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Which came first: he or she?

Q From Kannitha Lor: I am 8 years old and have a question. Was the word he or she invented first? Mom’s question: how would we go about researching a question like that?

A You might think that words like he and she are so basic and essential a part of the language that they must have been around long before anybody had writing, so that we would have to assume their history was inaccessible and that the only sensible answer is “Nobody knows”. But it turns out that much of the story lies well within historical times, even though it’s complicated and not altogether understood.

He is about four centuries older than she — it turns up first in a work translated by King Alfred in about the year 893. So it forms part of Old English, which is so different from modern English that it’s quite another language. Its feminine equivalent was formed by a change in the spelling, to heo. This is the word that King Alfred and his people would have used.

How she appeared is still unclear, but what is certain is that a change in pronunciation took place in some English dialects around the twelfth century that made heo sound the same as he. There’s a famous case of a medieval poem, Alysoun, in which the lovelorn swain had to refer to his sweetheart as he because that was the only pronoun he had available (he had to write “He may me blisse bringe”, meaning “She may bring me bliss”). This was an intolerable state of affairs and a new word had to be sought. It’s likely that it was borrowed from the feminine form of the English word meaning “that”, seo.

By the way, this explains why he has the obviously connected object form him but she corresponds to her. There wasn’t a problem with the object forms and they have stayed faithful to their originals of more than a thousand years ago. But the change of heo to she severed the initial letter link with her.

Now to mum’s question. It isn’t easy to look this sort of thing up, I agree. I had to consult the Oxford English Dictionary in combination with a couple of standard histories of the language: The Origins and Development of the English Language by Thomas Pyles and John Algeo and A History of the English Language by Albert C Baugh and Thomas Cable. Best solution: ask an expert. Second-best solution: ask somebody who knows where to find the answer!

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Page created 22 Nov 2003