Arika Okrent has a great list on Mental Floss about how the languages we speak today are really just some ancient “25 Common Grammar Mistakes That Make You Look Bad” post, a few centuries later.
Sometime around the 7th century, a grammarian got fed up and started collecting all the annoying mistakes that people kept making in Latin. He wrote them up in the Appendix Probi, a straightforward list of the “say this, not that” variety. The most interesting thing about the Appendix Probi is not that it shows that people have always been making usage errors, but that the errors people made in Latin show the specific ways that Latin turned into its descendants, the Romance languages, including Spanish, French, and Italian.
The advice in the Appendix is not so different from what you might see on the same kind of lists for English today. Where our lists warn us to use “dependent not dependant” and “February not Febuary,” the Appendix tells the Late Antiquity Era Latin user that it’s “aquaeductus non aquiductus” and “Februarius non Febrarius.” Despite that advice, the syllable that Latin speakers kept leaving out of Februarius stayed left out in what eventually became Spanish (Febrero), French (Février), and Italian (Febbraio).
In its 26th annual words of the year vote, the American Dialect Society voted for they used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun as the Word of the Year for 2015.They was recognized by the society for its emerging use as a pronoun to refer to a known person, often as a conscious choice by a person rejecting the traditional gender binary of he and she. […]
While editors have increasingly moved to accepting singular they when used in a generic fashion, voters in the Word of the Year proceedings singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as “non-binary” in gender terms.
“In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation,” Zimmer said. “While many novel gender-neutral pronouns have been proposed, they has the advantage of already being part of the language.”
Word of the Year is interpreted in its broader sense as “vocabulary item”—not just words but phrases. The words or phrases do not have to be brand-new, but they have to be newly prominent or notable in the past year.
It’s a tremendously useful pronoun, and I’m delighted it won Word of the Year. Singular they has 100% become my default for the generic third person, as in “Every linguist should know their IPA”, but my ease with it as a specific remains a work in progress: “Yuki knows their IPA” still jumps out at me a bit, even if I know that Yuki identifies as non-binary.
The specific usage works better for me with usernames, probably because they’re inherently non-gender-specific (like, “Lexikitty68 knows their IPA” is easier). But weirdly, the hardest time I have with singular they is when it’s used for a clearly gender-defined group: like “Every mother who breastfeeds their baby…” makes my brain go WAIT WHOSE BABY THIS IS WEIRD, even though, you know, you don’t strictly need to identify as female to be a nursing mother, so ‘they’ is probably the best choice anyway. Does anybody else have this problem, or does that phrase seem fine to you?
Either way, the way things are going, one can hope the next generation will have it figured out and internalized! Looks like we’re on the right track for making our language change to fit our needs. Which shouldn’t really come as a surprise – after all, that’s how people do.
Not only true, but extra points for the text speak in actual speak thing. I would have been embarrassed even five years ago for doing that myself, but once you start, you realize that it’s as good a marker for being part of a speech group as anything.
I use the internet plural more than I’d like to admit, but, y’know. I’ll admit it here! It’s the internet.