September 13, 2006

"Singular they": God said it, I believe it, that settles it

Wayne Leman at Better Bibles Blog has posted a substantial list of "singular they" examples from the long history of English-language bible translation, starting with Tyndale in 1526 and continuing up to versions from the past decade. His examples from the 1611 King James Version:

Matt. 18:35: So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses.
Phl. 2:3: Let nothing bee done through strife, or vaine glory, but in lowlinesse of minde let each esteeme other better then themselues.
Numbers 2:34: And the children of Israel did according to all that the LORD commanded Moses: so they pitched by their standards, and so they set forward, every one after their families, according to the house of their fathers.
Numbers 15:12: According to the number that yee shall prepare, so shall yee doe to euery one, according to their number.
2 Kings 14:12: And Iudah was put to the worse before Israel, and they fled euery man to their tents.

A few weeks ago, we took a look at Deuteronomy 17:5, where it seems that the use of "singular they" is sanctioned by the Masoretic Hebrew text, and by the Greek of the Septuagint as well ("Is 'singular they' verbally and plenarily inspired of God?", 8/21/2006):

Then shalt thou bring forth that man, or that woman (which haue committed that wicked thing) vnto thy gates, euen that man, or that woman, and shalt stone them with stones till they die.

I'm not sure about the original-language versions of the five verses cited in Wayne's post, but it seems that there is solid divine sanction for "singular they" in English. So would it be blasphemous to turn this into the obvious slogan, suitable for bumper stickers, t-shirts and coffee cups?

"Singular they": God said it, I believe it, that settles it.

Yes, I'm sorry. It's tempting, the irony is delicious, but it would be wrong. In fact, for a linguist to invoke divine authority to prescribe the use of any linguistic pattern, even one forbidden by ignorant earthly tyrants, is tantamount to apostasy.

But maybe a discreet little coffee-cup slogan could be considered merely a venial sin, escaping a fatwa from the LSA executive committee...

[Update -- Aaron "Dr. Whom" Dinkin writes:

Looked them up. Numbers 15:12 in Hebrew uses the third-person plural possessive for 'their number', but Numbers 2:34 and 2 Kings 14:12 use the singular.

Divine variation.]

[Update #2 -- Rob Groves writes:

Interestingly, while three of the examples of singular "they" cited are translated plurals in the Greek, (Phl, and both Numbers passsages), The 2Kings passage actually translates a Greek singular "his" (autou) to "their." In the Matthew passage, the words, "their trespasses," represent nothing in the Greek of this verse, (nor anything in the Vulgate Latin, incidentally).

Rob added in a later note:

After a little bit more research, Some traditions of the Greek version of Matthew do appear to have the words translated as "their trespasses; " Assuming the text used for translation was one of these, the English does correspond to the plural in Greek here as well.

More divine variation. I feel that there's the basis for a Ph.D. dissertation here. Or at least a sermon.]

[Update #3 -- Gabriel Nivasch points out that in Numbers 15:12, where the KJV has

" shall yee doe to euery one, according to THEIR number."

the original Hebrew also has "their number" -- but means "the number of the animals that each brings in for sacrifice", so that the referent of the pronoun is actually plural. Given the rest of the context in English, this interpretation seems sensible, since the chapter is giving a sort of recipe for how much flour, oil and wine should be offered per bullock or ram or lamb or kid. This "recipe" interpretation is even clearer in Numbers 29:

[1] And in the seuenth moneth, on the first day of the moneth, ye shall haue an holy conuocation, yee shall doe no seruile worke: it is a day of blowing the trumpets vnto you.
[2] And ye shall offer a burnt offering for a sweet sauour vnto the Lord, one yong bullocke, one ramme, and seuen lambes of the first yeere without blemish.
[3] And their meat offering shall be of floure mingled with oyle, three tenth deales for a bullocke, and two tenth deales for a ramme:
[4] And one tenth deale for one lambe thorowout the seuen lambes:
[5] And one kidde of the goats for a sinne offering to make an atonement for you:

So Numbers 15:12 is simply not relevant to the theology of "singular they". Apologies to any readers who may have been led astray.

[Update #4 -- Ben Sadock wrote:

Since you asked about the original pronouns of Numbers 24:2, I got down my Hebrew Bible and found, to my surprise, that there ain't no tents. The key phrase is "yisrael shochen lishvatav" - Israel dwelling by his tribes, clearly meaning something like 'living separated by tribe.' The KJV is not alone in assuming that this passage refers to the arrangement of tents; the Talmud (BB 60a) amplifies on this line, saying that what Balaam really saw that impressed him so much was that the openings of the tents faced away from each for privacy. Of course, three verses later in Numbers, Balaam mentions tents himself. In short, "Israel abiding in his tents, according to their tribes" isn't an inaccurate translation, even if the surprising pronouns (and the mention of tents) aren't a reflection of the original Hebrew.

And Aaron Dinkin agrees:

This is a weird one: 'his tents' doesn't appear in the Hebrew at all, and 'tribes' has the singular possessive. Thus:

...wayyar 'eth Yisra'el shokhen li-shvatay-w
   he saw  ACC Israel   abiding by-tribes-3SG.POSS

(Please forgive the ad-hoc transliteration; I'm not really up on ancient Hebrew phonology, and didn't attempt to distinguish between open and closed E or open O and A.)


[Update #5: more mail on the subject here.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 13, 2006 07:58 AM