A post at bradshaw of the future investigates the Gloucestershire epicene pronoun ou, which “derives from Middle English a, which in turn derives from Old English he ‘he’ and heo ‘she'”:

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.


  1. Singular they is about indefiniteness, not gender ambiguity. See this Language Log post for a fine example.

  2. Another Shakespearean instance was concealed behind an apparent indefinite pronoun for over a century, until poor Pope-ridden Lewis Theobald brilliantly emended the nonsensical line ‘And a table of green fields’, in Falstaff’s off-stage death scene, to ‘And a babbled of green fields’.

  3. Uh, make that indefinite article, of course. There’s actually a good excuse for that silly slip (for once), but never mind.

  4. Serendipitous. I recently read Hamlet in my “Complete Pelican Shakespeare” and found all these as that I didn’t remember from the editions we read in high school.

  5. A schoolfriend of mine had a “universal Shakespearian quotation”, usable for essays on Hamlet or (he claimed) any other play where the examiner would probably take it on trust.
    “Lights, lights!”

  6. these a-s, don’t they look suspiciously like the ‘a’ in awaiting or in ‘baby, baby, bunting, daddy’s gone a-hunting’ or in the similar ‘speech-marker’ usage among ‘Gyptians’ in Pullman’s trilogy?

  7. No, that a- is of a different origin.

  8. This pronoun was surprisingly productive in some regional English dialects until quite recently. I’m not sure where my copy is, so I can’t check right now, but I believe that the hedgehog character “Tiggy” uses it in T.H. White’s charming “The Book of Merlin”. I think his speech was meant to be representative of a West country accent.

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