Where did ‘she’ come from?

There’s no shortage of proposed etymologies for she, the third person singular feminine pronoun, but its origins remain uncertain. It appears to have arisen in the 12th century, but how it did so has proved difficult to establish. The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says it is

probably a phonetic development of Old English hīo, hēo hoo pronoun feminine of he pronoun. Other suggested etymologies include derivation from Old English sēo, sīo feminine adjective . . . or from hypothesized forms in West Germanic.*

This array of possibilities corresponds, more or less, with the “probably”s of other authorities. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, she is “probably [an] alteration of Old English sēo, feminine demonstrative pronoun”. Eric Partridge, in Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, says it comes

through Middle English she (earlier scae), variants sche, scheo, scho:? from Old English sēo, variant sīo, feminine of the article ‘the’, originally a demonstrative pronoun: cf Old High German siu, Middle High German siu, sie, , German sie, Old Saxon siu; cf also Sanskrit syā, this one.

This tallies with the route outlined by Walter Skeat in his Concise Etymological Dictionary of the English Language:

Middle English sche. Anglo-Saxon seó, used as feminine of definite article, but in the Northumbrian dialect as demonstrative pronoun. Feminine of se originally ‘he;’ cognate with Mœso-Gothic sa, that.

Merriam-Webster dates its first known use to the 12th century, and suggests its origin is

probably [an] alteration of hye, alteration of Old English hēo she

Douglas Harper’s Online Etymology Dictionary has quite a detailed entry:

mid-12c., probably evolved from Old English seo, sio (accusative sie), feminine of demonstrative pronoun se “the.” The O.E. word for “she” was heo, hio, however by 13c. the pronunciation of this had converged by phonetic evolution with he “he,” so the feminine demonstrative pronoun probably was used in its place (cf. similar development in Dutch zij, German sie, Greek he, etc.). The original h- survives in her. A relic of the O.E. pronoun is in Manchester-area dialectal oo “she.”

An alternative that’s generally overlooked, as it is by each of the above, is the possible connection with the Irish word /ʃi:/. It means “she”, it is pronounced identically to she, and it can be traced back to Old Celtic. Its roots appear, inevitably, in MacBain’s Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language:

she, Irish í, , Old Irish í, , , Welsh, Breton hi: *; Gothic si, ea, German sie, they; Sanskrit syá: Indo-European sjo-, sjā– (Brug.).

Loreto Todd, in Green English: Ireland’s influence on the English language, makes the case for :

in the tenth century, there were parts of England where the same pronoun he could mean ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’. Such a high degree of ambiguity was not allowed to continue. Speakers, especially in the north of England, began to adopt the Norse forms þai, þeʒʒm and þeʒʒre, which developed into modern ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’. The change from he(o) to ‘she’ is much less easy to account for. No dialect of English or Norse had a personal pronoun that would or could have developed directly into ‘she’, although many etymologists have struggled to explain it by invoking combinations of Old English and Old Norse personal pronouns and by suggesting that the demonstrative pronoun seo, probably pronounced like ‘say + o’, can help in explaining the shift from ‘he’ to ‘she’.

Proposing as a conceivable inspiration, Todd notes the presence of Irish clerics and scribes in many communities in England at the time, and quotes from Martyn Wakelin’s English Dialects: An Introduction:

the early Scandinavian settlements (ninth century and earlier) in this country were mainly Danish and were on the Eastern side of England. Norwegian settlements occurring somewhat later (mainly in the first half of the tenth century by men who had been living in Ireland) were in the northwestern counties and the North and West Ridings of Yorkshire.

The emphasis is Todd’s. She acknowledges that this etymology is controversial. I don’t know how controversial – maybe it’s simply dismissed as unlikely – though at least one scholar finds Todd’s contention “satisfactory” (Radoslava Pekarová, The Influence of the Irish Language on Irish English Grammar; PDF, 308 KB).

But the change from he(o) to she might not be so unlikely or unusual. A. H. Smith’s Some Place-Names and the Etymology of “She”** (1925) showed that there are

certain place-names in the north of England and in Scotland which illustrate a peculiar sound development in English. Old English initial he—in these cases shows a tendency to become late Middle English sh-[ʃ].

