The Viking Origins of “They/Them”

Based on the lettering from a Beowulf manuscript, this is a rendition of “they/them” pronouns into their Medieval equivalents: “þeir/þeim”. (Purchase this design from my RedBubble store.)

Pronouns have really come into the spotlight in recent years. It’s now fairly common for people to put “he/him”, “she/her”, or “they/them” in their social media profiles and email signatures. This is a way to show your support for trans rights, but it’s also a practical way let people know how to address you.

For cis people, the traditional “he” and “she” are pretty straightforward. But for people who are trans and/or nonbinary, the answer is a bit more complicated. “Proper” English grammar, as defined by a bunch of cis men in the 1800s, doesn’t have a gender neutral pronoun. That’s where the word “they” comes in. It’s a versatile word with a fascinating history.

Viking Origins

The Difficulty of Adding Pronouns

“They” is not a native English word. That may not seem like a big deal, but from a linguist’s perspective, it is. Some types of words are easier to add to a language than others. If you invent a better mousetrap, it’s relatively easy to add a new word describing it. It’s much harder to replace the word “mousetrap” itself. And when it comes to even more basic vocabulary, it’s even more difficult.

Think about words like “cat”, “house”, “sun”, etc. Basically, the more heavily used a word is, the harder it is to change. That’s why a large number of loanwords in English relate to specific categories. Law borrows heavily from French and Latin, due to the Norman Conquest. Science borrows from Greek and Latin, the languages of ancient thinkers. And many, many loanwords come from British conquests, describing things that didn’t exist natively in England.

Old Norse vs Old English

And then there’s Old Norse, the ancestor of the modern Scandinavian languages. Unlike later influences like French, Greek or Latin, this was a Germanic language, a close cousin of English. A thousand years ago, Old Norse and Old English were much more similar than their daughter tongues are today. In fact, they were almost mutually intelligible. This made it easier for the English and the Norse to communicate, and easier to borrow even the most basic of words.

At that time, the English third person pronouns were “hīe”, “heom”, and “heora”. However, “hīe” sounded an awful lot like “hē” (“he”) and “heora” sounded a bit like “hire” (“her”). As the Old Norse words “þeir”, “þeim” and “þeirra” were already in circulation, they eventually won out and evolved into the modern “they”, “them” and “their”. (Please note that spelling was very inconsistent at this time, but scribes of the era generally used the letters thorn (Þþ) and eth (Ðð) to represent “th”. These two letters are still in use in Icelandic, the modern language closest to Old Norse.)

Remnants of “Heom”

From “Hem” to “‘Em”

For the most part, “þeir” and “þeirra” completely supplanted their native counterparts to become “they” and “their”. But “þeim” did not complete displace “heom”. Instead it survived for a while as “hem”. This has nothing to do with hemming a pair of pants. Rather it existed as a synonym of “them”. Now people would look at you funny if you said “get hem” or “give it to hem”. But take that H off and it makes perfect sense: “get ’em”, “give it to ’em”, etc.

Before I learned about “hem”, I always assumed that “’em” was just a shortening of “them”. But when you think about it, no other English word lops off an initial “th”. We don’t abbreviate “the” as “‘e” or “these” as “‘ese”. But English speakers do often elide the “h” at the beginning of a word, as in the words “honor” or “herb” or as in a Cockney accent.

“Them” vs “‘Em”

So “them” and “’em” are synonyms, but they are not completely interchangeable. First off, “’em” is almost never used in formal writing. You might find it in a novel, coming out of a character’s mouth, but you won’t generally find it in a newspaper article or academic paper. You might, however, hear it in a TV news show or academic lecture. Someone reading “them” aloud might pronounce it “’em”, but only in certain contexts. Like you could say, “I think it’s them,” but not, “I think it’s ’em.” That’s because “’em” is only used in an unstressed position, usually right after a verb. It almost functions like the “n’t” in “didn’t” or “couldn’t”.

