Shibboleths

This month I finally got round to reading Jessa Crispin’s much-hyped book Why I Am Not A Feminist. In fact, Crispin does consider herself a feminist: what her book takes aim at isn’t feminism as such, but a particular kind of ‘lifestyle’ feminism which she finds vacuous and self-absorbed. And one sign of this vacuity, she argues, is an obsession with linguistic minutiae:

…what becomes most important are the things on the surface. Like using the right words, rather than the wrong words. (The fact that the right words keep changing does nothing to quell the anger that builds in Internet feminism when you use the wrong words.)

This is an easy way to score political points, because the belief it mobilises—that if you’re worrying about mere words you must be neglecting the stuff that really matters—is deeply embedded in English-speaking culture. The idea that debating language is a trivial and ineffectual pursuit is expressed in a gazillion stock phrases and sayings: ‘Deeds, not words’. ‘Empty rhetoric’. ‘Just semantics.’ ‘He’s all mouth and no trousers’. ‘She talks the talk but can she walk the walk?’

By coincidence, while I was reading Jessa Crispin’s book I came across another piece making the same kind of argument, but from a very different political standpoint. This one appeared on a conservative website, the Daily Caller, under the title ‘Whiny and broken: the linguistic minefield of today’s politically correct tranny’. And it resembled Jessa Crispin’s text in another way too: just as Crispin is a feminist criticising other feminists, the author of ‘Whiny and broken’, Sophia Narwitz, is a trans woman criticising other trans people. ‘Each day’, she complains,

the habitually angry leftist LGBT “community” is creating semantic rules that are all but impossible to navigate unless you have helped lay the groundwork yourself.

She goes on to give examples:

I bet you didn’t know it’s wrong to say ‘transgendered’ now. Apparently the ‘ed’ at the end of the word is offensive. … They feel it invalidates a transgender person because people don’t become transgendered. They are born that way.

And later:

These people even cry depending on whether you put a space in transwoman or not. I am not joking. I think it’s not offensive if you say it as trans woman with a space, but honestly I don’t even care to check. I’m not going to waste my time googling nonsense, because — guess what — none of this fucking matters!

What Narwitz calls ‘googling nonsense’ was actually the first thing I did after reading her piece. This is because I remember the Great Political Correctness Furore of the 1990s, when it was common to discover, if you bothered to look, that the linguistic rules people were ridiculing as trivial, or denouncing as a sinister Orwellian plot to control people’s thoughts, had in fact been made up—not by the so-called ‘PC Brigade’ but by their opponents and/or people satirising the phenomenon. Thousands of primary school children were not, as the tabloids alleged, singing ‘Baa Baa Green Sheep’ because the thought police had decreed that any reference to a black sheep was racist. And absolutely nobody was seriously advocating the substitution of ‘vertically challenged’ for ‘short’. That was a joke. So, before I pondered Sophia Narwitz’s argument, I thought it would be prudent to check her facts.

She wasn’t making her examples up. The ‘transgender not transgendered’ rule is now a highly codified norm, appearing in, among other sources, the reference guide to LGBT terminology produced for media professionals by GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation);  it has been explained for a general audience in such mainstream publications as Time magazine. There are also many sources for the other rule Narwitz mentions, prescribing the two-word form ‘trans woman’ rather than ‘transwoman’. In each case the prescribed form is presented as what ‘the community’ prefers, whereas the proscribed form is associated with ignorant or malicious outsiders. But in fact that’s an oversimplification: there isn’t only one ‘insider’ view. Some community members dissent from the current orthodoxy—and they aren’t all right-wing zealots who would be happy to write for the Daily Caller.

In 2013 the trans blogger Cristan Williams devoted a post to the ‘trans woman v. transwoman’ issue. She began by reproducing part of an email she had received objecting to her ‘cissexist’ use of ‘transwoman’ to describe herself.

“Trans” should be used as an adjective to describe “woman.” When the two are linked together, it becomes a noun all its own, distinctly separating it from other groups of women, acting as a qualifier instead of a mere description. Conjoining the words together denotes that the two ideas can’t be separated, that being trans is somehow fundamentally different from any other characteristic a woman can have.

Then she explained why she disagreed with her correspondent. First, she argued that the proscription of ‘transwoman’ as transphobic or cissexist misrepresented trans history. It implied that the one-word form had been invented by outsiders as an insult, when in fact it originated among trans people themselves, and had a long history of being used in some trans communities. Second, she rejected the ‘adjective good, noun bad’ argument. ‘Businesswoman’ and ‘congresswoman’, she pointed out, are nouns: do they imply that the person so labelled is fundamentally different from all other women? Would their meaning be totally changed if they were written as two words rather than one?

