Logophile Tuesdays – Pronoun Problems
There has recently been another kerfuffle over the complexities involved with attempting to adapt the gender-binary nature of our language to a more inclusive format. In short, someone asserted that “they” shouldn’t be used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. Others disagreed.
I fall somewhere in the middle on the linguistic debate. “They” can be and is used to refer to individuals, but it is somewhat ambiguous on occasion. It also has a limitation that it is not only gender-neutral, it is gender-free. It doesn’t meaningfully indicate that the gender of the subject is neither male nor female, which is sometimes desirable.
Of course, as a straight, cis white guy, I am an expert on the topic. Regardless of my qualifications, I think it is an interesting challenge and likely to be an ongoing discussion as our culture evolves. So, if for no other reason than to look back in a few year’s time and cringe, I’m going to take a crack at it.
First, let’s try and likely fail to define the problem: our language lacks the ability to refer, via pronoun, to an individual, unambiguously without applying a clear male or female gender.
That seems to sum up the issue, but there are caveats. Is there a difference between not specifying a gender, and specifying a gender that is not strictly male or female? If so, is the pronoun we might use for the dog that we’ve forgotten the sex of different than that which we’d use for similar uncertainty with an infant? Would that be different again from what we would use to refer to adults that don’t gravitate strongly to either poles of the gender compass? How many new pronouns are we going to need? How do those that they are being applied to actually feel?
Let us imagine a perfect world in which the answer to any of those questions was easy and try, instead to construct a pronoun. How best can we go about manufacturing one?
A good pronoun needs to follow the patterns of the ones that exist so that they fit comfortably into the same places in language. They also need to roll off the tongue comfortably in multiple accents. The whole point of a pronoun is to save time and effort in communication, if the pronoun is long, awkward or ambiguous, it fails in its purpose.
So what is the pattern? Well we have “he” and “she.” Pretty clear: single syllable, they start with an aspirated tone, and end in a hard vowel, probably an “e.” We could probably also work with some of the more breathy voiced consonants. What options do we have?
Well I’m going to scratch “se” and “the” from the list. We already have “sea” and “see” as words and while it would work well enough in writing, in speech it could get ambiguous. “The” has the opposite problem in that it could be pronounced distinctly, with an aspirated “th” but in writing it would look like any other “the” and we have more than enough of them. That leaves us with fe, ze, and je. I’m somewhat partial to “fe” at this point as it spans most accents without confusion or sounding like a poor parody of the French.
The next hurdle is that pronouns are not soloists; they work in concert. We need to get a matching equivalent to “him” and “her” and “his” and “hers.”
Let’s start with “him” and “her.” Here we seem somewhat restricted, if following the existing pattern, to starting with an “h”, having a soft vowel in the middle, and ending with a soft consonant. We also have the added condition that if we want to make it distinct, we would have to not use “i” or “e” or “m” or “r”
Vowel options: a, o, u, ~y
Consonant options: f, j, l, n, v, w
I have created a table with all of the possibilities, but we need to strike anything that is already another word or homophone with another word, or is unpronounceable, and that kills a lot of the list as English is fond of its single syllable words.
My personal preference from that list is Hul. It seems easiest to jam in where it would belong and still have it flow with language, at least in my accent. It also has a decent possessive form: huls.
So my proposed pronouns:
- He, Fe, She
- Him, Hul, Her
- His, Huls, Hers
Excellent. Problem solved. You can thank me later.
Actually, I’ve always thought that the Spivak pronouns were the best fit, according to the sorts of criteria you’ve called out in this article: e, em, eir. Unlike may of the other new pronoun types, they feel most like the gender is simply unspecified, rather than hinting at a new, third state.
(In practice, though, I’m a total supporter of singular they. It has the advantage of having already been in use for centuries, which to my mind trumps the vague aesthetics of new words the listener doesn’t know.)