What fascinates me about “’em” is that you it’s mandatory in certain phrases. No one plays “Texas Hold Them” or “Beat Them Up” video games. College football fans in Texas don’t say “Hook Them Horns” or “Gig Them, Aggies”. And no one says “Up and at them.” Saying these colloquialisms with “them” makes you sound like Data from Star Trek, which really shows how complicated the English language can be.

Singular “They”

“Who left their phone here?”

For such a complex language, it’s almost surprising that English doesn’t have a gender-neutral third-person pronoun. Take the sentence “who left his phone here?” A hundred years ago, this was a perfectly cromulent sentence. Now it sounds awkward, assuming that it’s a man who lost his phone. You can’t say “who left its phone here?” either. The word “it” is strongly associated with inanimate objects, and as such it’s strongly dehumanizing to call someone “it”.

When dealing with such situations, people sometimes resort to “he/she”. But this sounds clunky, and moreover, it assumes a binary view of gender. That leaves us with the construction “who left their phone here?” According to traditional grammar books, this is wrong. But the so-called singular “they” has been around for centuries, awkwardly inserting itself in such sentences, which put in a good spot to become a personal pronoun.

How Languages Adapt

Trans people have always existed, but it’s only been in the last decade or so that trans rights have come into the limelight. Watch virtually any comedy from the 1980s or 1990s, and there’s bound to be a transphobic joke or two. Thankfully, the times are a-changin’. Trans people are no longer stuck using the pronouns their assigned at birth, nor must they take the “opposite” pronoun. In fact the idea of “he” and “she” as opposites is starting to change, and different languages have found ways to adapt.

In French, which has an academy of scholars that regulate the language, a new pronoun, “iel”, is slowly coming into common use. Over the years, many English grammarians have tried to coin new gender-neutral pronouns, like “thon”, “ze”, and “xe”, but none of these neopronouns have overtaken “they”, which has the advantage of being an established pronoun. (As I mentioned above, creating a new pronoun is not easy.)

Issues with “They”

For the most part, I believe that adopting the singular “they” into formal English grammar would be a good thing that would make our society more inclusive. But it does bring up some questions. For example, it is okay for a nonbinary person to eschew “they” in favor of neologisms like “xe”? As a cis person, I am not in a position to answer such issues, but I do believe that everyone has a right to be addressed with respect, so I have no issues with it.

I address this further in a previous blog post, but a few centuries ago, “you” replaced “thou” in all but archaic and religious contexts. This left the word “you” to do double duty as both a singular and plural pronoun. In many contexts, this isn’t an issue. If I say, “you left your phone here”, it’s clear I’m talking to one person. For situations where the meaning is more ambiguous, English speakers have devised several new words and phrase, such as “y’all” (my favorite), “you guys” and “you’uns”. One of the great things about language is that it’s always changing to suit our needs, even if that change happens at a glacial pace.

The Slow Evolution of Language

Even if it’s not recorded in our history books, there were probably people in Medieval England who decried the use of Norse “þeir” over the native “hīe”. But language is a democracy, perhaps the truest democracy that exists. People use “’em” when “them” seems awkward, and they use the singular “they” because “he”, “she”, and “it” aren’t enough. There are certainly many grammar books that would proscribe these uses, but as new generations of writers come into their own, the “official” rules of grammar will adapt to the times.

Do you ever use the singular they? How about ’em? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs regularly at http://steve-lovelace.com.

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4 Responses

  1. mel says:

    I desperately wish we had an alternative to using a plural pronoun in the singular sense, but more than that, we need a pronoun that people are comfortable with already.

    Reminds me of an old xkcd… https://xkcd.com/927/

  1. February 10, 2022

    […] fulfills a role that no other word can quite handle. English lacks a second person plural pronoun, and “y’all” does the job like no […]

  2. February 10, 2022

    […] though. The “th” sound in “think” is different than the “th” in “they”. The latter is voiced, more like a “d” than a “t”. It would be more correct […]

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