech”.

In 1884, thon, hi, le, hiser and ip were variously suggested. Thon – a blend of that and one – was coined by Philadelphia lawyer Charles C Converse and Baron demonstrates how it was the closest thing to a successful attempt at entering the vernacular; it was accepted by two major dictionaries and even adopted by some writers. But it was grammatical pedantry, not feminism, that motivated Converse. He wanted a “beautiful symmetry” in English and to avoid “hideous solecisms”.

The second closest thing to enter the vernacular was named after American mathematician Michael Spivak; initially e, es, em (e wrote; es eyes are blue) later ey, eir, em (ey wrote; I like em). Other sources attribute these pronouns (formed by dropping the th from they, their and them) to a competition run by the Chicago Association of Business Communicators, won by a Christine M Elverson in 1975. The Spivak pronouns are used today by some in the genderqueer and gaming communities.

Further proposals – hes, hem, ir, ons, e, ith, lim, ler, lers – sprang up, often suggested by newspapers. Readers suggested portmanteaus: hiser; himer; hasher; shis; shim; heer; hie. Humanist lexicon suggested hu, which can occasionally sound like the Kiwi accent (hu wrote; I like hum). Jayce’s system, meanwhile, suggested jee, jem (jee wrote; I like jem). You can find these, and many more, listed at A Chronology of a Word that Failed.

Why has a need for such a short and simple word been so unsuccessful? One opponent of the “bastard word form” portmanteaus, wrote in the New York Commercial Advertiser in 1884 in response to the idea of thon: “All attempts in this direction have failed, partly because it is always exceedingly difficult to introduce new forms into a language, unless they spring up naturally and, as it were, spontaneously.”

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    People have tried to create gender-neutral pronouns, but all attempts have failed so far, as the Guardian journalist noted. – Mari-Lou A Sep 17 '18 at 7:16
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    Short version - just because a word is cromulent doesn't mean people will use it. – WhatRoughBeast Sep 17 '18 at 13:40
  • A further complication with thon is that some dialects have demonstrative pronoun thon as a variant of yon. While there are of course plenty of homonyms in English, it would be a source of further resistance where thon is already in use in a very different meaning. – Jon Hanna Sep 17 '18 at 14:16
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    many people find inventing new words to be doubleplusungood, particularly when politically motivated – Matt Sep 17 '18 at 15:53
  • Why can't we vote to reopen the question? – Mari-Lou A Sep 17 '18 at 21:46
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A Language is not made by "thinking of a translation" for a word. It's not like, say, you have the word Konnichiwa which is Japanese, then ask "How do we say this in English?" "Oh let's use the word hi". That's not how it works - because there isn't an English word for Konnichiwa. It belongs to the Japanese language and Japanese language only. Now if you want to translate it into English, you're not supposed to translate it by the word.

Instead, the goal of translation is not to translate word per word but it's to convey the meaning. For instance, English has A LOT of adjectives. Not all of these have their own translation in other languages. The goal is to convey the meaning. It so happens when I say Konnichiwa and Hi, they both convey a greeting.

Another example, when someone asks if you want to go out for coffee, you could answer I'd love to.

But if you translate that to a different language, you could say (in Filipino) oo. Three sentences translated into one word? If you translate it word per word in English, you'd get "oo iniibig ko" - which is honestly, not very normal in our language. So you could just use oo ( which is as simple as "yes"). The purpose was to convey the message that you wanted tea, no more no less.

Unless it's pointed out that you have to emphasize that you'd love some tea, then you could say ay oo gustong gusto ko - which actually also translates differently (word per word: "oh yes i want want tea").

So it's not that they don't want to create a new word for it, it's just that it's conveyed differently in English. They could create a new word for it, but it can already be properly conveyed. So I (in my opinion) don't think there is no need to.

  • The necessity for a pure gender-neutral pronoun is most sought after by the LGBTQ community, there is a "need" and some have proposed several solutions but they haven't really caught on with the general public. Using "he or she" or "they" for an individual who is non-binary can be interpreted as being offensive, or more generously, lacking in sensitivity. – Mari-Lou A Sep 17 '18 at 7:22
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    @Mari-LouA That pretty much nails it IMO: it is only considered "insensitive" by the same numerical minority who want to invent a new word. The majority of English speakers don't mind the fact that the gender of "he," and the number (singular/plural) of "they", have been ambiguous for centuries already. – alephzero Sep 17 '18 at 14:17
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Because creating a new closed-class word is a hugely invasive change to people's way of speaking.

