Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Problem With Pronouns

One of the struggles with the English language is the lack of a gender-neutral pronoun. Sure, we have they, them and it, but that doesn’t really do the trick when trying to describe a potential person of unknown gender. In such cases, we usually resort to saying “s/he”, which works in writing, but not when speaking. There is also the trouble of trying to use pronouns to describe people who may not identify as male or female. 

This issue is not new, and has been something that English speakers have struggled with for several centuries. In America alone, people have been attempting to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun into the language since 1884.1 During that year, there were attempts to popularize the words thon, hi, le, hiser and ip. Obviously, none of these caught on, and despite many attempts by many individuals and groups, no new gender-neutral pronoun has ever successfully been adopted by English speakers. A few other failed examples include co, ey, hesh, hu, per, re, jee, ve, xe, ze, zir and zhe.

So what’s the deal? Everyone agrees that gender-neutral pronouns are useful and would make things easier, so why hasn’t a single one ever caught on? The answer comes from linguistics. In language, there are open-class words (OCW) and closed-class words (CCW). OCW are things like verbs and nouns—words that are able to be created, changed and expanded upon to make new words. For example, google is a noun, but then was turned into a verb when you mean to say that you looked something up online—you googled it. On the other hand, we have CCW which are very difficult to create. Generally, CCW are words (like pronouns) that describe the relationship between things and actions. Now, it should be noted that when we say a type of word is “closed”, that isn’t some sort of prescriptive law—it’s just a description of patterns we see in language. That isn't to say that it's impossible for a new pronoun (or CCW) to come into usage, it’s just very rare. So rare that the linguist Allan Metcalf pointed out that “English hasn’t had a new pronoun for about a thousand years, and there is no sign it will acquire one any time soon.”3

However, coming up with a new word (regardless of it being an OCW or CCW) is only part of the problem. Having the word catch on is another issue—and the success or failure of a word is mostly regarded as a mystery by linguists. Even if an OCW is created to fill a lexical gap, that doesn’t mean it will be successful. 

For instance, some people noticed that English was in need of a word that meant “high-tech aesthetic in product design.” As in, “the new iPhone is really ____.” As such, the marketing firm Lexicon Branding worked to come up with a word which could fill this gap. After much work, they decided on the word “neen.”4 As you already know, this word completely bombed, and has never been used in such a way. However, in 1976, Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to describe a cultural idea that copies and mutates (originally meant to describe things like jokes, commercial jingles, etc) – similar to how genes work.5 In this case, the word has been incredibly successful, and is used all over the internet.

However, there are a few trends that linguists have noticed in regards to why so many new words fail. One example would be when a new word stands out by calling attention to itself. For example, the feminist spellings of womyn and herstory (as opposed to women and history) are far too clever and conspicuous to be accepted by the general public. However, words such as firefighter (rather than fireman) and server (rather than waiter or waitress) have adapted to be more gender inclusive, and have been successful—perhaps because they are more subtle. 

The other issue with introducing new words is that linguistic change, much like biological change, is a bottom up process (rather top down). No one ever decides “okay everyone, we are gonna say ‘selfie’ now.” And if someone did, you would quickly find that no one really cares. In the movie Mean Girls, a character learns this when trying to popularize the word fetch. “Gretchen, stop trying to make ‘fetch’ happen. It's not going to happen!” Linguistic changes have to come about naturally, not by someone mandating them. And so it goes for gender-neutral pronouns—no matter what group or individual tries to get their new gender-neutral pronoun accepted and used by the general public, the word is facing overwhelming odds, and will almost certainly fail. Not because anyone is anti gender-neutral pronouns, or worried that such a thing would “upset the privilege balance” (as I was once heard a student say), it’s just a matter of how language works.

However, there is hope! In recent years, an inner-city school in Baltimore came to the attention of linguists, as the word yo started to be used by students as a gender-neutral pronoun.7 For example, “yo borrowed my pencil.” So here we have a word (a CCW, no less!) which has come about from the bottom up. While its foundation is on strong ground—we just have to see if it catches on (which, like all new words, is unlikely, but at least the creation and spread of it has been natural). Will yo make a jump from the Baltimore school and into mainstream culture? Unlike Katniss Everdeen, the odds are not in its favor… but only time will tell for sure.

1. Boston Daily Advertiser, “A New Pronoun” (Aug 6, 1884).
2. Dennis Baron, “The Epicene Pronouns: The Word That Failed”, American Speech 56, pg 83-97 (1981).
3. Allan Metfalf, “Predicting New Words”, pg 94-96 (2002).
4. Steven Pinker, “The Stuff of Thought”, pg 309 (2008).
5. Richard Dawkins, “The Selfish Gene”, pg 192 (1976).
6. NPR, “Yo, Peep, Yo! The Birth of a Gender-Neutral Pronoun” (Jan 31, 2008).