Their History

Okay, we’re going to do something really different today from what I usually do, because I think it is an important piece of history that nobody really knows. But it’s not the history of a person or a place or an event….it’s the history of a word.

We’re talking about the history of the singular pronouns they(/them/their).

Now, another thing that I’m going to do that is different today is I’m going to give you a source for all of the information I’m about to impart. I don’t usually do that because this is a hobby, not a college dissertation. I really don’t want it to feel like work, y’know? Yes, that makes all of this amateur, and I’m generally okay with that. But you know who’s not amateur? The Oxford English Dictionary. So, if you think you know the English language better than the Oxford English Dictionary, please feel free to argue. With them. (I am also dipping into the Merriam-Webster dictionary and some literary analyses.)

Anyways, let’s talk history. The first time the singular “they” appears in written language was in 1375 in the story William and the Wolf, the English translation of the French Guillaume de Palerme. Now, I’ll grant you, we know next to nothing about the person who translated it and there’s no dictionaries at this point in history, let alone standardized spelling. Technically, we’re still speaking Middle English and not Modern English for another 95 years. In fact, in 1375 we were still using some words that haven’t been in common usage for centuries, like “thou.”

Right. “Thou” the singular form of “you” because “you” was a plural pronoun. But in the mid-17th century we changed it so that “you” could mean any number of people — one, two, a dozen, any number. We’ve been happily using context clues to figure out the number of people “you” was referring to for like the past 400 years. At which time, for the record, we were very much using modern English.

But I digress and now I’ve skipped ahead — past an awful lot of very respectable examples. Geoffrey Chaucer used it in “The Pardoner’s Prologue” in The Canterbury Tales. Singular “they” is even in the King James Version of the Bible — check Philippians 2:3. And I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the writings of the Bard, William Shakespeare himself. He used singular “they” kind of a lot, actually. He would even use the singular “they” when the gender of the subject is known. For one example, in Hamlet, he wrote:

“‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother—
Since nature makes them partial—should o’erhear”

William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3 Scene 3

Now I think most of us would agree that Shakespeare had a good handle on the English language but it’s certainly true he made up hundreds of words (like “amazement”), and in his time — even though we were using (early) modern English — we still didn’t really have things like dictionaries or standardized spelling. So, okay, maybe Shakespeare isn’t the best judge on what’s correct.

So we’ll skip ahead to 1755 when A Dictionary of the English Language by Samuel Johnson was published, giving us standardized spelling and moving us firmly into Modern English. (Until the Oxford English Dictionary came about in 1857, Johnson’s dictionary was basically the final word on the English language.) Johnson’s dictionary is actually online and while it does define “they” as plural, interestingly enough it provides in its definition an example of its use as a singular pronoun (from Shakespeare’s Henry VIII, no less!)

“The Spaniard

Must now confess, if they have any goodness

The trial just and noble.”

This is why we needed an OED to step up and clarify things, you know?

But what is really clear is that the singular “they” remained in common use, even among the most noted authors of the English language. Jane Austen uses the singular “they” 109 times across her various works. As did numerous other authors — just for a handful examples, you can find it used in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819), Lord Byron‘s Werner, or The Inheritance: A Tragedy (1822) Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby (1839), Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1847), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad (1880), Jack London’s Martin Eden (1909), Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse (1927), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952), and Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (1974). There’s an even longer list of examples, which includes excerpts, over at UPenn’s Language Log if you’re interested.

So with all of this, why did it become commonplace for us to say that “they” is plural if that’s never been true in practice? Well, to be quite frank, because of sexism. 1795 is the first time that anyone begins arguing that pronouns for people needed to be “sex definite” and of course, that meant if you didn’t know the sex you should be using “he” as that was the superior sex. I’m not kidding or exaggerating here, the entire basis for the argument hinged on grammar rules written by William Lily as he was teaching Latin students in 1567. The rule?

“The Masculine Gender is more worthy than the Feminine, and the Feminine more worthy than the Neuter.”

Aside from that seeming pretty ridiculous even in Latin, this rule is about word classification and not actual people’s genders. But in 1795, some “grammar experts” decided it should apply to English pronouns for people.

That idea didn’t last long without being challenged. It was being pointed out pretty quickly that always using “he” was erasing women from roles they often filled. Samuel Coleridge was arguing for using “it” instead as early as 1808. “It” of course is fairly dehumanizing, as that’s a pronoun typically used for objects, and that was being said pretty much immediately after Coleridge made his suggestion. That landed us with “he or she,” which has also been pretty universally decried as sounding clunky and awkward. And so the academics and grammarians have argued on and on for more than 200 years. Pretty much the entire time this discussion has been going on, people have been trying to create new gender neutral pronouns as well — “ou” being the first, appearing in the 1790s, with “ze” and “zir” being much more recent attempts. It’s an admirable idea, but none have caught on yet. Meanwhile even the most celebrated of authors continued using the singular “they” so you kind of have to wonder why this has been argued so long. The OED had realized this was kind of a pointless discussion by at least 1998, when they officially included a singular definition of “they” in that year’s New Oxford Dictionary of English.