It's much more drastic than creating a new noun (euphemism) for an old (derogatory) noun. The difference is that you can to a certain degree choose which noun you use to describe people or concepts, but you can't opt out of using a pronoun because there is only one for one feature combination.

Also, to get a new pronoun adopted, the speech community would have to adjust processes that are much more automatic and ingrained than to adopt a new euphemism. This makes people liable to view it as unjustified interference in their personal affairs and hate every new proposal on principle (often rationalizing their opposition on grounds such as "it sounds ugly").

Ultimately, people are likely to get on board with such a change only if they view the underlying agenda for social change as justified - and sexual politics is a divisive issue on which large segments of the population have quite irreconcilable views. In general, using language as an instrument of social change has a bad historical record as opposed to bringing about the change and then watching language adapt.

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Mostly, because they already have singular they. It's been in the language since the 14th century. Prior to that, there was generic he, which continued to also be used until the 20th century and is still found. There are also the inclusive doubles "he/she" and "s/he" ("inclusive" though not as inclusive as we might want, on which more below).

The earliest reasons for wanting an alternative to both singular they and generic he that was an explicitly third-person, singular, gender-neutral pronoun came not so much out of sexual politics (whether to ignore gender where it isn't known or relevant, or to describe non-binary people) but the 18th century dislike of words that did not neatly fit; They being grammatically plural and he also having a specifically masculine use that wasn't clearly distinguished from its generic use upset the same sort of people that got upset by less being used of both countable and uncountable terms while fewer could only be used of countable.

This encouraged people to desire such a pronoun, but it wasn't a pressing need.

Later, the undesirable ability of generic he to carry an assumption of masculinity with it made it increasingly unwelcome, especially when the political implications gained more attention, such that it is now largely obsolete, but they and "he/she" still served enough that most people didn't feel any need to adopt ze, thon,* or other suggested pronouns.

In particular, if someone wanted to specifically indicate singularity and also wanted to be neutral as to gender, but were not considering genders other than male and female (which tended not to be considered until relatively recently) then "he/she" filled that gap. Meanwhile they continued in informal use in almost all forms of English, as much as it was considered improper by some.

Conversely, while people are beginning to be more respectful of other genders, the argument against grammatical plurality being used with singular antecedents has lost favour. As such a reason why people may have favoured he over they 150 years ago or "he/she" over they 50 years ago is no longer as strongly with us.

That they is the pronoun preferred by a great many non-binary and gender-queer people today continues to reduce the pressure to do otherwise. While those who do favour an explicitly singular gender-neutral pronoun will lead us to use ze of zir, or thon of thon, it doesn't lead to a strong pressure to replace they and them in other uses.

In all, while we've had different reasons to be unhappy with the position of they, he and "he/she" over the centuries, we haven't had any reason to be happy with any particular alternative.


*Note also that thon is a variant of yon in some dialects, or of meaning something yet further away than something yon, which wouldn't have been a big pressure against adoption, but would still have been a slight pressure. There are of course plenty of homonyms in the language, but being a homonym does add resistance to adoption of new terms.

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There's no authority for English, even for a single major English-speaking country, so there's no-one to mandate the existence of a new word, never mind its use. Such authorities tend to move slowly, and prefer established words to creating new ones in the same niche, and there are arguments for he as well as they as a gender-neutral singular (linguistic arguments that miss the point). So we consider the situation where ordinary people want to use gender-neautral language.

If someone tried to coin a new word to replace singular they, they'd have trouble even getting people to recognise that the mystery new word is a pronoun. Then this new word gets flagged up by a spell checker if someone tries to reuse it, so hardly anyone bothers; they rephrase the sentence instead. Fundamentally though, it's just not necessary, people have been using singular they for years, they¹ just don't realise it – did you on reading this paragraph?

Or to rewrite that with one of the more common alternative suggestions:

If someone tried to coin a new word to replace singular they, ze'd have trouble even getting people to recognise that the mystery new word is a pronoun. Then this new word gets flagged up by a spell checker if someone tries to reuse it, so hardly anyone bothers; ze rephrases the sentence instead.

Some constructions, like (s)he, are clear enough, but are only gender neutral on the assumption of two traditional genders, and there's a feeling that if we're going to make an effort to be neutral, we should do it properly.

When used in writing, it's often not clear how such a word would be pronounced, when spoken, (assumptions of mishearing aside) it's not clear how they'd be spelt.


¹ OK, that one's plural.

  • My example was actually accidental at first; it's the natural product of trying to write clearly and neutrally (wihtout claiming to succeed at either) – Chris H Sep 17 '18 at 13:51

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