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Is it time we agreed on a gender-neutral singular pronoun?

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Susan Welsh  Identity Verified
United States
Local time: 13:55
Member (2008)
Russian to English
+ ...
We have one: "it" Jan 30, 2015

Arghhh!!!

 

Neil Coffey  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:55
French to English
+ ...
"must match" Jan 31, 2015

"remember that pronouns must match both gender and number"

Perhaps the first thing that every 10 year old should learn in English classes is why this is a false premise...


 

Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 23:25
English to Hindi
+ ...
"They" Jan 31, 2015

Curiously, the plural pronoun they is gender neutral. I have seen this being used even in singular to avoid being specific about gender. I don't think that this is a satisfactory solution, though.

It is interesting to note that the default gender is male in almost all languages. Does it reflect the widespread male dominance in human society?

Recently, I was reading Frederick Engels' book, On the Origin of the Family. There I noted that male dominance has not always been the case in human society. In every early societies, the sexes had equal power and prestige. The male-dominance came to the fore only with the rise of personal property, which had to be bequeathed to the male of the next generation. Engels had predicted that with socialism triumphing over capitalism, there won't be any individual property to bequeath and human society will be able to revert to equality of genders.

Socialism, however, didn't triumph, capitalism proved to be too wily for that, and so we still have individual property and a male-dominated society.

At the same time, in many affluent Western societies we have an affluent working class consisting of both men and women. It is is this class that is very conscious about gender equality, particularly the women among them.

I don't think they are dominant enough or widespread enough to bring about any changes in their favour in massive societal structures like languages.

So we can expect this difficulty about the male preference of most modern languages to continue till our society itself changes its internal dynamics and accepts equality between the sexes.

[Edited at 2015-01-31 06:30 GMT]


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 19:55
Spanish to English
+ ...
Not broke, dont fix Jan 31, 2015

I don't think so, at least not for English, as we seem to get by pretty well with things as they are.
... I often wonder if the people who think up this kind of question don't have anything better to do with their time.

PS: I suppose it must have something to do with the current obsession with all things "gender" in some parts, and the (in my view mistaken) notion that grammatical gender is strongly linked to human/animal gender distinctions.

[Edited at 2015-01-31 11:10 GMT]

[Edited at 2015-01-31 11:10 GMT]


 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:55
Hebrew to English
The Guardian Jan 31, 2015

....can't say I'm shocked.

 

Tom in London
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:55
Member (2008)
Italian to English
Oh Jan 31, 2015

Oh Man, I wish I had an answer to this.

 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 19:55
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Here we go again... Jan 31, 2015

The Scandinavians haven't cracked it, although they are halfway there.

There are two grammatical genders in the Scandinavian languages, but conveniently - sometimes - they are called 'Common' and 'Neuter'.

Men, women, males and females are all 'Common' gender, while a child is an 'it' = neuter unless you specify a boy or a girl. Inanimate objects can be either - chairs are common and tables are neutral...

So far so good, but even so, kindergarten staff are said to have a problem with individual children. Peter and Anna are fine, but when you need a pronoun, it gets difficult, because the pronouns are determined by real gender.

Pronouns fly back and forth...
But to many Danes, the intermediate suggestions (hen or høn) sound too close to the word for a hen, either in English or in Danish.

______________________________________

I've heard proposals for 'ho' in English, but I always understand it as feminine.

I can be as feminist as anyone when it comes to voting rights and gender equality, but honestly, as far as language goes, I still think 'Man has embraced Woman from time immemorial', and there is no changing it.

There are far more serious issues and injustices to spend time on, and when they are sorted, the language might follow. Or it might not.

We now talk of teachers, rather than schoolmasters and schoolmistresses.
It is not necessary to emphasise every time that a doctor can be a 'lady doctor', as if she had dropped in from another planet.

Let's listen to what people are actually saying, and not get unnecessarily distracted by pronouns and insignificant points of grammar.


 

neilmac  Identity Verified
Spain
Local time: 19:55
Spanish to English
+ ...
The usual suspect... Feb 1, 2015

Ty Kendall wrote:

....can't say I'm shocked.


Couldn't agree more, it has totally weird-agendified and gone to the dogs in the past few years...


 

Sophie Thereau (X)
France
Local time: 19:55
English to French
Behind "insignificant points of grammar", insignificant people? Feb 2, 2015

Hi,

A remark from a non-binary person: the "there are more important issues" is irrelevant. Languages convey biases that, if not addressed, continue to shape our vision of the world and our relationship to it, in the worst way.

