Thursday, August 28, 2014

Thon — The Lost Pronoun

Thons music was mawkish.
I have written about some of the reform movements associated with construction languages,[1] but of course there have been reforms offered to natural languages as well. If you’re an American, you’re using spellings from a wholly successful reform advocated by Noah Webster. Others have been less successful, such as the efforts championed by Teddy Roosevelt in the early twentieth century to make English “mor fonetik.“[2]

And there have been larger ones. There’s been a long series of attempts to bring an epicene pronoun into English, that is to say a singular pronoun that can be used for either males or females. It’s all to avoid constructions like “he or she,“ as in:
When a professor teaches a class, she or he…
It all strikes me as an awful lot of effort to save one a tiny bit of effort.

On August 28, 1884, the National Tribune of Washington, D.C. somewhat garbled a piece on a new proposal for a pronoun. I say “garbled,” because the second paragraph has been transported to the item above,[3] where it makes little sense.

Though I am 134 years late on this, I will restore the piece to its intended sequence:
For a century or more grammarians have been conscious of a “long-felt want,“ which it seemed incumbent on them to supply. It was for a new singular pronoun which would do duty for both sexes. We all know how clumsy it is to express ourselves grammatically in writer or speaking of a man and a woman in the same sentence. Thus we say: “If either John or Jane had come on the train he or she would have found someone there to meet him or her, and we would have seen that he or she enjoyed himself or herself.“ The only way that many avoid this clumsiness is by saying in defiance of grammar “they would have found someone there to meet them, and we would have seen that they enjoyed themselves.” The common people of England get over the difficulty in their dialects by using “‘a” to mean either man or woman. “Did ‘a do it?“ means did either he or she do it. Readers of Wm. Black’s charming novels will remember continual insistence of this use of a convenient singular pronoun. Some years ago a grammarian suggested a new series of pronouns to be made by combining both the masculine and feminine, Thus:

Nominative—Hesh, to mean he or she,
Possessive—Hizr, to mean his or hers,
Objective—Himr, to mean him or her.

This did not meet public favor. Now Mr. C. C. Converse, a grammarian of some reputation, writes to the Critic to urge a combination of the two words “that” and “one” into a new word “thon,” which will be the desired sexless pronoun of the third person, singular number. We presume he would write the sentence we gave as an illustration thus: “If either John or Jane had come on the train thon would have found some on e there to meet thon, and we would have seen that thon enjoyed thonself.“ This will never do. It is much worse than the “hesh,” “hizr,” and “himr” proposition, and will find no acceptance at all among ordinary or even extraordinary people.
First a comment on “thon.” Though it was news to me, it turns out that although the project was not a success, Mr. Converse’s coinage hasn’t exactly been forgotten. You can find lots of stuff on the web about “thon.”[4] You just have to know to look. As for Mr. Converse, in full Charles Crozat Converse, though the Tribune calls him “a grammarian of some reputation,“ he worked as a attorney but is best known for composing the music to the hym “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”[5] Mr. Converse also was the editor of the Presbyterian Hymbook of 1895. Mr. Converse’s pronoun coinage is mentioned in Rupert Hughes’s Famous American Composers (1900), but while he says of Converse that
An example of his versatility of interest is his coining of the word “thon” (a useful substitute for the ubiquitous awkwardness of “he or she” and “his or her“), which has been adopted by the Standard Dictionary.
He says of Converse’s most famous work, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus“ that it
occupied a warm place in my Sunday-schoolboy heart, along with other singable airs of the Moody and Sankey type, but as I hum it over in memory now, it tastes sweetish and thin. Its popularly is appalling, musically at least.
Ouch. Back to “thon.”

