Why doesn’t anybody ever tell you this stuff? On the origins of the masculine and feminine pronouns.

I just discovered the most amazing posting about pronouns in the American Bibliopolist.

There are many perfectnesses in this work. But the best, by far, must be his excursus on the origins of he and she:

It would be a fortunate thing for us if there were any fossil remains of language. We could then discover in the rock of the earliest words made use of, many of which are necessarily buried in oblivion, and so arrive at some conclusion respecting the invention of our masculine pronoun he. It is supposable, and, indeed, only supposable, that it first found utterance through the lips of a woman, an event something like the dropping of pearls from the lips of the girl in the fairy tale. The Scotch woman always speaks of her husband as he. In the days of courtship her maiden timidly prevented her particularizing him. Besides, what need had she to specify the one who was all the world to her? He must assuredly have been the only masculine pronoun in her vocabulary. Notwithstanding these auspicious circumstances, he has had some difficulty in holding his own till the present. In some writings of the 16th century a simple a was substituted. However, this crisis was safely passed, and the form of the word is the same now as at first.

Upon this great event, this bestowal of a general name upon man, a solemn assembly of bachelors was convened to return, if possible, the compliment. Many admirable suggestions were advanced, and at last a happy thought occured to one of the most liberal, that as woman is man’s equal, her title should be the same except the prefix of a line symbolic of grace and beauty. Taking the most perfectly curved letter of the alphabet to convey this idea, the feminine pronoun was produced. Woman having a name, station soon followed, and station brought possession, and possession made her an object of desire. But as her nature was not supposed to stoop to avarice, and she was more to be sought than one to seek, possessive and objective were the same for her, with the addition of the letter which originally distinguished her from man.

So there you have it: the masculine pronoun as phallic worship, with some resulting performance anxiety creating unpleasantness in the 16th century; the feminine nominative pronoun as a kind of linguistic Coca Cola bottle; and her that dares not speak its name, giving women an aliba when they are accused of avarice.

It’s so neat, it could almost be an evolutionary psychology of language!

tags: , , , , , , , , , ,


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox

Join other followers: