Saturday, 28 July 2012

Singular "they" and Minecraft

A quickish note about a recent posting by Notch of Mojang. Notch, the original creator of Minecraft (which I really haven't had a chance to play for some time), notes that though the default character skin appears somewhat masculine (and is referred to as "Steve"), the original intent was that characters in Minecraft be genderless. Notch points to the genderless aspects of the other living creatures in Minecraft (cows, birds, pigs etc.) and the fact that all of these can breed with any other member of the same species to produce offspring as part of the same outlook.

The linguistic angle is his closing footnote, which relates to referring to Minecraft's default character as him:
* I do regret using masculine terms to talk about the default character. These days I try to use the up-and-coming use of “they” as a genderless pronoun.

They, of course, has been an "up-and-coming" genderless pronoun for at least a few hundred years now:
Matt. 18:35: So likewise shall my heauenly Father doe also vnto you, if yee from your hearts forgiue not euery one his brother their trespasses. [Tyndale's translation, 1526]
It has been pointed out repeatedly that singular they has been used in the Biblical translations of Tyndale and the King James translators, as well as other reputed writers of English literature such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen:
There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
As if I were their well-acquainted friend
[Shakespeare, A Comedy of Errors IV, 3]
"It had been a miserable party, each of the three believing themselves most miserable."
[Austen, Mansfield Park]
 For more on singular "they", see Language Log's collection of posts on the topic, as well as Wikipedia's extensive page.