I’ve seen “thon” described as the most successful of the attempts at an epicene pronoun, which in this case means that people argued about it for about twenty-five years before discarding it. Converse’s piece in the Critic[6] made quite a splash, because on the same day the National Tribune wrote the above piece, the Austin Weekly Statesman had this to say:
Some of the phylologists[7] recommend the adoption of a new pronoun: “Thon” for “that one.“ Since, in this fast age, brevity is the soul of impulse, the new coinage may be adopted.
Wow. If 1884 was part of “this fast age,“ I doubt we can imagine what the staff of the Statesman of 1884 would think of Austin, Texas in 2014. But Mr. Converse was not alone in his reformist zeal. On September 27, 1884, the Los Angeles Herald reported that
A writer in the Critic recently suggested the adoption of the word thon—formed from that and one.
They go on to write:
No end of fault has been found with the thon plan by rival inventors. The objections urged are various. One is that thon so closely resembles thou, especially as written in manuscript, that there would be confusion. Another theoretical grammarian proposes in the Current to adopt the French article le, and to make a possessive, lis, and an objective lin. By his plan, we should say, “If Mr. Smith or Mrs. Smith calls, I will see lin.“ “Will the lady or gentleman who owns this pug dog please claim lis property?” “If any man or woman breaks this rule, le shall be fined $5,” and so on.
Though “thon” did not want for detractors, it had its supporters as well. It was reported in 1885 that the schools in Lewiston, Maine (and other, unidentified schools) were instructing students to use “thon.” A decade later, Henry G. Williams used the word in his textbook Outlines of Psychology. A quick search through the book[8] finds seventeen pages graced with the word “thon” and its derivatives. He opens the book with the statement:
Every student should acquaint thonself* with some method by which thon can positively correlate the fact of thons knowledge.

* As the English language lacks a pronoun for the third person, singular number, common gender, the author hopes he will be pardoned for using the above new word. He also hopes the word will soon become euphonious to many a student of English. Declined: Nominative, thon; possessive, thons; objective, thon; compound, nominative and objective, thonself.
This hit the newspapers. The News-Herald of Hillsboro County, Ohio, quoted the Lynchburg Record on it under the title “The New Pronoun.“ They attributed the coinage to Williams, and said that
Thon is perfectly in harmony with the other English pronouns, and will soon become euphonius to all students of English.
Mr. Williams was a local news item for the Ohio papers. Though some sources give him the title “Professor,”[9] he was the Superintendent of Schools in Lynchburg, Ohio. Not a professor.
They were quickly corrected by a reader (remember: don’t believe everything you read in the papers). I’m going to quote this one in full (even though this post is getting long), because this letter of June 20, 1895 was the one that sent me searching for more on “thon.” You’ll see why.
Is is strictly correct to call a thing new which was made ten years ago? In an article in your issue of the 13th inst., reprinted from the Lynchburg Record, this adjective is applied to the pronoun “thon,” used by Mr. Williams in the new edition of his “Outlines.” But it is now just ten years since Judge Converse, of Philadelphia, created such a stir among verbalists by the coinage of this word. A cordial reception was at once given it by such men as Professors March, of Lafayette College, Pa., Montague,[10] of Amherst, Mass., and Norton,[11] of Harvard, and other philologists of note.

Professor March[12] said: “What Mr. Converse says of the want of such a pronoun is all good, and he forms his thon very simply. I do not know that any other vocabule wold have so good a chance for this vacancy.”

