In English, the third person singular feminine subject pronoun (she) and the third person plural subject pronoun (they) are phonetically different. However, they are phonetically the same in some West Germanic languages. For example,

  • German: sie ("she"), sie ("they")
  • Luxembourgish: si ("she"), si ("they")
  • Low German: se ("she"), se ("they")
  • Dutch: zij ("she"), zij ("they")

Is this merely a coincidental result of sound changes in each of the above languages? What is the reason behind this phenomenon?

  • 5
    English "they" is a borrowing from North Germanic and not the inherited pronoun from Anglo-Saxon. – jk - Reinstate Monica Apr 12 at 22:19
  • In Old English, the accusatives ‘her’ and ‘them’ were the same (hīe), but the nominatives were separate (hēo and hīe, respectively). – Janus Bahs Jacquet Apr 13 at 8:27
  • @Janus -- It is not clear than ēo is distinct from īe . They coexist as variant spellings of many words, e.g., héoran = híeran. – Bert Barrois Apr 13 at 11:51
  • 1
    According to the OED, "The superficial resemblance of she to forms with initial s- as feminine third-person singular nominative personal pronoun in other Germanic languages (e.g. Old Dutch sie, Old Saxon siu, Old High German siu, , Gothic si…) is probably entirely coincidental." And English they comes from a borrowing. So English is unlikely to be much help here. – Draconis Apr 13 at 23:23
  • 1
    Casting the West Germanic net wider: Yiddish distinguishes; Afrikaans has a non-cognate distinction; West Frisian variants do not; East Frisian mostly does; North Frisian does. Old High German and Old English do; Old Low German also does; Middle High German, Middle Low German and Middle Dutch do not distinguish. – Michaelyus Apr 13 at 23:24

The evidence seems to point to a simple phonological merger.

Looking at the various points of data across Germanic, the /s/ in the feminine 3rd person singular is quite old (vs front vowels in the masculine & neuter), attested in 4th century Gothic. However, there is also some influence from the demonstrative pronoun *hiz in the pronominal system, where English and Frisian gain their singular 3rd person pronouns (with English she being a further development of hio/heo/hoo, as alluded to in the comments above - see the OED). Dutch was also strongly influenced by *hiz in the singular too.

The /h ~ s/ across all genders of the 3rd person plural is a feature of West Germanic, deriving from the demonstrative pronoun *hiz. So the distinction between the feminine singular and any of the plural 3rd person pronouns, at least by 1000CE, was going to be in the vowels.

In Howe (1996), it states that in such cases:

vocalic (and sometimes also consonantal) differences were reduced or lost, particularly in accented forms, resulting in homonymy but only in some in ambiguity and subsequent change.

The German and Dutch examples are illustrated with differentiation in the verb conjugation: sie macht vs sie machen adequately captures the distinction in person in the verb inflection. Other languages simply changed the pronoun; e.g. English's borrowing of they from Scandinavian. This is a clear distinction between Dutch and Afrikaans for she is vs they are:

Afrikaans: sy is; hulle is

Dutch: zij is; zij zijn

If we go through the merging languages:

  • This phonological merger between "she" and "they" happened between Old High German [sg. siu/sī/si (F) vs pl.: sie (M), siu (N), sio (F)] and Middle High German (sie), so about 1000 CE.

    • Interestingly enough, (Eastern) Yiddish does distinguish the two pronouns [sg. זי zi (F) vs pl. זיי zey], although it is generally held to be descended from Middle High German - whether this is an innovation or a retention is hard to say.
  • From Old Saxon (sg.: siu (F) vs pl. sia) to Middle Low German, dated to about 1100, the merger to one of sê, si(e), sû is fairly complete, resulting in modern Plattdeutsch se.

  • We see the distinction is weak in Old Dutch (sg. se/si/sie/siu (F)) and has already disappeared by Middle Dutch (about 1100).

  • Old Frisian had hio/hiu vs hia, which merged into modern West Frisian hja, with a borrowing of sy/se from Dutch for both feminine sg. and the plural form, strengthened perhaps by analogy.

