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Backstory: The Politics of Pronouns

“MAAAAAAAAX COME IN HERE AND EXPLAIN YOUR AMBIGUITY TO YOUR BROTHER.”
—Paige in Hir by Taylor Mac

The Oxford English Dictionary added about 500 new words in its latest quarterly update, including such splendid neologisms as jeggings, kettlebell, photobomb, and twerk. These additions serve as a reminder that language is a tool and a living thing, constantly evolving to reflect the changing world it describes. Many of the new words (autotune, crowdfund, retweet, sext, webisode) acknowledge advances in technologies and the creative ways that people use them; some (half-ass, handsy, hot mess, Masshole) herald the graduation of the spicily vernacular into the ranks of the accepted and the codified, while others (birdhouse, stir-fry, tan line), long in common use, seem a bit like lexicographical afterthoughts whose invitations to the party got lost in the mail.

What you will not find among the 500-odd new entries, however, is what Oxford University Press editor Ben Zimmer calls a “lacuna in the English lexicon:” a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. 

According to linguist Dennis Baron, speakers of English have been crying out for such a word since at least the mid-nineteenth century. In an 1852 newspaper report, one author framed his appeal in purely grammatical terms, citing the need for a pronoun to employ in cases where the subject of a sentence is a singular, but unknown or unspecified, individual. (As many have done since then, he rejected the coordinate phrase he or she as “inelegant and bungling,” and the use of the singular they as “a direct violation of the rules of grammar.”) In 1882, a similar plea in the Memphis Free Trade appealed not only to syntactic decency but also to feminism: “As the laws of grammar now stand, the use of he when she may be meant is an outrage upon the dignity, and an encroachment upon the rights, of women. It is quite as important that they should stand equal with men in the grammars as before the law.” But despite a cascade of such laments in various periodicals throughout the latter half of the 19th century—and, notably, despite the coinage of various proposed alternatives, including ne, hiser, ip, and thon, among many others—no gender-neutral pronoun has taken firm hold. More than 150 years later, people are still writing newspapers for advice about this linguistic gap.

In the 21st century, as transgender communities continue to work for visibility, understanding, and equal representation in society, the need for a non-gendered third person pronoun has become all the more pressing, not only to refer to hypothetical individuals of unspecified gender, but, significantly, to refer to specific individuals whose gender identity is neither male nor female. Not everyone believes in a gender binary and some people prefer not to use gendered pronouns, opting instead for neutral alternatives such as the singular they—grammar be damned—or newly coined words like ze (in place of he or she) and hir (in place of his or her). As a matter of basic respect, transgender and genderqueer people should be identified by their preferred pronoun; when in doubt, the best thing to do is just to ask. (Taylor Mac uses the pronoun judy, which, beyond the obvious benefit of expressing judy’s lived experience of judy’s gender, has the additional merit of being fun to say.)

 “enforcing language norms is a way of enforcing power structures.”

For those who bristle at the syntactical notion of the singular they, it’s worth noting that English uses an identical second person pronoun, you, for both singular and plural applications. This wasn’t always the case. Until the 16th century, ye/you/your/yours were exclusively plural forms; the second-person singular pronoun forms were thou/thee/thy/thine. Singular use of you began in the 16th century as a formal designation, while thou lingered for a time to express familiarity or, more often, class inferiority, before gradually falling out of common use altogether. Its disappearance can be understood as evidence of evolving ideas about the coding of class hierarchy in language. One imagines that, much as expressing class distinction in second person pronouns outlived its social value several hundred years ago, distinguishing gender in third person singular pronouns may eventually be construed as an archaic linguistic notion. As author Davey Shlasko recently noted in an essay for Feministing, “enforcing language norms is a way of enforcing power structures.”

It’s also worth noting that genderless pronouns are already being formally acknowledged elsewhere in the world. The Swedish Academy’s SAOL dictionary included the gender-neutral pronoun hen (an alternative to the male pronoun han and the female hon) in its latest update in April. The addition reflects the public’s recent embrace of the word, which has been promoted not only by LGBTQ groups, but also by teachers at nurseries, preschools and kindergartens, many of whom, according to the Washington Post, “increasingly argue that the pronoun’s usage allows children to grow up without feeling the impact of gender biases.” 

if you’re waiting for permission to use non-binary pronouns, don’t. The dictionary’s job is to catch up to us.

The Swedish case is a helpful reminder that, when it comes to language, evolution is rarely a top-down proposition. At the end of the day, the good people at lexicographical temples like the OED and the SAOL are not tasked with sanctioning approved vocabulary so much as documenting what people are already doing. Wonderfully, messily, the coining and mainstreaming of new words has always been a grassroots affair. It’s you and I who are the wordsmiths, the culture-makers. When you use your friend or coworker or cousin’s preferred pronoun, you’re not just being respectful—though that’s always a good place to start—you’re also participating in the radical and necessary project of what Taylor Mac calls “dreaming the culture forward.” Which is all to say: if you’re waiting for permission to use non-binary pronouns, don’t. The dictionary’s job is to catch up to us.

Sarah Lunnie
Literary Manager