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US linguists select singular ‘they’ as word of the decade

Lily Wakefield January 4, 2020
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word of the decade 'My pronouns are...' badges

'My pronouns are...' badges. (Brighton & Hove City Council)

Linguists from the American Dialect Society have announced that the singular pronoun “they”, used by people who identify outside of the binary of male and female, is their word of the decade.

The organisation also separately selected “(my) pronouns” as its word of the year for 2019, which was “recognized for its use as an introduction for sharing one’s set of personal pronouns”.

The society’s 350 members voted on January 3, and presiding over the voting session Ben Zimmer, chair of the American Dialect Society’s new words committee, said: “When a basic part of speech like pronouns becomes a vital indicator of social trends, linguists pay attention.

“The selection of ‘(my) pronouns’ as word of the year speaks to how the personal expression of gender identity has become an increasing part of our shared discourse.

“That trend is also reflected in singular ‘they’ being chosen as word of the decade, with a growing recognition of the use of they for those whose identities don’t conform to the binary of he and she.”

According to The Guardian, Zimmer added: “People want to choose something that stands the test of time and sums up the decade as a whole.”

The American Dialect Society was founded in 1889, and began choosing words of the year in 1990, making it one of the first organisations to do so.

According to the society, the Word of the Year/ Decade “is interpreted in its broader sense as ‘vocabulary item’—not just words but phrases”.

Other options for Word of the Decade included “#blacklivesmatter”, “meme”, “woke” and “#metoo”.

Contenders for the 2019 Word of the Year included “OK Boomer“, “cancel” and “Karen”.

Merriam-Webster also previously announced that singular pronoun “they” was its the 2019 word of the year, with the greatest increase in searches on the dictionary’s website.

Although use of a singular “they” has been met with resistance from trans-exclusionary people, its use as a singular pronoun is not a new phenomenon, and actually dates back more than 600 years.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces back the first written use of a singular “they” to 1375, in the medieval romantic poem William and the Werewolf, however it is likely it was used in speech much earlier than that.

The singular use of the word “you” only developed in the 17th century to replace “thou”, and the change was met with resistance in a similar way to how many people claim to struggle with using a singular “they”.

“You” is now used interchangeably to refer to individuals and multiple people.

Related topics: gender, non-binary, pronouns, they/them, Trans

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