Original and modern scope
As in many languages, in Old English each noun had a grammatical gender (masculine, feminine or neuter), and a pronoun was generally (but not always) selected according to its antecedent's grammatical gender. Thus because dæg ([dæj] 'day') was masculine, one would refer to the day as he. Since in Modern English nouns have no grammatical gender (though suffixes like -or or -ess may indicate the sex of their referents), only the sex of the referent determines the pronoun to use.
The generic he serves as a pronoun whose antecedent is any noun denoting a social category under which both sexes fall:
- A good student always does his homework.
- If someone asks you for help, give it to him.
- When a customer argues, always agree with him.
He has always been the third-person masculine pronoun in English, as this table of the pronouns of Old English shows:
|1st||Singular||iċ||[ɪtʃ]||mec / mē||mē||mīn|
|Plural||wē||[weː]||ūsic||ūs||ūser / ūre|
|2nd||Singular||þū||[θuː]||þec / þē||þē||þīn|
Although the pronoun has always been spelled the same, its Old English pronunciation was closer to that of modern hay.
As the OE table shows, hine and him were respectively the accusative and dative cases of he. These oblique forms persisted in Middle English:
|Person / gender||Subject||Object||Possessive determiner||Possessive pronoun||Reflexive|
|First||ic / ich / I |
|me / mi |
|min / minen [pl.] |
|min / mire / minre |
|min one / mi selven|
|Second||þou / þu / tu / þeou |
|þi / ti |
|þin / þyn |
|þeself / þi selven |
|him / hine |
|his / hisse / hes |
|his / hisse |
|Feminine||sche[o] / s[c]ho / ȝho |
|heo / his / hie / hies / hire |
|hio / heo / hire / heore |
|hit / him |
|hit sulue |
|us / ous |
|ure[n] / our[e] / ures / urne |
|us self / ous silve |
|Second||ȝe / ye |
|eow / [ȝ]ou / ȝow / gu / you |
|eower / [ȝ]ower / gur / [e]our |
|Ȝou self / ou selve |
|Third||From Old English||heo / he||his / heo[m]||heore / her||-||-|
|From Old Norse||þa / þei / þeo / þo||þem / þo||þeir||-||þam-selue|
Many other variations are noted in Middle English sources due to difference in spellings and pronunciations. See Francis Henry Stratmann (1891). A Middle-English dictionary. [London]: Oxford University Press. and A Concise Dictionary of Middle English from A.D. 1150 TO 1580, A. L. Mayhew, Walter W. Skeat, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1888.
- Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech and Jan Svartvik. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, Longman, 1985.
|Look up he in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.|
- William Malone Baskervill and James Witt Sewel, An English Grammar, 1896.
- "He", The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth edition, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000).