"Singular they" and "plural you"

Mohammad346

Senior Member
Arabic
In English, "singular they" is often used when you're referring to someone whose gender is irrelevant to the topic/unknown/intentionally left out.
According to Wikipedia (emphasis mine):
"Singular they is the use in English of the pronoun they or its inflected or derivative forms, them, their, theirs, and themselves (or themself), as an epicene (gender-neutral) singular pronoun ... in sentences such as:
"Somebody left their umbrella in the office. Could you please let them know where they can get it?""

The only case of using "singular they" in Modern Standard Arabic that I'm familiar with is to show respect. However, I remember one time I came across a "they" in an old Arabic text where it refers to only one person and that makes me believe that there is a chance, however slim or high, that "singular they" was also common in Classical Arabic.
Also, according to one website, the usage of "singular they" in English can be traced back to 1375 which I personally find intriguing, having in mind the possiblity that it was used simultaniously.

The other day, it occured to me that in Syrian Arabic there are cases in which we actually use "they" to refer to a singular object, for example when you have to do some paperwork and you asked an office worker how to go about the process, you might later say:
(قالولي إني ساوي (كذا
they told me to do (such and such).
even if you spoke to one office worker. This seems to apply to any similar situation where you need to refer to someone who represents an entity.
Also, sometimes "plural you" is used when replying to someone you don't know who called/texted you, for example:
عفوا، دقيتولي، ممكن أعرف مين معي؟
(Sorry, you [plural] called me, who's talking please?)
Or:
.عفوا، بعتولي رسالة
(Sorry, you [plural] sent me a message)

In your language, do you use "singular they" or "plural you" to refer to only one person in similar/other situations?
 
  • Awwal12

    Senior Member
    Russian
    they told me to do (such and such).
    Russian may use plural verbal forms in the impersonal sense ((they) told me..., (they) ordered me..., (they) showed me... etc.), but in that case they're never accompanied by an overt pronominal subject (Russian is a pro-drop language), so "they" per se never appears here.

    The only cases where plural pronouns refer to single objects in Russian are:
    - the polite formal "you" (a calque from Western languages which was introduced in the early 18th century);
    - "we" as traditionally used by monarchs in official speeches and documents (from the early 18th to the early 20th century, and also in translated texts where applicable).
     

    Ansku89

    Member
    Finnish
    In Finnish we don't have separate he/she pronouns, so we don't have a need for a separate gender neutral pronoun either. I think the only reason why singular they exists in English is the gender thing. But we have the polite formal you, though not as commonly used these days as in the past.
     

    Ihsiin

    Senior Member
    English
    The other day, it occured to me that in Syrian Arabic there are cases in which we actually use "they" to refer to a singular object, for example when you have to do some paperwork and you asked an office worker how to go about the process, you might later say:
    (قالولي إني ساوي (كذا
    they told me to do (such and such).
    even if you spoke to one office worker. This seems to apply to any similar situation where you need to refer to someone who represents an entity.
    Also, sometimes "plural you" is used when replying to someone you don't know who called/texted you, for example:
    عفوا، دقيتولي، ممكن أعرف مين معي؟
    (Sorry, you [plural] called me, who's talking please?)
    Or:
    .عفوا، بعتولي رسالة
    (Sorry, you [plural] sent me a message)

    In your language, do you use "singular they" or "plural you" to refer to only one person in similar/other situations?

    We have similar usage in Iraqi, but I don't think this is using the plural for a singular agent, but rather the third person plural is used with a pronoun to form a passive verb. For example, saying سجنوه is the same as saying انسجن.
     

    dojibear

    Senior Member
    US English
    In Spanish and French, a plural "you" is used for politeness. This was true in English years ago. Actually, years ago "you" was only plural -- the singular was "thou". But the polite form was used so often that "thou" stopped being used. Now we use "you" for both singular and plural.

    Using "they" as a singular genderless pronoun only became popular in recent decades, as a result of the "women's liberation" movement. Before 1980 or so, "he" was normally used in any situation where people of both genders were meant. The use of "they" this way is much older, but did not become common until some time after 1980.
     

    AutumnOwl

    Senior Member
    Swedish, Finnish
    Swedish have han, hon, den, det (singular third person pronoun) and de (plural third person pronoun). We use han/hon (he/she) normally for people, den for animals and when we don't know the gender of a person, and det for inanimate objects. De and dem is used for all four in plural.

    Today Swedish have hen as a word for he/she, I've also seen it written as h*n, but I don't know how much people are using hen about themselves, or as a genderless pronoun.

    As for: Somebody forgot their umbrella at the office. Could you please let them know where they can get it?
    Någon glömde sitt (possessive third person subject) paraply på kontoret. Kan du säga till dem (plural, them) var de (plural, they) kan hämta det.
    Swedish have two sets for possessive pronouns , one if the "owner" is the subject, and one when the "owner" is the object, in a sentence.
     
    Top