So was Middle English a really an epicene pronoun? Well, we have examples of it from Trevisa standing for both “he” and “she”, as in these cites from the OED […] It’s in Shakespeare too. Here Hamlet is talking about Polonius.
1604 Shakespeare Hamlet iii. iii. 73 Now might I doe it, but now a is a praying, And now Ile doo’t, and so a goes to heauen.
Modern versions have
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t. And so he goes to heaven;
But there seems to be a difference between a and singular they. In the examples above, the antecedents have known genders. Singular they is usually not used when the gender of the antecedent is known. What I’d like to know is: can Middle English a (or Gloucester ou) be used when the gender of the antecedent is unknown or irrelevant?
I hadn’t been aware of this early pronoun; it’s no longer usable, alas, having been worn down to a mere schwa (which would probably be interpreted as “I” if heard in a stream of discourse), but it’s certainly an interesting phenomenon.