Smith concludes:

the evidence of the place-names . . . shows that a development of O.E. he- to M.E. sch- did take place, which could explain the derivation of modern English she from O.E. hēo, especially as the periods when M.E. ʒhe, ʒhe and M.E. sche, scho were prevalent agree more or less with the periods when He-, Hy, Yh– and Sch-, Sh– were prevalent in the place-names

and summarises as follows:

Source: A. H. Smith: Some Place-Names and the Etymology of ‘She’

Smith’s research forms part of the evidence to which M. L. Samuels refers in his analysis in Linguistic Evolution: with special reference to English (1975):

The ME reflex of OE heo was he, so that large areas of the country were left without a formal distinction between ‘he’ and ‘she’, while even in the remaining areas the other surviving forms (hy, heo) were not ideal for the purpose. This systemic gap, which can be shown from the ambiguities in many surviving texts, was filled by a typical drag-chain process – the selection of originally rare variants, the stress-shifted forms /hjo/ and /hje/. These then changed, via the intermediate stage /ço, çe/ to /ʃo, ʃe/, perhaps first in the heavily Norse-influenced Cumberland-Yorkshire belt which provides numerous parallels for the change. (pp. 114–116)

Some of this material is based on Samuels’ earlier paper, The Role of Functional Selection in the History of English*** (1965), which includes the following image and accompanying text:

M.L. Samuels, The Role of Functional Selection in the History of English, Fig.3

The intermediate stage /ç/ would, as pointed out by Vachek, survive for a time as a marginal phoneme (spelt ʒ or ʒh), but would naturally give way to /ʃ/, which was equally distinctive for the purpose of functional differentiation, yet far better integrated phonemically.

Convincing proof for this theory (as against the older derivations from Old English sēo or Old Norse sjá) is now available from study of the Middle English distributions of forms. The later ME distribution, schematized in Fig. 3, shows ʒ(h)-forms in border areas which divide the newer s(c)he, s(c)ho in the Midlands from the older he, hy, heo in the south. . . . In other words, a belt of ʒ(h)-forms started in the northern belt and moved southwards across the country, always followed, after what appears to have been a comparatively uniform lapse of time, by s(c)h-forms. . . . we may justifiably conclude that the modern form she arose from an originally unusual phonetic variant in the spoken chain, and that it spread to large areas in which, failing such a form, the pronominal system was wholly lacking in balance.

The argument is developed in detail in Samuels’ book and paper. Although I found it fascinating, I’m not qualified to assess it, and I don’t know if there are more recent findings that substantially confirm or contradict it. Certainly there is nothing like a consensus on the matter, and it’s easy to see why the OED describes the etymology of she as “difficult”!

There’s a short and helpful discussion of the various possibilities in the comments of this post at Language Hat, where linguist Marie-Lucie says that “the Old English and Old Irish s- forms could have a common ancestor in Proto-Indo-European, or at least a branch of it”.

I love a good mystery, but this is one I wouldn’t mind seeing resolved. And much as I’m taken by Todd’s -hypothesis, I wouldn’t bet on it.


* In this and other quoted text, I’ve written some abbreviations in full.
** Review of English Studies, 1(4), Oct. 1925, pp. 437–440.
*** Transactions of the Philological Society, 64(1), Nov. 1965, pp. 15–40.


25 Responses to Where did ‘she’ come from?

  1. Ewelina says:

    That’s really interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  2. dw says:

    “They” was borrowed from Norse, so I guess it’s not impossible that “she” was borrowed from Irish. Does seem extremely implausible, though. The contact with the Norse was far greater than that with the Irish.

  3. I actually thought Fig. 3 was an XKCD cartoon at first.

  4. Stan says:

    Ewelina: My pleasure! Thanks for reading.

    dw: Some of the Norse came from Ireland, though, so who knows. My knowledge of the era is too meagre for me to judge the plausibility of the idea, but maybe multiple etymologies play a part. Loreto Todd writes that “what is invariably underplayed is the phenomenon known as ‘multiple etymologies’, where a similar form occurs in more than one of the languages in contact and enhances the likelihood of its selection by all the speakers.” (Green English, p. 34)

    Allan: Ha ha. Well spotted — they have very similar styles. Another mystery worth investigating…

  5. Markus B. says:

    Very interesting stuff! Even the “Irish” hypothesis refers back to old German, so do the aforementioned ones. So it might not be a case of “what” but of “when?…? I like that!

  6. wisewebwoman says:

    Tho9ught provoking piece as always, Stan – thanks for all the work you do to present these little gifts!

  7. Stan says:

    Markus: Yes, some of the proposed etymologies seem potentially reconcilable — a question of getting the story’s structure straight!

    WWW: You’re very welcome. I had fun digging a little into this. I remember as a child assuming a connection between and she (apart from the obvious semantic one), but I was surprised to learn how elusive and knotty the history is.

  8. The Ridger says:

    Well, dang. I was sure I had heard that “she” as well as “they” came from the Danes. Thanks for setting me straight!

