The pronominal is political

‘Pronouns’, announced a writer on Mashable last year, ‘are a big deal—and rightfully so’. The writer wasn’t talking about pronouns in general, but specifically about English third person singular personal pronouns. And her point was even more specifically about the central role these pronouns play in the contemporary politics of gender identity. But today’s trans and genderqueer activists are not the first people to make pronouns a political issue. If we want to understand the present state of play, it’s useful to know something about the pronoun politics of the past.

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Third person singular personal pronouns have been a big deal for English-speaking feminists since the earliest organized campaigns for women’s legal and civil rights. In the 18th century, prescriptive grammarians had decreed that the masculine was ‘the worthier gender’, and that ‘he’ should be used in generic references to mixed-sex categories (‘when a child goes to school, he…’). The principle that ‘the masculine imports the feminine’ was written into British legislation by the 1850 Interpretation Act, and the same formula was subsequently adopted by many other institutions around the English-speaking world. In practice, though, ‘he’ did not always include ‘she’. When anti-feminists wanted to stop women from voting, running for office or entering the legal profession, it was not uncommon for them to argue that the law referred to voters or candidates or lawyers as ‘he’, and so rendered women ineligible.

What Wendy Martyna dubbed ‘he-man language’ was also an issue for feminists of the second wave. By the end of the 1960s generic masculine pronouns were no longer being used to deny women basic civil rights, but they were seen as part of the ideological apparatus which naturalized the treatment of men as the default humans, while women remained ‘the (second) sex’. Generic ‘he’ was not the only target of feminist campaigns against sexist language, but both the campaigners and their opponents accorded it particular symbolic significance. In 1971, a TV Guide writer complained about ‘women’s lib red-hots’ with their ‘nutty pronouns’.

The linguist Robin Lakoff thought this focus on pronouns was misguided. In her 1975 book Language and Woman’s Place, she argued that feminists should concentrate on other targets, because ‘an attempt to change pronominal usage will be futile’.

Certain aspects of language are available to the native speaker’s conscious analysis, and others are too common, too thoroughly mixed throughout the language, for the speaker to be aware each time he [sic] uses them. It is realistic to hope to change only those linguistic uses of which speakers themselves can be made aware, as they use them. One chooses, in speaking or writing, more or less consciously and purposefully among nouns, adjectives and verbs; one does not choose among pronouns in the same way.

Whereas nouns, adjectives and verbs are ‘open’ word classes—they contain a large number of items, and it’s always possible to add new ones—pronouns, like articles and prepositions, are a ‘closed’ class, containing a finite set of items which alternate in predictable ways. They aren’t what high school teachers call ‘vocabulary words’, they’re words with essentially grammatical functions. That’s why, as Lakoff says, they don’t prompt the same ‘conscious and purposeful’ deliberation as nouns, adjectives and verbs. A native English-speaker might ponder whether the adjective she wants is, say, ‘enormous’ or ‘gigantic’, but she won’t need to think about whether the article she wants is ‘a’ or ‘the’. Asking people to change their pronoun usage is asking them to restructure part of their internalized grammatical system. And Lakoff didn’t think that was a realistic demand.

She later came to believe that she had been unduly pessimistic. In an annotated edition of Language and Woman’s Place, published in 2004 to mark the book’s 40th anniversary, she wrote:

Today, the extant choices (like pluralization, passivization, ‘he or she’) are the norm: writers who choose the ‘neutral’ ‘he’ are the ones who have explaining to do. …We are apparently more flexible, and more well-intentioned, than I believed back then.

My own view is somewhere in between. I agree with the later Lakoff that consciously modifying your grammar is not impossible if the motivation is there, but I also think the earlier Lakoff was right to point out that there are limits. In fact, some evidence suggests that the system has been more resistant to change than her later comments imply.

The language historian Anne Curzan used COHA, a historical corpus of American English, to investigate the effect of non-sexist language campaigns on pronoun use in the late 20th century. She found that the use of ‘he or she’, rather than just ‘he’, increased sharply during the 1970s and continued to rise through the 1980s and early 1990s. But by the end of the century it had begun to decline again. As I’ve noted elsewhere, virtually all the university students I teach—the majority of them born in the 1990s—use the generic masculine unselfconsciously in their writing; they don’t seem to feel they have any ‘explaining to do’.

