LifeThey’re here, get used to them: why gender-neutral pronouns are not “radical”
A majority of languages around the world have no gender distinctions in pronouns. So why is using "they" as a singular pronoun considered so politically and grammatically unconventional?
Replacing the English language's gendered "he" and "she" pronouns with "they," "them," and "their" has been common for hundreds of years. These neutral pronouns are also becoming a tool for English speakers to move beyond a stark binary gender system. This is sometimes received as a radical version of language reform, but in truth, it's actually not all that grammatically exceptional.
A perceived attack on the "status quo"
Beyond politicization of the gendered pronoun, grammatical correctness seems to be one of the biggest arguments against the use of the singular "they." Suzanne Romaine, a sociolinguist and former Merton Professor of English Language for the University of Oxford, tells Hopes&Fears that in one sense the question itself is irrelevant. "Who decides it’s incorrect and why do they decide?" Romaine asks. "Who is it that polices these things? It's the people who are in the grammar business: people who publish dictionaries, people who publish, people who edit, and so on." In essence, there is simply no law that keeps people from defining their own methods of communication.
One such person is Tyler Ford, who wrote an essay for The Guardian called "My life without gender." The essay chronicles Ford's experiences with being agender, which to them "simply means having the freedom to exist as a person without being confined by the limits of the western gender binary." Ford tells Hopes&Fears that after switching from the "she" pronouns assigned to them at birth to "he" pronouns while transitioning genders, they found that the male identifier didn't quite fit either. "I was at the point where I was switching between 'she,' 'he' and 'they' and I didn't know which I wanted to use because I didn’t fully know my identity yet," Ford recalls. "I didn't really know how to assert 'they' and 'them' as pronouns because they weren't used by anyone around me. Most people had not heard of them." A lot of people still don't understand their significance, Ford says, with many detractors arguing that the use of "they" in the singular is simply grammatically incorrect.
Romaine adds that when people insist that a type of speech is wrong it's usually because it's perceived to be an attack on the status quo. "And, of course, the status quo is sexism, racism," and everything outside of standards set by current hegemonic values. "Changing the status quo is always seen as political, but maintaining it is not seen that way." This is not the first time in the history of the English language that the people have tried to upset the status quo. In 17th century England, Quakers tried to formalize the use of "thee," "thou" and "thy" because they didn’t believe that individuals should have titles like "sir" or "madam" which were markers of power in a hierarchal social structure. Through changing the way they spoke, the Quakers were trying to level the playing field. This was seen as an attack by the predominant class, and Romaine says the Quakers "were stigmatized and ridiculed for it," much like those are ridiculed for trying to change language today.
Gendering pronouns is not common
Out of 378 languages reviewed by the World Atlas of Language Structures, 254 have no gender distinctions in their pronouns and 61 make a distinction only in the third person singular (such as the English use of him and her).
One of the Oxford English Dictionary's definitions of “they” is “used to refer to a person of unspecified sex.” (It gives the example, “Ask a friend if they could help.”)
Invented gender-neutral pronouns in English and how they are used
I spoke to them
Their hair is brown
that's their jacket
They served themself
I spoke to nem
Nir hair is brown
That's nirs jacket
Ne served nemself
I spoke to ver
Vis hair is brown
That's vis jacket
Ve served verself
I spoke to em
Eir hair is brown
That's eirs jacket
Ey served emself
I spoke to zir
Zir hair is brown
That's zirs jacket
Ze served zirself
I spoke to xem
Xyr hair is brown
That's xyrs jacket
Xe served xemself
A brief history of language as a weapon
Miriam Meyerhoff, a linguistics professor at the Victoria University of Wellington and co-editor of the Handbook of Language, Gender, and Sexuality, has been thinking about the intersection of language and gender for years. Speaking about gender-neutral languages with Hopes&Fears, Meyerhoff pointed out that Finnish speakers tend to say phrases like "that girl" or "that man" much more often than they do in languages that use pronouns to signify gender. Meyerhoff thinks that this might imply that we’ve been programmed to make distinctions in gender.
Korean, for example, uses one pronoun for everyone; additionally, speakers use the full name of the person whom they are referring to instead of the third person, which can give conversation a more gender-neutral feel. Teachers, bosses and pastors are called by their professional titles rather than the formalized "Miss" or "Mister," which also sets a gender-neutral tone.
