Persons vs. People
© 11 October 2021 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0
other posts

Words I wish we’d stop merging.


Cast your mind with me back hundreds of years. Back to the days when “‍man‍” still meant what we’d later come to call “‍person‍” and prefixes were used to add specificity: werman for males, wiman for females, human for mortalsBecause angels were also men, but chthonic.. In those days, what did “‍person‍” mean?

To be fair, “‍person‍” comes from Latin through French while “‍man‍” comes from Old english through Proto-Germanic, and so far as my etymology dictionaries explain it looks as though “‍werman‍” was on its way out as part of the male-by-default political shift prior to the two words coexisting, but they did coexist for many centuries in which “‍man‍” was at most weakly gendered: as late as the early 1600s the Kings James Version of the Bible uses such phrases as “‍God created man […] male and female‍”1Genesis 1:27.

Person then had a meaning that is preserved in some related words today: personal, personality, persona. A person was an individual, with mannerisms distinct from others. To call someone a (hu)man is to focus on their membership in the species, while to call them a person is to focus on their individuality and distinctness. A group of humans are essentially indistinguishable; a group of persons are essentially distinct. And yes, the plural is “‍persons‍” not “‍people‍”.

What, then, of “‍people‍”? It is a plural of “‍person‍” of a sort, but the plurality is inside individuality. A people share a common identity: they have a shared persona, a common personality, things that are personal to them collectively not individually. Hence, when the US Constitution opens “‍We the people of the United States‍” it is asserting two kinds of union: the constituent sovereign states are uniting politically into a single state, but that is an outgrowth of an observation that the citizens Of course, not all states agreed on which of their occupants were citizens. The constitutional convention’s arguments about slavery were in part moral and in part political, but also in part an argument about which humans were part of this people. of those states are one people.

Once we recognize the difference between a people and a group of persons, we see at once the need for a plural for people. For example, one argument made for enslaving humans in the 1700s was that “‍the African people‍” sold their own into slavery, but that was a lie: there were many African peoples and the sellers and sold were rarely if ever from the same people. Many are the imperial actions throughout history that failed to account for the fact that a group of humans could all be different from the imperial people in similar ways and yet not be one people but instead many peoples.

Now, these meanings remain in English today, but they seem to be dying. I was taught that “‍people‍” was the plural of “‍person‍” and that “‍person‍” was the non-gendered alternative to “‍woman‍” and “‍man‍”. If I address an audience as “‍people‍” they never object that they are insufficiently unified for that appellation. As “‍people‍” is pushed out of its old meaning it leaves a void that no other word can adequately fill. The need for a word there is acute enough that several other words are being pulled in that direction: “‍clan‍”, “‍population‍”, “‍society‍”, “‍group‍”, “‍party‍”, “‍culture‍”—each of these (and others) has its own meaning but is sometimes pulled to fill the gap left by “‍people‍”.

Now, I am not so naïve as to beleive I can stop linguistic shift. But I do often find myself reflecting on peoplehood and personhood. Are we a people? What holds us together as a people? How much do I value being part of this people? What would I give up to stay a people, or lose if we became several peoples? Do I “‍regard the person of‍”Leviticus 19:15, Deuteronomy 28:50, Matthew 22:16, Mark 12:14, Luke 20:21, others more than I should? Is this a time to see a people or persons or humans?

I find the notions of persons and peoples to be useful cognitive tools. I hope enough other persons do that the words never fully merge.

Looking for comments…

Loading user comment form…