The point is, it’s not new to use singular “they.” The idea of “they” being a singular pronoun predates any argument that it can’t be singular by centuries. And the most celebrated and respected users of the English language have continuously ignored that argument. The only thing that’s “new” is that we have so many people who don’t feel like they fit into the gender binary but do feel supported enough and free enough to tell us that. That’s a really great change, and even though that is something that probably is worth changing our language over….we don’t even need to.

Kamehameha III

Before we delve too deeply into today’s topic, I wanted to just like skim over some facts about queer culture in Hawai’i — that is, before colonizers found it. Most places that were colonized were pretty tolerant of same-sex couples before Europeans showed up (Africa, significant parts of Asia, most of the Americas) and Hawai’i is not an exception to that. In fact, pre-colonial Hawai’i encouraged a certain level of bisexuality, particularly in rulers, and these same-sex relationships were called aikāne. Typically, at least in men (although aikāne were not just for men) these were lifelong relationships that began in one’s teenage years, though they were not exclusive relationships and most people also had opposite-sex partners as well.

800px-robert_dampier_281800-187429_-_kamehameha_iii2c_1825As I mentioned, these aikāne were particularly encouraged in the rulers of Hawai’i — but that past tense is particularly relevant. This was particularly notable in the case of Kamehameha III (born as Kauikeaouli on March 17, 1814) who became king of Hawai’i in 1825 at eleven years old. As he was still fairly young, the real power remained in the hands of the kuhina nui (basically queen regent) Kaʻahumanu who had converted to Calvinism the year before. So for the first several years of his reign, the young and impressionable Kamehameha was torn between the traditions of his people, and the devout Calvinist Christianity of missionaries from the United States. Kamehameha was probably the first king of Hawai’i who was not actually encouraged to have aikāne. Furthermore, there’s a handful of records indicating the Ka’ahumanu had noticed Kamehameha eyeing boys and had been actively discouraging that.

800px-kamehameha_iii_in_prussian_uniform2c_c._1831As a teenager, Kamehameha rebelled — in 1831, he publicly announced his aikāne with Kaomi, though the relationship wasn’t exactly new at this point. The missionaries did not like this because he had originally been a Protestant minister who abandoned his faith for this relationship (which they considered sinful), and a lot of Hawaiians didn’t like this because Kaomi was half-Tahitian. When Ka’ahumanu died in 1832, the council of chiefs attempted to install another kuhina nui — Kamehameha’s sister Kina’u. Instead Kamehameha declared that Kaomi was his ke-lii-ki (literally “entrenched king” but basically, joint ruler). Now, descriptions of the period of the next few years — called the “time of Kaomi” — make it sound super hedonistic, with the “return of evil ways that had been stamped out” and super corrupt with Kaomi “giving away land to landless men,” but the truth is probably that the “evil ways” were Hawaiian traditions like hula dancing and the “landless men” were commoners who the council were refusing to lease land to in favor of leasing it to wealthy people or people they especially liked (because that was a thing that had been happening). But under Kaomi’s co-rule, distilleries started brewing alcohol again so I guess that’s a little hedonistic (for the 1830’s).

Anyways, what essentially began was a brief struggle for power between the council (and Kina’u) and Kamehameha (and Kaomi). In 1833, he tried to quash the whole struggle by formally announcing that the king was the only person with the authority to make laws for Hawai’i. Obviously this wasn’t a super popular decision with like….everyone else with any authority on any of the islands or in the continental United States. Well, the chiefs were pretty eager to put all the blame for this on Kaomi (don’t we always blame the husband first?), and so they started plotting to assassinate him.

It took them most of a year to come up with this plot, and let me tell you: what a waste of a year! I mean, this should be embarrassing. So one of the chiefs — Ka-iki-o-ʻewa —  went to the home at Kaomi and Kamehameha shared, armed with a club, and got a servant named Ka-ihu-hanuna to help him inside. Ka-iki-o-ʻewa got Kaomi and tied his hands behind has back — Kaomi did not resist at all. Probably because he knew how bad this plan was. (Like, really, why is a chief getting his own hands dirty in this?) Then things start to go south, because Kinaʻu shows up and like freaks out. Not because she doesn’t want to get rid of Kaomi, but because she’s smart enough to figure out that if he’s murdered the king is going to be really angry with them. (She really gave this five seconds of thought and realized everything that was wrong with this plan that the council of chiefs had spent a year on.) So then, Kamehameha comes out of his house, and the servant rushes over to him and is basically like “Ka-iki-o-ʻewa is trying to kill your man, and I had nothing to do with it!” Obviously Kamehameha stopped what was happening, but shockingly he let Ka-iki-o-ʻewa leave and continue being a chief after basically a stern talking at.