  9. Interesting stuff Stan. I had never thought of this before

  10. trawick says:

    Interesting about the connection between English “she” and similar Irish/Old Celtic . The hypothesis reminds me of the main conclusion of American linguist John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. McWhorter asserts that English borrows quite heavily from Celtic languages, and that there has been something of a foolish attempt among linguists to pretend otherwise. It’s an intriguing read, although I know far too little of historical linguistics to say of this would apply to or not (or even if McWhorter’s idea is valid).

  11. Stan says:

    The Ridger: A pleasure! I’m a great believer in uncertainty.

    Jams: Glad you found it interesting, Jams. It’s a puzzle hiding in plain sight.

    Ben: That’s good to know. I haven’t read McWhorter’s book yet, but what you say of it fits with something Todd wrote, that there’s a “long-standing reluctance to recognise the presence of Celtic words in the English language”. She says that many writers admit Celtic origins for a few English words, but that the words “tend to vary from scholar to scholar”. Which is interesting. I’ve written about a few Hiberno-English words and expressions here, though only a minority have spread beyond colloquial Irish English speech.

  12. […] Of course, Norse wasn’t the only language to alter English, the “magnificent bastard tongue”. ”Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue,” in fact, is the name of John McWhorter’s book that examines the many ways in which English has been altered by other languages. The book is also available in an audio version, a review of which makes it sound like a good buy. Perhaps McWhorter could provide an answer to the question: where did “she” come from? […]

  13. Lucas says:

    Thanks for this post Stan, I really enjoyed it!
    I’m not a linguist at all, so don’t take my comment to seriously, but wouldn’t the most parsimonious explanation be that the he/she distinction in English is inherited from the proto-Germanic language? In other Germanic languages, the distinction between he and she is very similar:
    er/sie in German
    hij/zij in Dutch
    hy/sy in Frisian

  14. Stan says:

    My pleasure, Lucas. Thanks for your visit! Yes, I believe the he/she distinction in English came from Proto-Germanic, which in turn got it from Proto-Indo-European. But it’s far from a straightforward inheritance. She arrived a good deal later than he, and there are other forms to take into account, e.g., the neuter gender. Grammatical gender is likely to have emerged from an older distinction based on something being animate or inanimate, or derived from pairs of ‘pointing words’ like this/that or here/there. But I’m not a linguist either, so don’t take my word for it…

  15. Florian Blaschke says:

    How do you get from héo to hjé? That’s the crucial step I can’t follow.

    The step heó to hjó eventually becoming shoo does work, admittedly. Perhaps it’s a case of contamination that produced she by adding the nucleus of he to the onset of shoo. Not an extremely attractive explanation.

    I see a possible problem with the Irish derivation, too: If was borrowed into Middle English before the shift from [e:] to [i:] (in the 15th century, apparently), which is what this explanation seems to require in any case, we should expect that the long í would have been identified with the old long [i:] of English, regardless of whether it was already starting to diphthongise or not yet, so the result should have become homonymous with shy. However, Middle English she clearly ends in [e:]. Again, we would have to assume a contamination with the vowel of he. It seems that annoying vowel is the problem with either derivation.

  16. Stan says:

    Florian: Thank you for sharing your ideas about this puzzle. It’s very interesting to me but it’s not an area I know much about, so I appreciate your thoughtful speculation and analysis.

  17. John Cowan says:

    Florian: You have a point, but one might also ask why you resisted the Great Vowel Shift, retaining its Middle English vowel quality. Nobody knows. Along the Scottish Border there is an area where people say yow and mey for you and me, though, thus applying the GVS to you but not to me.

  18. Rain says:

    Intresting story.
    Does anyone have a theory what is the reason or root for two separate words for male and female? There are lot of other languages which does not make difference between male and female like she and he. In my mother tonque is also one same word for male and female.

    • Stan says:

      Rain: Interesting question. I would imagine the reason is that the male–female distinction is familiar, obvious, and useful. I’d be interested to know what languages don’t distinguish between them, and why.

  19. […] véletlen (akit érdekel a she  vitatott etimológiája, annak ajánlom a Sentence first blog részletes összefoglalóját). Comrie maga is megjegyzi, hogy más nyelvekben éppen fordított lehet a viszony a két névmási […]

  20. […] forms have collapsed into just a handful of pronouns. Interestingly, third person singular feminine she is the newest addition to the pronoun family, dating back to Middle English, although there are […]

  21. » Pongogirl says:

    […] The female specific pronoun “she” was invented in the 12th century.  […]

  22. […] The female specific pronoun “she” was invented in the 12th century.  […]

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