What’s in a Pronoun: ‘He’, ‘She’ and…?

By Emily Morrison

Societal attitudes towards gender and gender identity are shifting and becoming increasingly tolerant. We have seen public figures come out as transgenderopenly transgender models and boycotts of North Carolina because of a law forcing people to use public restrooms that match the sex designation on their birth certificate, and not the gender with which they identify. It is easy to recognise that attitudes are shifting quite rapidly, at least in contrast to those of previous decades.

There is now widespread awareness of the concept of ‘gender fluidity’ and the phrase ‘non-binary’: that people are not necessarily just ‘female’ or ‘male’ and yet official pronouns in English (i.e. the words we use to replace proper nouns: she, her, he, him, it, they or them) still only allow us to express these limited options.

Although articles detailing different forms of gender pronouns abound online and organisations such as Facebook and OK Cupid have over 50 options to describe gender, there is no universally accepted way to identify as anything other than simply female or male. This presents an issue for people who do not identify as either. In university campuses across America, this is being tackled by the trend to define the pronouns you would like to be referred to as. The most common way of expressing neutrality is to use the third person plural: ‘they’ or ‘their’. But as linguists have pointed out, this lacks clarity, as ‘they’ or ‘their’ refer to a plural, so a sentence such as ‘They goes to work every day’ is jarring for anyone, let alone linguists.

Sweden’s formalisation of a gender-neutral pronoun hen in 2014 re-ignited the debate over the lack of an equivalent in English but it is a question that is far from new. The first arguments date back to the 1800s as a means of clarity when it was argued that the usage of ‘he’ in legal documents meant that, in theory, laws did not apply to women.

Of course, now the argument is a different one: the importance of inclusive linguistic structures that represent people and don’t leave them feeling isolated (people identifying as non-binary are twice as likely to commit suicide). And, while this cannot be underestimated, the case for the creation of one is not just salient for people who identify as non-binary. The tendency in most languages where there is not a gender-neutral pronoun is to revert to the masculine, an issue that has long been criticised by feminists.

This convention is criticised because it focuses our worldview on men and the primacy of them. This is because, far from simply being a way of expressing our views, the language we have actually shapes what we are able to conceive. As such, the dominance of ‘he’ in our language subconsciously places our focus in life on the masculine.

Inevitably, proposals for a gender-neutral pronoun have led to criticisms of ‘PC gone mad’ from certain parts of society and some media. But the more salient objection seems to be one of practicality. Some linguists argue that, although it is easy to invent verbs and nouns to express new ideas and concepts (as we frequently do in English), the creation of grammatical structures, such as pronouns, is difficult to change and adapt our thinking to.

I disagree with this for two reasons. First, if we accept the need to create new words to express new ideas, isn’t that whole point of a gender-neutral pronoun? That we now accept that not everyone identifies simply as a ‘she’ or a ‘he’?

Second, as a global lingua franca, the majority of English speakers are not native but learners of it as a second, third or fourth language, many of whom will be learning completely new grammatical structures anyway. And for those learning as a first language, this would be taught from a young age, so while it may be difficult for older people to adapt, over time it will simply become the norm.

What will be interesting to observe is how this will progress in the future. If we have a gender-neutral pronoun will it become the norm to use it for everyone, making ‘he’ and ‘she’ extinct? Like the polite form of you ‘thou’ which existed in old English? Or the increasingly uncommon use of ‘one’.

Even more importantly, considering the importance our language has on our ideas, the formalisation of a gender-neutral pronoun could fundamentally change the importance we give to gender.

Most societies have historically been divided on gender lines and the fundamentality of gender distinctions. Although these divisions are less pronounced in modern societies, many places that were once designated for use only by one gender (i.e. the pub or the kitchen) are no longer seen as such. These distinctions do remain to some extent: think, for example, of bathrooms, sports competitions, and children’s toys.
Over time, would having a gender-neutral pronoun change this? Would the distinction completely lose its importance? If so, how would this change our society? In any event, at least we can finally see that in our views of gender identity things are finally going in the right direction.


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