But the assassination attempt changed something and Kamehameha began to be more cooperative with the chiefs. A lot of distilleries were broken up, including one owned by Kaomi. Kaomi was briefly exiled to the island of Kaua’i, but he did secretly reunite with Kamehameha in Lahaina. Kaomi died in 1835.

1024px-albert_kunuiakea_with_kamehameha_iii_and_queen_kalama2c_about_1853._published_in_the_pacific_commercial_advertiser2c_march_152c_1903Following the death of his lover, Kamehameha acquiesced to many more of the council of chief’s requests. Kina’u officially became kuhina nui, ruling alongside Kamehameha and taking on the name Kaʻahumanu II. In 1836, he married a woman named Kalama Hakaleleponi Kapakuhaili. He and Queen Kalama had two children, who both died as infants. Kamehameha went on to have several other affairs with both men and women, bearing twin illegitimate children (one of whom died, and one of whom he adopted and legitimized).

kamehameha_iii_in_military_uniformKamehameha’s reign was pretty eventful from here on out (as if it hadn’t been already) — and long. Really long. In 1839, having learned about some of the Western ideas of law and government, he and several of his advisers created Hawai’i’s first declaration of human rights. They also crafted the Edict of Toleration which legalized Catholicism in Hawai’i — an act necessary to avoid a war with France. In 1840, they crafted Hawai’i’s first Constitution.

In February of 1843, the Paulet Affair began. Lord George Paulet, a British captain, managed to convince Kamehameha to surrender the Hawaiian islands to the British crown. However, Kamehameha was mostly attempting to avoid bloodshed — he had missives sent to London, enlisting the aid of the American ship the USS Boston, in order to advocate for the kingdom of Hawai’i’s sovereignty. Admiral Richard Darton Thomas was sent from London to Hawai’i to ensure their sovereignty would be respected. A Hawaiian flag raising ceremony marked the end of the British occupation — the site of this ceremony is now called Thomas Square. Kamehameha made a speech on the occasion, a line of which became the motto for the state of Hawaii and has been immortalized on the Seal of Hawaii: “Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono” which loosely translates into “The life of the land is perpetuated in righteousness.”

By 1848, under Kamehameha’s reign, the kingdom of Hawai’i had formalized a judicial system and a system of land ownership (prior to this, land in Hawaii could only be leased.) Because of the new system of land ownership, the Great Māhele redistributed the land between commoners, the government, and nobility on March 7, 1848. The intent was to secure titles to Hawaiian people, but in actually it caused many people to be separated from land they’d held for a very long time — causing a great deal of unrest and upheaval. It’s been called one of most important events in Hawaiian history and its ramifications are lasting. Around that same time, tensions began to arise again between France and Hawai’i. Determined that a small show of force would bring Kamehameha’s government into line, the French consul in Honolulu Guillaume Patrice Dillon ordered a corvette come to Honolulu and sit in the harbor, intimidatingly.

800px-kamehameha_iii2c_daguerreotype2c_c._1853_28cropped29

The corvette Gasendi arrived on August 12, 1849 under the command of Admiral Louis Tromelin. Tromelin learned of high tariffs on French brandy and — even more upsetting for him — learned that the primarily Protestant American Board of Commisioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) was trying to shut both Catholic and Protestant trade out of the kingdom. Dillon and Tromelin quickly composed a list of ten demands and sent them to Kamehameha on August 22. Kamehameha ignored the demands, and so on August 25 140 French marines from the Gasendi landed on the shores of Honolulu, took over Fort Honolulu (which had been evacuated and was only defended by two men who just sort of immediately gave up). The marines sabotaged guns, threw kegs of gun powder into the harbor, caused over $100,000 of property damage to government and public buildings, and stole the king’s yacht (which was never recovered). Finally, they went back into the fort. Kamehameha and the people of Honolulu were unimpressed. On August 30, they made a show of organizing a counterattack against the fort, but then never attacked — however, it was enough to make the marines in the fort stay up all night, doubling their guard and sending out patrols. On September 5, Tromelin withdrew his men and Dillon, and left Hawai’i.

cty-thomas-square-361This was the last major event of Kamehameha’s life. American tourists discovered Hawai’i as a winter destination in the 1850’s, a handful attempted to spark rebellions against Kamehameha but none ever found the support they needed. A new Constitution was written in 1852, which he signed. He formally declared his neutrality in the Crimean War on May 16, 1854. In August, he negotiated but never signed a treaty of annexation which would have made Hawaii a state. And then, on December 15, he died. He ruled for 29 years and 192 days, making him the longest reigning king in the history of Hawai’i. In 1865, he was reburied in the Royal Mausoleum of Hawaii (because it wasn’t built yet when he died). On July 31, 2018 — as part of the ceremonies celebrating the 175th anniversary of the restoration of Hawaiian sovereignty at the end of the Paulet Affair — a twelve foot bronze statue of Kamehameha III was unveiled in Thomas Square.