Don't let your schooling interfere with your education.
~ Pete Seeger

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Gender Neutral Pronouns

How often have you been writing or talking about something, and wondered whether to use male or female pronouns? Things like, "When one is digging in the garden, he – uh, she – well, he or she should …" It's been a recurring theme for me lately in using the English language – the conventions that folks have come up with in the wake of the Cultural Revolution of the '60's to reflect our growing distaste of the patriarchal system that uses male pronouns as universal, as if women didn't exist or didn't matter. I've read people using alternate pronouns, first male, then female, then male, with a statement about it in the preamble. Some use plural pronouns in the singular – "they," instead of he or she. Others mix them – (s)he, his/her, she/he. All these solutions seem awkward and clumsy, none satisfactory.

It seems to me that here is another place where the emergence of visibility for transpeople contributes to bettering society, culture, and language. Dissatisfied with gendered pronouns, 'it', and the cultural binary that denies the wholeness of being for some people, some trans and two-spirit people have developed, or at least brought into more common usage, the gender-neutral pronouns "zie" (he and/or she), "hir" (him and/or her) and "hirs" (his and/or hers).

Despite that fact that I tread the line between man and woman, I'm quite clear I don't want those pronouns to refer to me. I don't mind using them to refer to people who prefer them, but I like female pronouns. Where I've been finding this construct most useful, however, is whenever I'm referring to singular third person in the general sense. "When one uses a digging fork, zie should take care that hir foot is not under the tines."

Well, you get the idea….


anne said...

Hey Seda-girl,

I've been studying Old English again and there were gender-neutral pronouns. They were wiped out by Norman French, descended from Latin, in which a group of 100 women and 1 man was masculine. Ah, those Latins!

The original generic pronouns of our language are interesting, because they were FEMALE!!! How utterly bizarre!

The word "man" is not even English, but borrowed from German. Old English also had something that I've always wanted, a dual pronoun.

According to the forms, the best thing we can do is to adapt the generic plural (don't tell anyone that it's the old feminine) to be a neutral pronoun. In Old English you could use it as a singular. What is fascinating is that the old plural took turns with sharing with the him, her, it. But "they" was once the same as "she" and "them" was once the same as "him."

Just use the plural. You can defend it with saying that it's a true Old English modification, not something new.

hugs and love,

Seda said...

Thanks for the info, Anne! I didn't know that. I thought about the plural (though not when writing this post), but still don't find it as satisfying as introducing new pronouns specific to the purpose. I'm not sure if it's easier to do that, or to alter the usage/meaning of the old.
Guess that's why I'm the language police! :-)

Anonymous said...

haha, yes language police!

it is an interesting thing to speak of someone or something and not use gender specific pronouns. i tried last night when i was telling a friend about you, and i kept slipping up and using the wrong pronoun, or stumbling through my words trying not to say he or she but just YOU. i felt like a failure that i couldn't get it quite right and even more that i wanted to, but that it was so difficult because of our language problem.

i guess we do have a language problem, but im not quite sure how to fix it. maybe some day we'll see each other differently, and not just as he's or she's but as friends and lovers and neighbors and companions. we're all in this together, i hope we start acting like it a little more before my time's up here.

Seda said...

It takes some getting used to, and anyway, I prefer people to use female pronouns when referring to me, so that's ok. Getting pronouns right does take thought, focus, and concentration - some people in my office still get it wrong frequently, and these are people who are normally very supportive.

As for the latter part, I think we are moving toward that - at least, there is a significant and growing subculture learning and practicing NVC. Trouble is, the corporate media are peddling products that don't serve life (both ads and content) - and to do that, they need to exist inside a domination culture and structure. They'll resist recognizing and reporting on such movement with all they have, because their survival depends on it.

Anonymous said...

My son is transgendered (FTM) and when the process was just beginning, that damn pronoun was the hardest thing to deal with for some reason.
Now it's easy. He is he.
I am going to post this as anonymous because although he is living in the town where he grew up and many people know that he used to be she, it still seems like a matter of privacy somehow.
I admire you, Seda, and I admire my son. It takes unbelievable courage to take control of your destiny and path the way you are doing.

Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing. To keep our faces toward change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable.
~Helen Keller

Reading List for Information about Transpeople

  • Becoming a Visible Man, by Jamison Green
  • Conundrum, by Jan Morris
  • Gender Outlaw, by Kate Bornstein
  • My Husband Betty, by Helen Boyd
  • Right Side Out, by Annah Moore
  • She's Not There, by Jennifer Boylan
  • The Riddle of Gender, by Deborah Rudacille
  • Trans Liberation, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transgender Emergence, by Arlene Istar Lev
  • Transgender Warriors, by Leslie Feinberg
  • Transition and Beyond, by Reid Vanderburgh
  • True Selves, by Mildred Brown
  • What Becomes You, by Aaron Link Raz and Hilda Raz
  • Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano
I have come into this world to see this:
the sword drop from men's hands even at the height
of their arc of anger
because we have finally realized there is just one flesh to wound
and it is His - the Christ's, our