Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pronoun-a-Thon

For my birthday, Nate bought me a copy of Patricia T. O’Conner’s new book, Origin of the Specious. In it, O’Conner blasts apart grammatical and linguistic myths in her characteristically straightforward, sensible way. She explains why English has been beset by phony no-nos, like the prohibition on using like when you could instead use such as, but she also tackles broader-in-scope mysteries, like when and how Americans lost their British accents. (As she tells it, we didn’t. The plumminess of British English developed over there, after the North American colonies were established. The way we speak is closer to how our founding British fathers spoke than current day Britons’ speech is.) For someone like me, it’s a fun read.

Her passage on English’s problematic lack of a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun reminded me of a word that essentially exists in a way similar to those old contraptions you see in black-and-white footage of people who tried to invent flying machines. Like the machines that invariably dumped their pilots out of trees and off balconies or simply sputtered to a stop, this word is a failure, yet kind of a noble one. Though some record of its existence should be preserved, you can’t mention it without also noting that it didn’t perform the function its daddy intended.
thon — noun: an epicene pronoun invented in 1858 in an effort to replace the genderless he.
Note that didn’t list a pronunciation. At the moment, I’ve found exactly two sites that note how the word should be pronounced: one that suggests the “TH” should sound like the one in thin and another that says it should be like the one in those. I’m inclined to think it should sound like the ones in thee and thou, since those would seem to be the cuttings from which this strange flower grew.

Thon was dreamed up by Charles Crozat Converse, an attorney who, as both O’Conner and Wikipedia note, is primarily known for writing the song “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” (Wikipedia — but not O’Conner — also notes that his “runner-up” contribution seems to be the arrangement for “The Death of Minnehaha.”) Thon also appears to have found some success. O’Conner claims that the word actually appeared in dictionaries and can still be found in those published as recently as fifty years ago. Today, searching for thon is more difficult, as most dictionaries list it as a variant of that -athon suffix so beloved my elementary school fundraisers. And, because it’s the internet, you get a lot of hits for the Thon, a triceratops-like thing from Star Wars, or at least so says the Wookieepedia.

Among the less successful attempts to rid English of the awkwardness inherent in asking every student to take his desk are the following less glorious failed attempts: ne, heer, ha, co, hy, ve, xe, ze, the unusual combo of ze and mer, the triplet team of ze-zam-zerz, and finally the so-called Spivak pronoun. Not all of these are honest attempts at reforming English. Co, Wikipedia claims, is used “in is used in contemporary everyday language by the 100 people who live at Twin Oaks community in Virginia, USA. It is used to mean s/he in the case in which the gender is not known or is irrelevant.” My personal favorite is the Spivak pronoun, which is essentially the forms of the word they with the “TH” chopped off: Ey laughed, I called em, Eir eyes gleam, etc. (See Wikipedia’s chart on how these words work if you’d like to know how they’d plug into actual sentences.) A Random House word-of-the-day post includes even more — including oddities like tey, en, po and jhe — that allegedly arose during the American feminist movement.

Most with a verbally-minded brain guess that English will probably never had a word that fulfills the function that thon would have, had it endured. The American Heritage Book of English has this to offer the subject:
Like most efforts at language reform, these well-intended suggestions have been largely ignored by the general English-speaking public, and the project to supplement the English pronoun system has proved to be an ongoing exercise in futility. Pronouns are one of the most basic components of a language, and most speakers appear to have little interest in adopting invented ones.
Is this, I wonder, similar to how consumers let Betamax die and opted not to teach the metric system?

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2 comments:

  1. I am now going to use thon every single day. I always wondered by English had no term like usted in Spansih. I just used one for everything, but thon is far more delightful.

    But by the way you suggest it should be slept, would it rhyme with like dawn?

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  2. I really enjoyed your post. I love 'thon' - not least because it sounds a bit like 'thong' (and that makes me giggle). Seems to me that a lot of people use 'they' and 'their' as an epicene pronoun. I wonder how long it will be before 'themself' catches on.

    I've often heard this theory about the British accent - that we changed ours, and that everybody in England used to speak with what is now a US accent. But which US accent? There are so many and they vary so much.

    This theory also implies, doesn't it, that all the mass migrations to the US in the last few centuries didn't influence the accent at all. It also suggests that the environment and the experience of the American people have had no influence on the way they now speak. I think that's unlikely.

    I suppose it might be that the people of Boston in Lincolnshire (UK) spoke with what is now a New England accent. But what about all the other accents in the UK? Very few of us are plummy. You only need to go to the next town - say 50 miles, sometimes less - and the accent has changed. People didn't travel much until about 100 years ago and they all developed different accents.

    You might enjoy Philip Howard's 'the State of the Language'. It's an old book but you could probably get it on Abe Books. It's very funny and talks a lot about how American English evolved and is influencing British English.

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