So it seems the lack of distinction in the vowels plus the low functional load of the pronoun in front of the verb, which had a robust distinction, led to the complete merger of the pronouns, which took place rather gradually over the first few centuries of the second millennium CE.

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  • Two comments on Yiddish: 1. it is not descended from MHG, but from ENHG; 2. Beider ("Origins of Yiddish Dialects") maintains that zey is an internal innovation of Eastern Yiddish. – alephreish Jul 27 at 19:56

Equiped with nothing but wiktionary (wikt.), this is impossible to answer succinctly, and that might be because answering correctly is difficult. If the first few etymologies to try are sadly incomplete, we might assume the problem is contested.

Within wiktionary, the problem can be approached from different angles, that lead to inconsistent answers.

I start with a modern word, its given reconstructions, the evident predecessors and the linked cognates, one language after another. Then I will try to sketch a wanting reconstruction of the development from the bottom up.

a) German 3rd p. sg. f. [sie] "she" in wikt. links a backprojected West-Germanic "*si" ("she, it"), alternative "*si(j)u", promissing Proto-Germanic *si without further explanation; Old High German "siu" is given as evidence as well as cognates as there are Gothic "si", Old English "seo" ("that one (f.)"); no own entry for siu of OHG is indexed

German 3rd p. pl. [sie] "they" in wikt is giving no reconstruction, only OHG forms that are inflected for case--as there are f., m. and n. respectively: "sio", "sie", "siu", thus not coinciding in the feminine genus with the singular, for OHG, rather in the neutral singular.

c) English [she] links PGem "*hijo" ("this, this one" f.), that is *hiz (m.)--reflected in " Middle English sche, hye (“she”), from earlier scho, hyo, ȝho (“she”), a phonetic development of Old English hēo, hīo (“she”), ...", therefore the phonologic explanation is sought in "palatization", relation to seo ("that one") deemed unlikely; cognates for example are given with Scottish sche, scho, West-Frisian hju, English he, and more, to conclude, ultimately: "ȝho is the immediate parent form of Middle English scho and sche."

Already we can see the noted difference between these etymologies. The phonetic explanation for "she" is slightly irregular. I don't want to spell out what it would mean for the development of *hit (it). It requires shift of stress without apparent motivation ("change in stress upon hío resulting in hió, spelt ȝho", "ȝh = hȝ").

Note: The OE h is translitterated already with IPA /x/ [h], that is debatable notation suggesting a phonemic palatal which was however not realized? In an idealized Old English lect? Iotization from the i in OE hio might account for something, at least (cp. West-Frisian hja, North-Frisian ). Problematicly PIE *yus, and *yos are not discounted, and it doesn't either account for Dutch. Maybe Dutch is intentionally not listed as cognate. However:

d) Dutch [zij] "she", "they" links *hiz, too, but also *iz.

e) Old Saxon [siu] "she", "they" likewise links *hiz, *iz, but:

    1. There was OE nom. f. sg. [seo] "that; she, that one", which links OE "se". Weird enough, clicking the link showed me Old Saxon se (although the link is correctly anchored and the OE entry does exist)

    --Eitherway, both the OE and OS entry then link *sa, suggesting PIE *so

    1. however, Old Saxon [se] lists "siu" as its feminine form and, ironicly, [siu] traces *hiz, *iz.

This is confusing, let's take a step back.

  • Old English


    that (masculine singular form)

    • Þone rǣd ġerǣdde Wīdsīþ. ― Widsith gave that advice.

    Pronounm (demonstrative pronoun)

    that, he (masculine singular form)

    Þā ne sacaþ.They do not quarrel.

    […] Middle English: se, ze, sæ

    Declension [sēo, þæt, …]

  • Old Saxon

    1. definite article: the " mānothe moon"

    2. demonstrative adjective: that, those -- "Hē gaf thē gift. ― He gave that gift")

Declension [se, that, siu, …]

The term Anglo-Saxon exists for a reason (dated when?).

