Practical Solutions Communication The Return of Thorn

About a practical proposal for the English language to reacquire the letter thorn for various reasons.



The Return of Thorn

Problem: The early 1970s have witnessed a dramatic rise in our awareness of the sexist aspects of our society. We are now acutely conscious of the workings of male chauvinism in education, employment practices, and politics, and we have taken many steps toward greater egalitarianism in regard to sex. Some of these steps have encompassed modifications of our language, but so far these changes have involved primarily nouns and adjectives. Our pronoun system has remained untouched, and yet it is blatantly discriminatory. We habitually say, "Everyone should bring his own lunch" when addressing a group of male and female hikers, or "The consumer will find himself under increasing inflationary pressures." Clearly, this arbitrary imbalance in favor of the male pronoun will have to be rectified.

Solution: To solve this problem, I suggest reintroducing a letter that disappeared from the English alphabet in the 16th century. This letter-thorn, written as p, was the equivalent of our unvoiced fricative th sound. Thus, in Middle English, thin as p in. At that time, the French and German alphabets had no equivalent for p. Therefore, when printing was introduced to England from the Continent in the 1470s, it proved simpler to substitute th where necessary. A few immigrant French typesetters misread the English p as y, which helped the letter to persist up to the 18th century in such (mis)usages as "Ye George and Dragon Publicke House."

The central purpose for reviving p would be to use it in a new class of pronouns, to wit:

Neither Either

THIRD male male

PERSON nor or

SINGULAR female Male Female female

Nominative it he she p e

Objective it him her p im

Possessive its his hers p ir(s)

This new set of pronouns would fill a gap in English grammar; namely, the need for a third-person singular pronoun that is not neuter but that nevertheless makes no distinction as to sex. The pronouns would also serve as a logical link to the third-person plural--more than one p e is a they ("pir oranges" and "pir apples" constitute "their fruit," etc.). Note the distinction in pronunciation between p e (rhymes with he) and the second-person singular, thee.

It is obvious that our language needs to transcend the sexual discriminations made by its pronouns. We only need to agree on the particular changes to be made. I submit the above system in the confident belief that it is the best that can be offered and therefore that it will be universally adopted by the next English-speaking generation.

During the transition from a three-gender to a four-gender pronoun system, the letter p will play an important symbolic role. It will be conspicuous at first, seeming almost to leap out of the printed page. It will be at once a vivid symbol of the triumph over invidious distinctions between male and female and a rallying cry for linguistic progressivism.

We will also need to think through certain questions of accommodating p into the language, such as: (1) Position in the alphabet. A logical location for the new letter would be immediately after t. Thus, children would be taught their letters as "... ess, tee, thorn, you, vee ..." The alphabet would have 27 letters, which would make possible letter blocks for children that would form a neat 3x3x3 cube. (2) Location on the typewriter keyboard. Probably the easiest solution here is to put p immediately to the right of L, thus displacing the colon-semicolon key one place to the right. (3) Scrabble.(R) The frequency of use of the p in a revised English orthography indicates that two p tiles, with point values of 4, should be added to the Scrabble(R) set.

After we have become accustomed to the letter p in our new pronouns, we would, if we chose, gradually replace the soft th with p in our written language. At least one lost word could be reintroduced--p ane, orginally meaning a landholding freeman but now representing an individual of unspecified sex; hence, man, woman, and p ane. Perhaps, in the distant future, we might recognize a stage of advanced social maturity characterized by the individual's having incorporated both the task-oriented "masculine" skills and the social-emotional "feminine" skills of social life. Such an individual would be in touch with bo p the masculine and feminine aspects of p ir self, and would be referred to as "pane" to differentiate pim from the less socially mature "man" or "woman" and the even less mature "boy" or "girl."

John Newmeyer, Ph.D. San Francisco, Calif.

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