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A Proposal for the Future Evolution of English Pronouns and Conjugations

(note: I am not a linguist, although I play one on the Internet)

English has lost most of its conjugations by person for verbs, but has retained some of them for "to be." A few centuries ago, "standard" English had a system with distinctions between persons in the singular, plus a different plural form:

I am           we are
thou art       you are
he/she/it is   they are

Over time, the practice of using the second person plural as a formal mode of address to single people led to "you" becoming the standard second person singular, displacing "thou" -- and as it did so, it brought along its conjugation. That is, we say "you are" to individuals, not "you art." So current "standard" English looks like:

I am           we are
you are        you are
he/she/it is   they are

Of these six forms, four are always used to refer to "persons" in the philosophical sense of conscious beings (not necessarily Homo sapiens) -- the first and second person forms (i.e. you never address a rock, calling it "you," unless you mean to imply that it is somehow a conscious person). (Things are going to get confusing with using both the grammatical and philosophical definitions of the word "person" from here on out, but bear with me.) And of those four always-persons, three now use the conjugation "are."

Currently we're seeing a shift toward greater acceptance in "standard" English of the longsanding custom of using "they" to refer to single persons of indeterminate gender. And singular they, like singular you, brings along its conjugation. We say "they are" about individuals, not "they is" (and "they eat" rather than "they eats," etc.). So the emerging paradigm looks like:

I am           we are
you are        you are
he/she/it is   they are
they are

Singular they looks to become more and more common. More people are coming out as nonbinary (and thus not willing to use the two gendered third person singular pronouns "he" and "she", nor the one non-person pronoun "it"), and singular they seems to be eclipsing neopronouns (such as xe or zie) in this context. We're also seeing more use of singular they in place of "he or she," "he/she," and "he which I'm using to refer to people of all gender because it's easier and since I put this disclaimer in you can't call me sexist." And we're seeing a broadening of the circumstances under which we treat a person's gender as unknown rather than assuming that "he" or "she" applies. So my projection is that singular they will become standard for all persons, leaving he and she as historical relics (like thou). "It is" will be retained for non-persons in the singular.

I am           we are
you are        you are
they are       they are
it is

Now, "are" has become the conjugation for an even larger percentage of persons (in the philosophical sense). The only exceptions are the retention of "am" for first person singular, and the use of "they are" for all third person plurals, whether persons or not (i.e. you'd say "they are" about a group of people as well as about a group of rocks). Expanding to "I are" is fairly straightforward. To distinguish persons and non-persons in the third person plural, we need to make a side-tour into pronouns.

The evolution of "you" left English unable to grammatically distinguish between singular and plural in the second person. The solution in many dialects has been to create a new, pluralized form. Though my eastern PA roots insist that "youse" is more logical, and my Pittsburgher heart yearns for "yinz," the most likely candidate to become standard is "y'all." We can also posit a similar evolution for "they" as singular they becomes more dominant, with the new plural they, "th'all." Building off of this, we can then limit "th'all" to persons, and create a new third-person-plural non-person pronoun out of "it," namely "t'all." And just like you and they brought "are" with them into the singular column, t'all would bring "is" into the plural. The resulting paradigm would then be:

I are          we are
you are        y'all are
they are       th'all are
it is          t'all is

And if "to be" is shifting to distinguish persons from non-persons in conjugation, we could expect the same to happen with the rudimentary conjugation that remains in other verbs.

I run          we run
you run        y'all run
they run       th'all run
it runs        t'all runs

We're already seeing a bit of this in the way that people playfully attribute personhood to non-humans in meme culture. It's common currently to use "he" or "she" as a way of attributing personhood, but it is often followed by a conjugation that lacks the normal third person singular s. We get expressions like "he eat the banana." This could be interpreted as a desire to standardize conjugations according to personhood (in the philosophical sense), not grammatical person and number.


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