Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns Actually Doomed?

For Pacific Standard

Dennis Baron calls it the word that failed.

Baron, a professor of linguistics at the University of Illinois, has been monitoring the development of epicene — that is, gender-neutral, third-person singular pronouns — since the 1986 publication of his book Grammar and Gender. He keeps a list tracking the introduction of new epicene pronouns in English and has counted dozens, with the first documented in 1850 — most of those being proposed by writers who took grammatical issue with, say, the singular “they.”

“They were the ones I found from the 19th century, when a rationale was given for them, it was a grammatical one rather than an issue of social equality or social justice,” Baron says.

I got in touch with Baron this summer after a heated meltdown with my friend Eric. It was right after “ougate” — a minor flap in which writer s.e. smith, who identifies as genderqueer and prefers the pronoun “ou,” was misgendered by Gawker writer Hamilton Nolan; the ensuing correction spurred a minor tizzy after which smith and Nolan both moved on.

Eric’s a grad student in linguistics, wrapping up his dissertation on Balkan languages as I write this, and his argument was a little more specific: Prescribing a new pronoun for speakers of a language to adopt is an effort that’s not all that likely to succeed. Some languages don’t gender personal pronouns, but English does, and has for so long that reversing the trend seems completely impracticable.

I grant that as an English speaker, gender is inextricably tied to how I want to talk about people and even animals (why do so many people, by the way, refer to cats as “she”?). For years, I despised the numeric inconsistency of the singular “they” in writing (though I used it all the time in conversation), and usually struck it when editing others’ work.

But I’m also deeply skeptical of claims that humans or speakers of a given language will inevitably think about gender in a certain way — or what languages are intrinsically built to do. They strike me nearly the same way as arguments using evolutionary psychology to bolster rigid gender roles — though I wonder if the latter flies because most people don’t know enough about primitive humans to argue that primitive men probably didn’t use the pre-agricultural equivalent of sports cars and expensive briefcases to lure primitive ladies into their primitive caves. Even non-linguists — say, every high school kid trying to figure out how French nouns are gendered — know there’s remarkable diversity in the way living languages handle gender.

And anyway, there’s the theoretical notion of how pronouns ought to work in languages, and then there’s the practice, which is more a matter of etiquette than argument about what a language will “naturally” do.

Read the rest at Pacific Standard.

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