Even at its peak, the shift to ‘he or she’ was uneven. In the COHA data it was most pronounced in academic writing, and far less evident in writing for mass audiences, or in speech. But in those contexts there was another option: so-called singular—or as I’ll call it from now on, ‘epicene’—‘they’ (in relation to language, ‘epicene’ describes a form that refers to both sexes).

When the linguist Laura Paterson looked at third-person generic references in a sample of British newspapers, she found that the balance was roughly 56% ‘they’ to 44% ‘he’. But this isn’t most plausibly explained as the result of people changing their habits because of feminist objections to generic ‘he’. Though ‘they’ was stigmatised as ‘ungrammatical’ (and therefore avoided in the most formal writing), it was common in speech, and in less formal written genres, long before pronouns were a feminist issue. In some contexts—for instance, after words like ‘any’, ‘each’ and ‘every’—it’s clearly  favoured over ‘he’ and ‘she’, even when the reference is sex-specific, as in these examples from newspapers.

Like any girlfriend with someone they care about serving on the front line, her emotions were all over the place

For any woman, waiting to hear whether or not they have breast cancer is an extremely stressful and worrying time

These examples illustrate Lakoff’s original point that we don’t usually choose our pronouns consciously. ‘She’ would be considered more ‘correct’ in both these sentences, but our decisions aren’t based on the prescriptive rules we learnt at school, they’re based on principles we worked out during the process of first language acquisition. Laura Paterson examined interactions between young children and their adult caregivers to see what input children get while they’re acquiring the English personal pronoun system. She concluded that children analyse ‘they’ in much the same way they analyse ‘you’, as both a singular and a plural form.

The fact that it’s acquired naturally gives ‘they’ an advantage over all the other epicene pronouns that English-speakers have invented over the years. The linguist Dennis Baron maintains a list of these creations going back to the 19th century. He calls the list ‘The Word that Failed’, because none of the deliberately coined items that appear on it (for instance, ‘thon’, ‘ve’, ‘se’, ‘per’, ‘na’ and ‘heesh’) has ever been widely adopted.

In 2004, Robin Lakoff also remarked on the failure of invented epicenes:

The more florid suggestions have vanished, as I thought they would, without a trace. …I was right to suggest that neologisms like ‘ve’ and its colleagues would never survive.

But since she wrote those words, invented epicenes have returned, as part of a new campaign to change third person pronoun usage. The activists spearheading this new movement do not always acknowledge (and may not even know) the history of the forms they are trying to revive. Once again, though, I think it’s instructive—as well as interesting—to look back to some of the earlier feminist debates.

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It isn’t entirely fair to categorize all invented epicenes as ‘words that failed’, since in many cases they were not designed to be real-world competitors for ‘he’ and ‘she’. Rather they were literary devices, used in feminist speculative and utopian fiction. ‘Na’, for instance, comes from June Arnold’s lesbian separatist novel The Cook and the Carpenter (1973). ‘Per’ is the gender-neutral pronoun used in Mattapoisett, one of the alternative future societies visited by the protagonist of Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). In both these texts (and many more like them), invented pronouns were used to challenge both conventional ways of using language and conventional ways of thinking about gender.

One speculative fiction writer who wasn’t so keen on this strategy was Ursula Le Guin. In her 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin chose to refer to the ambisexual inhabitants of the planet Gethen as ‘he’, on the basis that ‘he’ was generic as well as masculine. Later she was persuaded by the feminist argument that ‘he’ was not a true generic: in a 1985 screen adaptation of her novel she substituted ‘a’, and in 1995, in a 25th anniversary edition, she added a version of the opening chapter rewritten with the pronoun ‘e’. But she remained ambivalent about invented pronouns, fearing that the repeated use of unfamiliar forms would ‘drive the reader mad’.

That fear also led Le Guin to reject ‘they’. As she told the linguist Anna Livia in the mid-1990s (Livia quoted their correspondence in her book about literary experiments with gendered language, Pronoun Envy),  ‘they’ might be familiar, but it was only natural-sounding when the reference was indefinite (e.g. ‘has anyone lost their phone?’); it was not a natural way to refer to a unique individual (e.g. ‘has Lee lost their phone?’)