And the world is also made of persons. "It" is for objects, "they", as explained in the following link, is a partial and unsatisfactory solution.

https://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/tag/zie-and-hir/

English language was already amended in that respect:
Black people, formerly branded as n*gg*rs, are now Black people and/or African-American people.
Jewish people, formerly branded as Sh*l*cks and/or k*k*s, are now Jewish people.
Except if you're a racist or antisemitic person.
Are slavery and pogroms an insignificant point of history? Are hatred and ignorance insignificant?

The same applies to non-binary people, whether they define themselves as intersex, transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, gender neutral, otherkind or whatever.

It is time to understand that placing people in categories, especially categories that don't fit who they are, is scornful and harmful.

This is an implicit justification of transphobia and other related hatred views and acts.

This may seem to be an insignificant point of grammar to some of you, but for us, this is being deemed as non-existent people. Hatred always begins this way: "they are not people, so we don't need to treat them like human beings". And it begins with such "insignificant" acts as not recognizing our difference.


 

Ty Kendall  Identity Verified
United Kingdom
Local time: 18:55
Hebrew to English
Okay..... Feb 2, 2015

Sophie Thereau wrote:
Languages convey biases that, if not addressed, continue to shape our vision of the world and our relationship to it, in the worst way.


Hmmm, Sapir-Whorf has been severely discredited, if not largely refuted.
I'm always a bit dubious about studies which claim to show links, they are usually problematic in some way or other. Which is why I don't place much faith in studies such as: http://www.livescience.com/18574-gendered-grammar-sex-inequality.html

Although at one point it does raise an interesting point:

On average, countries where gendered languages are spoken ranked lowest on the scale of gender equality, researchers reported in the journal Sex Roles. But surprisingly, genderless languages didn't fare as well as natural gender languages such as English (though they did fare better than gendered languages).

Gender-neutral pronouns likely conjure male images, Prewitt-Freilino said. Previous research has suggested that when people are cued with the gender-neutral "they," they think of male characters far more frequently than when cued with "he or she."

"Being able to use gendered pronouns, things like 'he' or 'she,' and being able to modify the language could actually have a function," Prewitt-Freilino said. That result suggests that efforts to invent gender-neutral pronouns in English could backfire.


Needless to say the effect of culture seems to be largely ignored (which is surely a major factor, more so than language).

"they", as explained in the following link, is a partial and unsatisfactory solution.

https://genderneutralpronoun.wordpress.com/tag/zie-and-hir/


From this article:
and in some cases even a singular “they” just won’t work – specifically when a name is used, e.g. “Charlie tied their shoes” or “Sam thought they were late to the party.”

There's absolutely nothing wrong with these sentences. Singular "they" is not a partial or unsatisfactory solution. That little doubt in your mind telling you it sounds "wrong" is the result of an effective anti-singular they PR campaign. That's all. There's nothing intrinsically wrong about these sentences once you accept that they can be singular.

English language was already amended in that respect:
Black people, formerly branded as n*gg*rs, are now Black people and/or African-American people.
Jewish people, formerly branded as Sh*l*cks and/or k*k*s, are now Jewish people.
Except if you're a racist or antisemitic person.
Are slavery and pogroms an insignificant point of history? Are hatred and ignorance insignificant?
The same applies to non-binary people, whether they define themselves as intersex, transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, gender neutral, otherkind or whatever.


I haven't met many trans (et al.) people who equated the use of a pronoun reflecting their biological gender (or the gender assigned to them at birth, if you prefer) with being called a n****r.
I'm sure they are both unpleasant, but unless someone is purposefully avoiding referring to you as your preferred pronoun out of transphobia, then they certainly aren't being used with the same intensity or venom.

I think people can recognize difference and at the same time disagree about language usage. I don't think it necessarily entails any kind of justification of transphobia or erasure or dehumanization or anything like that (it can do, but not necessarily).

Finally, from what I've seen on Twitter, even the 'intersex, transsexual, transgender, genderqueer, gender neutral, otherkind or whatever' communities can't come to a consensus about pronouns. Most people I've come across post their preferred pronoun in their bio at the top - and just about every possible option is used (including a preference for the old fashioned "him" or "her").

Language usage tends to work by consensus, and if the trans communities can't even come to a consensus (it's largely individual preferences), there's little hope any gender-neutral singular pronoun from among all the possibilities will gain enough traction for it to be used at large.....except for singular "they", which as is claimed on another blog: "it seems as if they is gaining ground and acceptance as the most popular and recognizable gender-neutral pronoun."