But, although so warmly welcomed by the professors, the word does not seem to have succeeded in filling that vacant in practice. Between 1885 and the recent Lynchburg Commencement, I have neither heard nor seen it used. Like almost all made words, except technical tersm it seems to be having a hard struggle for existence. And naturally so. Our common language is the outcome of our daily needs, rather than the result of a philologist’s labors in his study. Volapuk, of which so much was heard some years ago, is evidently farther than ever in becoming “the world language“ its invention hoped to see it.
Eugene C. Lewis.
Henry Williams also had something to add, and the News-Herald printed his comments a week later (June 27, 1895):
In regard to the question of Mr. Lewis concerning “the new“ pronoun “thon,” I would say that I cannot see that the Lynchburgh Record ascribes its formation to the writer. Mr. Lewis is correct in speaking of its origin, and of its verbal reception by eminent philologists. The article by the News-Herald simply says that the writer “has used in the new edition of that work a new pronoun, thon,” ect. Call it nor or old makes no difference to me. I claim it should be given general recognition, as it fills a real want. I have presumed to give it this recognition. I am not aware that any other published work uses the word. There is no copyright on it.
Henry G. WIlliams.
Mr. Williams’s championing of “thon” set off a new set of discussions over it, giving it new life ten years after Charles Crozat Converse had initially suggested the word. As late as 1900 (specifically, April 19), the Richmond Dispatch, of Richmond, Virginia was weighing in on it. They were in favor, even though thon
has an odd[13] sound, indeed. But aside form the sound, which is odd simply because it is unfamiliar, the new word vastly improves the sentence under consideration. The word “thon” should be added to our language. It is demanded. The English language is continually being enriched by words spring from new conditions, new discoveries, new inventions.[14] Ease and precision of statement demand the adoption of some such word as this that Professor Williams advocates. Where is the American university plucky enough to use it?
Not within the boundaries of the United States, it would appear. But while the Dispatch was championing Williams’s use of the word, he seems to have used it only in his Outline of Psychology.
Nine years later, thon is still showing up in the newspapers. One F.H.V. wrote to the New York Sun:
Evidently your correspondent “Brister” has overlooks the pronoun “thon” for “that one, he, she or it,“ a pronoun of the third person, common gender, a contracted and solidified form of “that one” proposed in 1856 by Charles Crozat Converse of Erie, Pa., as a substitute in case where the use of a restrictive pronoun involves either inaccuracy or obscurity, or its non-employment necessitates awkward repetition.
FHV's dating "thon" to 1856 is likely in error, since all other evidence points to 1884. The earlier date seems unlikely, as Mr. Converse did not live in the United States at that time, according to sources.

This is just a selection of the press that thon received before it sunk into relative obscurity.  (“Relative,” because it does seem to be cited whenever someone writes about attempts to force an epicene pronoun into English.) I've seen more. The full set of the press notes for thon would be surprisingly large. As I said at the beginning, English is not the only language to see reform proposals.

Esperanto[15] has seen the proposal of an epicene pronoun ri, to be used just as Converse suggested for thon, this despite that Esperanto actually has an epicene pronoun in ĝi (which is usually used as a pronoun for objects, “it”). Anticipating the arguments of the Ri-ists (those who think that Esperanto should include the pronoun “ri”), Zamenhof said that ĝi could be used whenever the sex isn’t known. It is, of course, not the only epicene pronoun reform suggested for Esperanto.

Nevertheless, in both languages, I seem to be able to not be exclusionary in my speech without also torturing my tongue. Finally, all this talk of epicene pronouns reminds me of a situation in which I corrected unjustly. I had made a statement on the lines of “any of us…he.“ One of my friends pointed out that I should have said, “he or she,” to which I replied “yes, but we’re a group of men.“

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  1. Among some prominent reforms are Spelin, as a reform of Volapük, Ido as “reformed” Esperanto, Adjuvilo as a reform of Ido, and so forth.  ↩
  2. It hasn’t gelled into a blog post, but in turn the Esperantists supported Roosevelt in this. I’m not sure why.  ↩
  3. That item is about a man who tried to adapt blasting powder as gunpowder, leading to his death and a great deal of damage to his home. The item is written in a wholly snarky tone, reminding us that poking fun at someone’s tragedies is not an invention of the late twentieth century.  ↩
  4. This blog post adding to the literature on the subject.  ↩
  5. I never thought I’d be writing about that on my blog.  ↩
  6. Which I haven’t found.  ↩
  7. I decided to retain the error for “philologists.”  ↩
  8. Made possible by Google Books  ↩
  9. In another example of the loose usage of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  ↩
  10. William Lewis Montague (1831–1908). Professor of Latin and the Romance languages.  ↩
  11. Charles Eliot Norton (1827–1908). Not actually a philologist. His cousin, Charles William Eliot was a professor of analytical chemistry at MIT and later president of Harvard. (This is wholly irrelevant, but since I know there’s a high likelihood these words will be read by someone with a degree in chemistry, I felt I needed to put in in. I should get a post done about some celebrated chemist.)  ↩
  12. Francis Andrew March (1825–1911). The only actual philologist on this list, as he was president of the American Philological Association. Wikipedia says that he was also an advocate of spelling reform.  ↩
  13. In the original, “old,” clearly a typo.  ↩
  14. Of which, thon is none of these three.  ↩
  15. Come on, I have to get Esperanto worked into this post, what with “Volapük” already in the text.  ↩

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