Williams also offered a more general thought about what’s ultimately behind this kind of dispute:

I sometimes feel that the language polemics we so enjoy are created in part to support an environment which chases the ghost of empowerment through the reactionary policing of highly nuanced lexical epistemologies that inevitably privilege certain segments of the trans community over others.

Although I’m not included in Williams’s  ‘we’, when I read this observation it really resonated with me. What she feels is pretty much what I feel myself whenever I witness yet another Twitter spat about whether such-and-such a word is ‘problematic’, or contemplate the endless proliferation of ‘things not to say’ pieces with titles like ‘The Ten Words You Should Never Use to a Lesbian’, or ‘Five Ways Your Punctuation Could Be Making People Feel Excluded’.  But my problem with this sort of thing isn’t the same as Jessa Crispin’s: it’s not simply the fact that people are wasting energy on disagreements about ‘mere’ words. It’s more the way they’re going about it—by creating arbitrary shibboleths which are then used to police the boundaries of acceptable discourse within an already small and select community of the like-minded. It’s an example of Freud’s ‘narcissism of small differences’, or the sectarianism satirised in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (where the People’s Front of Judea hate the Judean People’s Front even more than they hate their Roman imperialist oppressors). And it can get very ugly.

The word ‘shibboleth’—Hebrew for an ear of corn—features in the account given in the Book of Judges of the behaviour of the Gileadites towards their defeated enemies the Ephraimites. When the surviving Ephraimites tried to flee, they found their access to a ford across the river Jordan cut off by Gileadites who would only let them cross if they could prove they weren’t members of the enemy group by pronouncing the word ‘shibboleth’ in the Gileadite way, with an initial ‘sh’ sound. If the Ephraimites, whose dialect lacked the ‘sh’, pronounced it ‘sibboleth’, they were slaughtered. This use of a small and otherwise meaningless distinction (‘shibboleth’ and ‘sibboleth’ are just variants of the same word) as a test of in-group versus out-group identity is the source of the word’s meaning in English, where it can denote a custom or practice that marks membership of a group or sect, a minor detail that is accorded disproportionate weight, or a rule which is fetishized, so that the letter of the law becomes more important than the spirit. The linguistic rules I am calling shibboleths have all these characteristics.

The most obvious sign that a rule functions as a shibboleth is that its observance or non-observance becomes an acid test of whether someone is friend or foe. The use of a prescribed form means the writer is ‘one of us’, a political ally on the right side of whatever the argument is, whereas failure to observe the rule indicates that the writer is an adversary, on the wrong side of the same argument. That, in turn, may be taken to license punitive action—pile-ons, name-calling, personal abuse and threats. This is particularly likely to happen in public forums online, where people’s words will often be the only thing you have to judge them by. But in that setting it is also likely to catch cases where non-compliance does not reflect hostility or bigotry, but merely the unfamiliarity or opacity of the rule to people who don’t belong to whatever network it emerged from.

Another sign of a shibboleth is that you can’t question either the rule or the argument that justifies it without being assumed to have the ‘wrong’ political beliefs—even if, like Cristan Williams, you are a member of the group in whose interests the rule is ostensibly being advocated. This isn’t just an issue with gender identity labels. Consider the recently influential argument that the formula ‘commit suicide’ should be avoided because it stigmatises people who take or attempt to take their own lives. The linguistic point is that the verb ‘commit’ has a strong association with criminal or sinful acts (other words that commonly follow ‘commit’ include ‘crime’, ‘murder’ and ‘adultery’): its use in relation to suicide reflects the historical definition of that act as both a crime and a sin. Since that is no longer how we think about suicide, we should stop using an expression that recycles the attitudes of a less enlightened time.

But it is possible to be 100% committed (sic) to the goal of de-stigmatising suicide while still thinking that the linguistic argument is based on inaccurate and simplistic assumptions. It assumes that anyone who hears or utters ‘commit suicide’ must be mentally accessing the negative meaning of ‘commit’ and the associated understanding of suicide as a crime/sin. But that isn’t necessarily the case. We still talk about the sun ‘rising’, but that doesn’t mean we think it actually ‘rises’. In the context of the formula ‘sun + rise’ we rarely think about the meaning of the word ‘rise’ at all.