 
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Balasubramaniam L.  Identity Verified
India
Local time: 23:25
English to Hindi
+ ...
@Sophie Feb 3, 2015

You probably don't realize that things are much more difficult in other languages like Hindi, where not just the pronouns, but the entire verb system is gender-dependent. Every Hindi verb has a male and a female version and the default gender in Hindi is masculine.

So, just tinkering with pronouns may solve the issue in English, but won't in the vast majority of other gendered languages.

It might be worthwhile to ponder why masculine is the default gender in most gendered languages, and in that might be the answer to the whole issue.

It seems to me that it is a species thing. The male is the dominant part of the human species - either because of greater physical strength or because of the way we have evolved. There is nothing to be ashamed of in this. In many other species too, like the lion, seals, primates, and so on, the male is the dominant gender. This does not mean the females are inferior - in the case of the lion, the females form the core of the pride, while the lordly lions come and go, and are mostly into territorial fighting, feeding and sleeping.

In case of some birds and spiders the reverse is true - there the females are larger and more dominant, so if they had a language, probably the default gender in it would be feminine!

In proposing changes to our societal systems (and language is one of the most prominent ones) we should be careful that we don't go against the grain of our species, or we will not succeed with these changes.

We need to realize that gender equality has become possible only with the coming of machines, which kind of neutralized the superior physical strength of men and it became possible for even women to do most of the physically strenuous work using machines, and this brought about greater equality between men and women.

But the machine age is only a few thousand years old while our species has been around for tens of thousands of years, and if we take into account the primates from which we have branched out, we are millions of years old. Our species-specific characteristics have evolved over these millions of years and can't be that easily changed. Moreover, the machine age has not yet touched the entire humanity - there are still large sections of humanity living in pre-machine ages.

That is to say, we need to realize the sheer impossibility of changing certain aspects of our existence by mere diktat.

[Edited at 2015-02-03 03:27 GMT]


 
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Merab Dekano  Identity Verified
Spain
Member (2014)
English to Spanish
+ ...
I stick to "they" Feb 3, 2015

At the time I was involved in my essay/dissertation writing at the University of Leicester, I was given a handbook on academic writing style (I think it was called), which explicitly mentioned that “they” should be used whenever in doubt. “He/she” or “it” should be avoided at any cost. And pointing to one specific gender would be tantamount to a crime.

If a UK-based university promotes the use of “they”, even if it is a slap in the face to the tense concordance rules, I just stick to it. If I did not, I should have better criteria to challenge it, which I haven’t.

Any help/guidance will be much appreciated, even though I do not translate into English and therefore will not have to "produce writing" in this language (which I otherwise love).


 

Christine Andersen  Identity Verified
Denmark
Local time: 19:55
Member (2003)
Danish to English
+ ...
Sorry, I did not mean to cause offence Feb 3, 2015

... by calling pronouns an insignificant point of grammar. My sincere apologies if I did. I have been trying for a couple of days to think how to apologise without making things worse.

If I call gender pronouns an insignificant point of grammar, it is because I think people are far more important, and do not change because of what you call them, rightly or wrongly.

Actually, my motto is 'the meaning, not just the words'. I have not read Sapir and Whorf, and Chomsky sends me to sleep before I get very far. Sorry.

I know words and thought are an egg and chicken situation, but I think the thoughts behind the words are far more important. People struggle to find the right words, and we have to live with approximations in many situations.

Personally, I am not very gender conscious. The two non-binary people I know accept being referred to as 'he' when a pronoun is expected. 'They' would mean both of them. I don't see them often, but others in my circle do, and we accept them as friends' colleagues and good company like anyone else.

The very fact that I am not particularly gender conscious is actually the reason why I am fiercely 'feminist' - I believe in equal rights for everyone, regardless of gender. Including the right to choose and the right to be different.

Before the moderators have to remove my post as too controversial for this site... I hasten to add that purely linguistically, I think pronouns are not a big issue for many people. Changing the underlying reality might change the language. But not the other way round.

Politically correct kindergartens with their gender-neutral 'hens' are a joke in many Danish circles. I don't think dressing boys in pink and girls in blue helps in the slightest, and dressing them all in the same colour doesn't work either.

Instead of trying to be neutral and all the same, I think it is far more important to accept people as different - equal, but different.

While working for equal rights, I think it is even useful to distinguish different genders at times.
But as I said, I would spend my energy on fighting the real issues and injustices. Language committes and 'Académies´are not followed anyway, but people do find words for real situations.

The thought and the situation mould the words, in my opinion, and we should not spend too much time quibbling over what we call things.
Fine to call a spade a spade, but whatever we call it, we have to remember to use it for digging too.


 
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