"Vocabulary is a really good method of trying to enact social change," Meyerhoff says. "The tragedy of it is that it's not very successful. One success story in consciously changing language is the introduction of 'Ms.'" She adds that even with "Ms.," which was meant to signify the same as "Mr.," which does not change depending on the male's marital status. In the end, people ended up with three choices for women: "Miss," "Mrs" and "Mrs."
The second wave feminist movement of the 60s saw activists promoting invented pronouns such as "xe" or "thon" as an alternative to gendered pronouns. This never proliferated beyond their use in "radical" communities. "There’s not a straightforward correlation between linguistic features and what we grandly call society," Romaine notes. She points out that languages such as Turkish, which has no gender distinctions, don't necessarily translate into a society that’s more egalitarian. Similarly, LGBT issues remain contentious in Korea, despite the lack of gender-specific pronouns in its language.
Meyerhoff does however believe the use of "they"/"them" in the singular is a more likely replacement for "he"/"she" and, linguistically, not all that extreme. "It looks like [those who choose to go by 'they'/'them' pronouns] are doing something kind of transgressive and counter-normative, but if you look at the historical record, English has been doing it for a long time. If you look at what happens in languages worldwide, it's the normal thing for languages around the world. It’s not really transgressive."
Gender neutrality around the world
Germany: A slash is used to reference both genders in writing (ex: Professor/in to indicate both gendered forms of the title "Professor"). There is also a trend toward using collective nouns such as Lehrkraft (faculty) instead of singular Lehrer/in.
Sweden: Recently, Sweden adopted the gender-neutralizing pronoun "hen" with "hens" as the possessive and either hen or henom as the object form.
AustraliA: Gender can be designated as “X” and applied to birth certificates and passports.
Thailand: A third sex, "Kathoey," refers to people who are assigned male at birth but possess a "female heart." They hold a distinct place in the Thai workforce, and are often sought after for sales positions.
Spain: In Spanish writing, those opting for the gender-neutral will use the @ symbol, e.g. "l@s" or "nosotr@s instead of los/las or nosotros/ nosotras.
FRANCE: L'Académie française, the official authority of the French language, does not support the feminization of titles, saying that using the masculine gender as the neutral gender also neutralizes differences between sexes.
Don't think of an elephant
Rather than focusing on changing speech as a way to challenge the way societies see the world, Meyerhoff has been trying to get people to consider what they're already doing and thinking and how that's reflected in their speech. Meyerhoff explains that the way we understand the world is directly in relation to how we talk about it; so when people use phrases like "same-sex marriage" or even "gender-neutral pronouns," they're subconsciously marking these things as deviating from the norm. Meyerhoff explains that there's an interrelated triangle between the physical world, mental processes and language, or the words we use to express what we see in the world and how we interpret them. "We can change any one of those, in theory, and it may well have a knock on effect to the other two because they are linked to each other," Meyerhoff says. "Change [through using 'they'/'them' pronouns] will be slow because it’s only one part of the triangle."
But the change certainly is happening. Since February 2014, Facebook has offered over fifty different gender options in its profile settings and has allowed users to opt to be referred to by "they" pronouns. Harvard University recently altered its registration process to allow for students to identify which pronouns they would like to use, including "ze/ hir/ hirs" and "they/ them/ theirs" so that their preference will show up on class rosters (although students must still classify themselves as male or female). Just this past year Sweden added the gender-neutral "hen" to the official Swedish dictionary, as an alternative to "han" (he) and "hon" (she).
For Tyler Ford, most of the negativity they experience is on the internet from strangers. "Because I have a public Instagram or Twitter they think it’s a public forum to debate my identity." Ford is also often frustrated when encountering people who think it’s rude to ask someone their pronouns. "Actually, it's very respectful to ask someone how they want to be referred to. You're learning about someone. Why would you ever assume anything about someone? That's rude." According to Ford, the best thing that anyone can do is amplify the voices of marginalized people by sharing and re-tweeting posts by writers who go by and are writing about they/them pronouns. Other than that, Ford says that people should just ask questions and engage. The best allies, Ford says, "Realize that because they don’t live it, they don’t understand it; and in order to understand it better they need to keep reading, keep researching and keep asking questions."
Editor: Gabriella Garcia