I also just noticed, reading up on this, that the use of the generic he (as a gender neutral term) was approved in an Act of Parliament in the UK - the Interpretation Act 1850. I also read “Bodine’s 1975 survey of then-contemporary grammar books, where she found in 28 out of 33 cases that “pupils are taught to achieve both elegance of expression and accuracy by referring to women as ‘he’.”” And that apparently the gender neutral use of he can be found as early as Thomas Wilson, writing in 1553. Then you’ve got things like Ann Fisher’s mid-18th century A New Grammar assertion that “The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any Person who knows what he says.”
That’s interesting that they were going for ‘he’ as the gender neutral singular, rather than ‘they’. It would seem that there is resistance to using ‘they’ as singular, presumably because it is generally assumed to be plural, as I had assumed. So even though we know it can be singular if we think about it, as natural native speakers, we still have the assumption that it will generally be plural. And I think this shows the kind of consensus that there is about this in the minds of native speakers, such that they were striving to make ‘he’ the accepted form.
And this is even though we do use ‘they’ as singular sometimes. Like ‘my friend is coming but they’ll be a bit late’. I think it’s often used to actually deliberately conceal the gender! For example, if a woman is dating a man, they don’t know each other so well yet, the woman might say
I’m going out with a friend tonight. They’re going to meet me in an hour so I have to go.
This would be preferable to:
He’s going to meet me
If the women 1) didn’t want the guy to know she was meeting a man, and 2) didn’t want to lie.
If we had a proper gender neutral term, they’d use it. But they need a term (to hide gender), and so reach for the best option available. A desperate situation calls for desperate solutions But that push for using ‘he’ shows I think, that underlying resistance to using ‘they’.
Of course, there is resistance to using ‘he’ also, since some would feel that is bias towards men. And no doubt if ‘she’ were chosen, it would be felt to be bias towards women. And maybe we can use that word ‘bias’ with regard to ‘they’, the complaint being that it is bias towards being plural. And I think that’s the point - if we use a word that already has a very well established primary meaning, then our sense of the word is bound to be biased. Which is why it would be cleaner to have a separate word.
I guess the use of he as gender neutral agrees with the Pāli, since that’s what the Pāli does! But I think that might just be because both Pāli and English are what we might call sexist now, favouring male gender, and so there is no reason we should sustain that bias.
I rather like s/he for writing. But then I might be a geek… And I actually sometimes use ‘she’ generically, when translating, just to even things up But I’d rather a genuine specific alternative. Might have to wait a few hundred years!
I also read
The earliest known attempt to create gender-neutral pronouns dates back to 1792, when Scottish economist James Anderson advocated for an indeterminate pronoun “ou”.
There’s so much to read on the subject. I had no idea! I wonder if perhaps in the future, ‘they’ will be gender neutral singular, and something like ‘theys’ will be the plural, evolved to distinguish it!