But this is one aspect of pronoun usage that does appear to be changing. Facebook has permitted formulas like ‘Lee changed their profile picture’ for some years, and recently this use of ‘they’ has also been officially recognized by some older media institutions. At the end of 2015 the editor responsible for the Washington Post’s style guide noted that ‘they’ can be ‘useful in references to people who identify as neither male nor female’.

Which brings me back to the subject I began with—the place pronouns have come to occupy in the new politics of gender identity.

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Feminists objected to the use of ‘he’ to refer to people in general, which made women as a class invisible. The new politics of gender identity, by contrast, is concerned with the way pronouns are used in reference to specific individuals. As the writer I quoted earlier explains, pronouns are ‘a big deal’ because

They’re the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender in everyday conversation.

The principle that underlies this assertion is that individuals have a right to be referred to with the pronouns which, in their own view, most appropriately reflect their gender identity. It should not be assumed that everyone is either ‘he’ or ‘she’: individuals who identify as trans, non-binary, agender or genderqueer may prefer an alternative, epicene form. ‘They’ is one of the available options, but sources which aim to document non-traditional pronoun use exhaustively, like this tumblr, list scores of other possibilities.

The acceptance of this principle has produced a new form of linguistic etiquette: announcing one’s ‘preferred pronouns’ and taking steps to ascertain the preferred pronouns of others. Some universities now invite students to register their pronouns: at Harvard around half the student body so far have availed themselves of this option (though only about 50 students out of 10,000 have specified a pronoun other than ‘he’ or ‘she’). And the New York City Human Rights Commission recently issued legal guidance which made clear that an employer or landlord who failed to use an employee or tenant’s preferred name, title and pronouns would be guilty of unlawful discrimination.

The use of preferred pronouns is often presented as a matter of basic courtesy, like using people’s actual names rather than just addressing everyone as ‘John’ or ‘Susan’. But this analogy points to a practical difficulty. If each individual is entitled to specify their own pronouns, pronouns in effect cease to be a closed class—a finite set of items which alternate in predictable ways—and become more like personal names, which have to be learnt individually. Even if the majority of non-traditional pronoun-users choose the same few forms (e.g. ‘ey’, ‘they’ and ‘ze’), it will still be necessary to memorize each person/pronoun pairing separately, because there is no rule we can use to predict an individual’s preference. That isn’t just a minor adjustment to the existing personal pronoun system. It’s a fundamental change in the way pronouns work.

Just to be clear, I’m not suggesting that English can’t accommodate a non-binary third-person singular pronoun. We know it can, because it already has one: ‘they’. The current extension of ‘they’ from indefinite/generic to specific reference is a logical development which has every chance of becoming embedded in mainstream usage, because it isn’t a huge leap from what most English-speakers already do. But the preferred pronoun principle, which requires speakers to use whatever forms a given individual specifies, is a different matter: it’s where the reservations expressed by Lakoff in 1975 become difficult to dismiss. Asking people to change their pronoun usage in a way that makes such significant demands on memory and attention will in most cases be asking too much. In other words, there’s a trade-off: if you want non-binary pronouns to become mainstream, you can’t also insist on the sovereignty of individual choice.

I’m aware that some people may find this view offensive, a denial of what they take to be the absolute right of every individual to define their own identity and have it recognized by others. But at the risk of offending those people further, I want to ask: is it actually true that pronouns are, or have to be, ‘the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender’?

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It’s easy to see why monolingual English-speakers might think so. In modern English, third-person singular pronouns stand out as a rare case in which gender-marking is non-optional. But English is unusual in this respect. For speakers of most other languages, pronouns do not play a ‘definitive’ role in indexing (pointing to) a person’s gender.

In a large percentage of the world’s languages, pronouns play no role in gendering people at all, because there are no gendered pronouns equivalent to English ‘he’ and ‘she’. Rather there is a single epicene third-person pronoun referring to all humans (or sometimes, animate beings). Languages in this category include Finnish, Hungarian, Malay, spoken Mandarin, Persian, Swahili, Turkish and Yoruba. And they make clear that the social recognition of gender does not depend on the use of gender-specific pronouns. The absence of gendered pronouns has never prevented Finnish or Turkish speakers from acknowledging the existence of men and women, or from expressing identities as men and women. And there is nothing to prevent them from expressing other, less traditional gender identities.

