Sexist pronouns

There’s a problem with English.  Okay, there are lots of problems with English, from a spelling system that hasn’t been made sense since the 15th century to an undue love of Latin grammatical standards in a language that wasn’t made for them, but this case I mean the pronouns.

If someone tells me they’re going to introduce me to a friend, Tom, I can say with reasonable certainty that I’m looking forward to meeting him (or not).  If I’m going to be introduced to Mary, I can look forward to meeting her.  But maybe I’m about to be introduced to Alex, or Taylor, or Jamie, and I’m really looking forward to meeting… hopefully you see the problem here.

According to what you learned in 8th grade grammar, English doesn’t really have neat and tidy way of referring to a person of unknown gender or who falls outside the conventional gender binary.  Of course, life being what it is, we as English speakers are constantly forced into situations where we have to do just this.  For example, in the U.S. Constitution, the qualifications of members of the House of Representatives are set as follows:

No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.

Clearly, at the time, only men could be congresspersons.  While this is no longer the case, the language of Constitution has not changed, and the “he” in the above quote is now considered to have a generic, gender-neutral meaning.  But “he” is still very much a male pronoun—the generally accepted semantics of “he” are male—if you mention “he” in a large group of people, most of them will think of a generic, faceless male—in the feature set of “he,” gender=penis-haver—there are only so many ways I can put this.

So what else can you do?  Let’s try a few things:

No Person shall be a Representative who shall not […] be an Inhabitant of that State in which it shall be chosen.

Well, that’s weird.  Representatives aren’t rocks, even though some of them are are smart as one.

No Person shall be a Representative who shall not […] be an Inhabitant of that State in which one shall be chosen.

You can do this in some languages, like German, Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish (where the word is actually man, but that’s another discussion), but in English it doesn’t work, since it usually remains unclear what the impersonal “one” refers to.

No Person shall be a Representative who shall not […] be an Inhabitant of that State in which he or she shall be chosen.

This one pleases prescriptivist grammarians, so it’s naturally as smooth as sand in your nether regions.

Fortunately, English speakers, being a crafty and creative folk, have come up with a number of inventive solutions, a list of which I’m looking at right now.  But you know what?


Here are a few (subjective form/objective form) along with my immediate visceral reaction:

E/em – “E” (which I presume is pronounced “ee”) sounds too much like “he”, and “em” sounds like “them” if you swallow the “th,” which happens all the time.  Non-distinctive.

Ey/em – Basically the same objection, but applied to “they” as well as “them.”

Hu/hum – Who?  Hum?

Per/per – That’s a guy’s name.  Now you’re just confusing the Swedes.

Thon/thon – How do I pronounce this?  Thawn?  Thone?  Thun?

Xe/xem – How do I pronounce this?  Ksee?  Zee?  Just spell it “ze,” then.

Ze/zir, hir, or mer – Although “ze” was clearly cooked as a triple-word-score conspiracy to win the shortest 33 points in Scrabble history, I can’t really say I have a huge problem with it (ze above), or with “mer,” really, but the spellings of “zir” and “hir” leave pronunciation ambiguous.  If it’s not meant to be pronounced “zeer,” “zer” would be better but doing the same thing with “hir” gives you… “her.”

Zhe/zhim – Orthographically and phonotactically gross.  Russian and Chinese loan-words are the only things that contain the “zh” digraph in English (Zhivago, Zhou), and the /ʒ/ phoneme (“vision”) does not, to the best of my knowledge, occur at the beginning of any native English word.

The problem with all of these is that pronouns are such a basic part of any language’s vocabulary that they have to be as unobtrusive as possible.  Across all the languages of the world, very, very few pronouns are loans, and so they fit seamlessly with the sound pattern of native words.  In English, this requires that they obey often arbitrary spelling rules that have persisted over hundreds of years.  In general, they should make no one stop and wonder “hey, where did that come from?”

Some may argue that that’s actually the point.  Many of these pronouns have been proposed by feminist or gender equality groups.  I’m speculating here, but an argument may be forwarded that inserting such an obtrusive pronoun as, say, “xe” might cause a reader to stop and wonder why it’s there, thus drawing attention to pervasive sexism in society.  I guess.  This logic seems kind of tenuous to me.  Unless it’s already a well-known fact that people use “xe” as a gender-neutral pronoun, the average person who comes across it in an article is just going to reach for the nearest dictionary instead of pondering their own prejudices.

More importantly, I’d also say that the structure and lexicon of the language a society uses has less of an impact on thought than you might think.  Why, then, does our language have so many of the features it does?  In John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, the author dissects the occurrence of “do” in modern English questions (like “Do you like this article?”*).  This feature was not present in Old English or even in Middle English, but started happening somewhere along the way.  According to the language-moulds-thought folks (known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), this innovation in English must reflect some cultural difference between life in 11th century Wessex and modern New York or London.  What could this difference be?  Well, there are certainly a lot—we don’t normally take our meals in common in a great mead-hall; if you kill someone, you don’t get away with it by paying weregild to their family; cleaving people in two with axes is generally frowned upon, ond so forþ.  So which one of those is due to us using “do” as a question particle?  None of them, you say?  “Do” in this sense is basically meaningless but we haven’t gotten rid of it because of habit?  It’s just a feature randomly picked up by Anglo-Saxon invaders in the British Isles, possibly from the ancestors of the Scottish or Welsh?  Similarly, a lack of sexist attitudes among speakers of 23rd century English will not be due to us having shoehorned “hu” into our vocabulary two hundred years prior.

But you know what happens all the time?  Literally all the time?  I don’t know if this is a uniquely English phenomenon, but we’re really good at retooling existing words to take on new meaning.  Do you use the word “cool” to mean something other than a negative temperature differential between two surfaces?  Have you ever verbed a noun?  We’ve done a similar thing with our pronouns, and perhaps you’ve even noticed my doing so above.  I speak, of course, of the singular “they.” It’s awesome.

No Person shall be a Representative who shall not […] be an Inhabitant of that State in which they shall be chosen.

I don’t know about you, but I like it.  It’s short and unobtrusive, scans well, and is contextually unambiguous.

We’ve danced this dance before.  “You” used to be solely a plural pronoun.  It also used to be solely oblique, which is to say that the Barney song in Middle English would have gone “I love you, ye love me,” which is perhaps marginally more bearable.  “You” eventually edged out “ye,” “thee,” and “thou” because of reasons to do with the French.  Go “you”!

Language change just happens, and most attempts to make it happen are unsuccessful.  It happens because people go out and talk to each other (and nowadays because people stay inside and send each other telegrams with their thumbs).  We pick up speech and language patterns from our peers and pass them on to our own, but dictates from on high are rarely picked up by the general body of speakers (this is especially true in English, which has no national academy to regulate the language, as does German or French).  Successfully coining a neologism takes a lot of influence, and not all of us can be Shakespeare (or Stephen Colbert).  So you can go out and start using “zhe” all you like, but unless all your friends pick it up and are themselves hugely influential, you won’t make that big of a splash.  Really, your best bet is to befriend Brian Williams and convince him to start using your pronoun of choice on the evening news.

Finally, for the Sapir-Whorfians among us who think that shoehorning a new gender-neutral pronoun into English will magically solve sexism, I would say that the way you think has far more influence on the kind of language you speak than the other way around.  Case(s) in point: Both Persian and Bengali have no grammatical gender at all, in pronouns or anything else, and we all know that Iran and Bangladesh are just paradises for women.

^If you do, you should follow this blog

About nkrishna

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