The conclusion seems to suggest itself, that two or more different paradigms had become conflated into one by chance. But we cannot jump to the conclusion that *h spontaneously sibilified to s through palatization in all those languages, independently. Gothic si "she" as the earliest evidence weighs rather heavy, but cannot on its own explain the plural. *si "she" also exists in Celtic, by the way. Wiktionary suggests "she" came from an independent, sporadic, phonetic development--which is doubtful.

DWDS sees the differentiation as a late development, doesn't mention she, and the conclusion is a logical account that however depends on the textual development accurately reflecting the oral development:

Das Pers.pron. der 3. Person Sing. entwickelt in Analogie zum einfachen Demonstrativum (Nominativ Sing. Fem. ahd. asächs. thiu, Akkusativ Sing. Fem. ahd. asächs. thia) einen entsprechenden femininen Nominativ ahd. asächs. siu bzw. Akkusativ ahd. asächs. sia. Das dadurch mit den starken Adjektiven endungsgleiche Personalpronomen bildet daraufhin diesen folgende Pluralformen wie Nominativ und Akkusativ Mask. ahd. sie, asächs. sia, sea, Fem. ahd. sio, asächs. sia, sea, Neutr. ahd. siu, asächs. siu, sia, sea. Bereits im Ahd. werden die vollen Formen vereinfacht zu sī, sie und si, die auch im Mhd. gelten (mnd. , mnl. si), bis sich im Nhd. sie (nl. zij) an allen Stellen durchsetzt

(Wolfgang Pfeifer, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, "sie", bold emphasis mine)

Translation of the relevant parts: 3rd p.sg. in analogy to fem. thiu, m. thia *in both OHG and OE siu, sia; thereupon follow the pluralia; OHG simplifies these, MHG likewise (MLG, MNL).


Consider just for fun whether it car drives fast might feel acceptable. I think it's funny because it's not acceptable--not currently anyhow. However, dialectal "them country boys", "they folks", or appellative/ you irresponsible idiot, referential "Why you little ...", etc. do exist. And this goes a lot further if taking so into account, e.g. Ger. So sachen, which I'd naively interpret as su[ch] things, "solche Dinge", whichever would be so'ne Sachen in my regiolect (Berlin-Brandenburg), and the singular could be seen synchronicly as contraction from so [ei]ne Sache (su[ch] a thing), but that's impossible in the plural, because no plural for the indef. art. ein- "a, an" exists. So, therefore, so Sachen it shall be. Also compare Bavarian so'a Schmarn. I have recently read that Bavarian "a" and English "a" are independent developments, although, those opinions have nothing to recommend themselves except the supposed distance. Bavarian is by the way far from Modern High German, but was once closer to High German-y (that is Germania Superior). Likewise, the loss of so as definite article is so far supposed to be have developed independently. Articles are expected to have developed relatively late from determiners and demonstratives (cf. *so, there, da). The details are not perfectly understood, because these too are found to be independent developments in the individual branches of Proto-Indo-European, so external comparison falls flat. The threepartite gender system likely followed a two-way distinction animate-inanimate, therefore the gloss *si "she, it" makes some sense, also that wife is neutre (like Old Irish be), or that some Hessen and Swabian dialects regularly use das Marie, but all that is poorly understood. Pfeifer succinctly devides both stems:

[...] Pronominalstamm ie. *te-, *to-, der auch in allen obliquen Kasus auftritt.

[besides] Nominativ Sing. Mask. und Fem. […] s- anlautenden Stamm (ie. *so m., *sā f., […]

(Wolfgang Pfeifer, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache, "das [pron.]")

I had initially promissed to now derive these pronouns from first principles. At that I had hoped to rest my argument on the further reconstructions, as there are quite interesting roots. But this is impossible to achieve from the above notes alone.

PS: Save to say, they is described as a loan from Norse. This is comparable to Ger die, not Sie.

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