The world’s languages also include a fairly large number that mark gender much more extensively than English does. In these languages, pronouns are not ‘the definitive way’ in which a person’s gender is acknowledged: a much more pervasive form of gender-marking is through inflections on nouns, adjectives, articles and in some cases verbs. Languages in this category include the Romance group (French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, etc.), German, Slavic languages like Polish and Russian, and Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew.

Speakers of these languages can’t escape the gender binary just by adopting novel pronouns. In some of them it’s not too difficult to come up with an extra set of gender inflections (though that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get people to use them, since once again, this involves restructuring a system which native speakers use without conscious reflection). In Spanish, for instance, where the standard masculine and feminine inflectional endings are –o and –a, non-binary speakers have introduced parallel forms ending in –e. (There are also forms with –x, @ and other symbols, but these are either unpronounceable or not easy to deduce the pronunciation of, so they are more useful in writing than conversation.) But in other cases the adjustments required are complicated. In Slavic languages, for instance, past tense verbs are gender-marked, and nouns are marked for case as well as gender, which means you need several alternative word-endings rather than just one.

Another language where gender-marking is pervasive is Hebrew, and in this case there has been some research on the linguistic practices of genderqueer speakers. In interviews with the Israeli researcher Orit Bershtling, six of these speakers described their strategies for ‘queering Hebrew’. One of these was alternating between masculine and feminine forms for the same person in the same sentence (e.g., using a masculine subject noun with a feminine verb). Another was gender ‘doubling’, putting both masculine and feminine endings on the same word (like ‘transimot’, meaning ‘trans people’, where the word ‘trans’ is followed by two plural endings, the masculine –im and the feminine –ot). Alternatively, speakers could select forms which allowed them to avoid the issue. Sometimes, for instance, they would speak about their present activities in the future tense, because Hebrew first-person future tense forms, unlike their present tense equivalents, do not have to be marked for gender.

Bershtling was an outsider to the community she studied, and by her own account she found it extremely difficult to use the ‘noncustomary sex-marked forms’ her interviewees preferred. Some of their comments suggested that they did not find it easy themselves. They reported that it was hard for them to sustain a long conversation without making ‘errors’ (i.e., reverting to standard Hebrew gender-marking). They also acknowledged that certain strategies, like using the future tense to describe actions in the present, could cause the message to come out ‘a bit garbled’. Bershtling concluded that queering Hebrew

demands concentration and juggling, restricts self-expression and so produces silence. This silence stems from the impossible intersection between two linguistic functions: to express identity and to communicate with others.

Linguists don’t usually think of this as an ‘impossible intersection’. Language has always had the two functions Bershtling mentions, and people have generally found a workable balance between them. What’s unusual about the speakers in this study is the extent of their commitment to identity-expression, apparently at the expense of communication. But perhaps the two functions aren’t so much ‘intersecting’ as ‘intertwined’. The politics of gender identity is, in the political theorist Nancy Fraser’s terms, a ‘politics of recognition’: the central demand is that others should ‘acknowledge and respect [an individual’s] gender’. Using unconventional linguistic forms to express identity is, at the same time, a way of communicating your demand for recognition to other people. At least, that’s true if you speak Hebrew. If you speak English, the situation is rather different.

Unlike Hebrew, English requires gender-marking only on third person forms which do not express the identity of the speaker (people don’t generally talk about themselves in the third person). So, when an English-speaker says ‘my pronouns are X and Y’ or ‘I use the pronoun Z’, they aren’t really describing what they themselves do, they’re describing what they want other people to do. Which might sound a bit high-handed—until you ask yourself another question about the way pronouns work. How often, in face-to-face spoken interaction, do we use third person pronouns to refer to other participants?

I haven’t seen any proper research on this question, but recently I did try a small experiment, tracking the use of pronouns and personal names in a seminar group consisting of ten students and me. Overall, I found the most frequently-used pronouns were first person ‘I/we’ and second person ‘you’. As the person leading the discussion, I addressed individual students much more often than I referred to them. When I did refer to someone in the third person, I invariably used their name rather than a pronoun (e.g. ‘could we go back to what Ellie said?’), and then switched to ‘you’. I only used third-person pronouns when referring either to one of the academics whose research we were discussing, or to class-members who weren’t actually there (e.g. ‘we’re just waiting for Tom. Does anyone know if he’s coming?’)

I also analysed a small sample of extended, multi-contributor Facebook threads to see if there’s a similar pattern when interactions are conducted in writing rather than speech. I found that ‘you’ was much less common on Facebook, and personal names were used in a slightly different way (less to refer back to previous contributions and more to tag a particular person as the main addressee for a particular comment). But once again, all the third person pronouns I found referred to individuals who weren’t directly involved in the interaction. They included some journalists, a couple of dead philosophers, several former Eurovision song contest winners, one dog and two cats.

I don’t have enough evidence to know if this is typical of group interaction generally. But if it is, in fact, unusual to make third-person references to people who are part of the same conversation, that might suggest that the actual use of preferred pronouns is not a frequent-enough occurrence to function as ‘the definitive way we acknowledge and respect a person’s gender’. To me it seems possible that what actually does this job is the act of announcing what your pronouns are, and (in face-to-face contexts) having that announcement acknowledged by others. Like other social rituals in which people introduce themselves or greet one another, this isn’t just about exchanging information (in this case, about what pronouns people prefer and by extension how they define their gender identities). It’s a symbolic affirmation of the parties’ intention to conduct their subsequent dealings in good faith and with mutual respect.

If it’s the display of good faith that really matters, perhaps we don’t need to worry so much about the practical problems I mentioned earlier. And if we put the practicalities to one side, we can turn our attention to the politics. When we argue about pronouns, what, at a deeper level, is the argument really about?

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In the 21st century, the obvious answer to that question is ‘identity’. But there is usually more at stake in arguments about pronouns than just identity, especially if what you mean by that is the identities of individuals. I would say that the way personal pronouns are used both reflects, and gives concrete expression to, a community’s beliefs about personhood: what defines a person, what kinds or categories of people there are, and what status different kinds of people have in relation to one another. All of which, especially the last, are political questions. The problem first and second-wave feminists had with generic masculine pronouns was not about gender in the sense of identity, but about gender as an axis of power: the question was why ‘he’ outranked and subsumed ‘she’, and it mattered because that usage mirrored the actual social fact of women’s legal and political non-personhood.

Speculative fiction is an arena where writers can play with ideas about the politics of personhood, inviting us to reflect critically on our everyday assumptions by imagining alternative worlds. Feminists have often made gender the focus of these thought-experiments, asking questions like: what if women were the dominant sex-class? What if there were only one gender? What if there were no gender at all?  In most feminist utopias gender is less rather than more significant than it is in the non-fictional world: the invented pronouns are epicene forms like ‘na’ and ‘per’, which simply mark their referents as people.

Contemporary gender identity politics can be seen as doing something comparable, though the main arena for its thought-experiments is not fiction, but rather the online communities and social networks created by digital technology. And the ideas it explores are very different from the older feminist ones. Rather than imagining a world without gender, or one where gender is a less important aspect of personhood, what this kind of politics imagines is a world where gender is all-important and comes in infinite varieties. The pronouns are individualized rather than one-size-fits-all.

The conflict between these approaches to gender is a recurring theme in a recent work of science fiction, Ann Leckie’s novel Ancillary Justice (2013). And Leckie, like many of her predecessors, uses an unconventional pronoun-choice as a defamiliarising device. In this case, though, the unconventional pronoun is neither invented nor (for English-speakers) epicene. Rather, the novel’s narrator and main protagonist, Breq, uses ‘she’ as her default, neutral pronoun:

She was probably male, to judge from the angular mazelike patterns quilting her shirt. I wasn’t entirely certain. It wouldn’t have mattered, if I had been in Radch space. Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn’t mark gender in any way. The language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that the cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.

To Breq, the gender cues that other people treat as obvious are like an impenetrable secret code: where others see meaningful differences, she sees only similarities.

Males and females dressed, spoke, acted indistinguishably. And yet no one I’d met had ever hesitated, or guessed wrong. And they had invariably been offended when I did hesitate or guess wrong.

As a feminist of a certain kind (and vintage), I feel I have a lot in common with Breq. Like her, I understand gender as a set of externally-imposed and often arbitrary social norms. I don’t subscribe to the alternative model in which gender is an innate, essential and defining quality of individual persons.

That doesn’t mean I’m unwilling to use the pronouns an individual prefers. But I will do it as a matter of courtesy rather than conviction; and if I fail to do it, I’ll consider that an oversight rather than a crime. Pronouns may be a big deal, but they’re not a matter of life and death.

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