This example is given in a blog post by Dariusz Galasiński, a linguist who has written extensively on the language of suicide. In addition to noting that we have little evidence about what ordinary language-users make of the expression ‘commit suicide’, Galasiński makes the important point that it’s unlikely to have the same meaning for everyone.  Arguments that ‘we should use X and avoid Y because X means this whereas Y means that’ consistently overlook how much variation there is in the way words are used and understood. There is also variation in the way people think about the issues behind the words. Some people who have contemplated or attempted suicide tell researchers they find the agentive language of ‘committing’ less stigmatising and disempowering than alternative formulas which suggest a lack of control over one’s own actions and decisions (e.g. ‘die by suicide’ or ‘lost to suicide’). Other research has found that being highly conscious of the stigma attached to suicide may deter people, especially men, from acting on suicidal impulses. Does that mean avoiding ‘commit’ might actually harm some members of the group it’s meant to help?

What Galasiński is questioning here is not just the rule proscribing ‘commit suicide’, but the idea that any argument for prescribing one form of words while proscribing another could be applicable in every context and to every case. Language is rarely that simple. But the power of the shibboleth depends on the conviction that some ways of using language are always right and others are always wrong—that it can never be OK, for instance, to refer to an adult woman as a ‘girl’, or to prefer the passive to the active voice. What this encourages is self-policing and bad faith: ‘I don’t understand why X is wrong/I don’t really believe that X is wrong, but if I’m going to be attacked for using it I’d better just steer clear’.

I see engaging in arguments about language as an integral part of doing any kind of politics. I can’t imagine a serious political movement that wouldn’t ask questions like ‘what does this term mean?’ or ‘how should we talk about this problem?’ In that sense I disagree with commentators like Jessa Crispin who say that arguments about language are just a trivial distraction from ‘real’ politics. But I do think there’s a problem with the way some of those arguments are conducted. If language matters, then we need to be able to reflect critically on the way we use it. And there is nothing reflective, or self-reflexive, about the shouty, judgy, self-righteous policing of anyone who doesn’t sound just like you.

The image shows a detail from Doris Salcedo’s artwork Shibboleth I (2007)

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A brief history of ‘gender’

In New York City in 1999, I heard a talk in which Riki Anne Wilchins (self-styled ‘transexual menace’, and described in the Gender Variance Who’s Who as ‘one of the iconic transgender persons of the 1990s’) declared that feminists had no theory of gender. I thought: ‘what is she talking about? Surely feminists invented the concept of gender!’

Fast forward ten years to 2009, when I went to a bookfair in Edinburgh to speak about The Trouble & Strife Reader, a collection of writing from a feminist magazine I’d been involved with since the 1980s. Afterwards, two young women came up to chat. Interesting book, they said, but why is there nothing in it about gender?

From my perspective the book was all about gender—by which I meant, to use Gayle Rubin’s 1975 formulation, ‘the socially-imposed division of the sexes’. Feminists of my generation understood gender as part of the apparatus of patriarchy: a social system, built on the biological foundation of human sexual dimorphism, which allocated different roles, rights and responsibilities to male and female humans. But by 2009 I knew this was no longer what ‘gender’ meant to everyone. To the young women at the bookfair, ‘gender’ meant a form of identity, located in and asserted by individuals rather than imposed on them from outside. It wasn’t just distinct from sex, it had no necessary connection to sex. And it wasn’t a binary division: there were many genders, not just two.

Fast forward again to October 2016, when Pope Francis, during a pastoral visit to Georgia, denounced ‘gender theory’ as a threat to the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The correspondent who reported his comments explained:

Gender theory is broadly the concept that while a person may be biologically male or female, they have the right to identify themselves as male, female, both or neither.

I thought: ‘I remember when gender theory threatened the teachings of the Church by suggesting that women’s traditional roles were not ordained by God and nature’. I also thought: ‘OK, this is the tipping point’.

I’m not going to lament the fact that ‘gender’ means different things to different people (though clearly it does, and one consequence is a lot of arguing and talking at cross-purposes). Like everything else in language, word-meaning varies and changes: always has, always will. The question I’m interested in is how we got to where we are. Where did the two competing senses of ‘gender’ come from? When did they start to be used, by whom and in what contexts?

I’ve had many conversations about this, and I’ve often felt as if the world is divided between people who think gender as a theoretical concept was basically invented by Judith Butler in 1990, and people who hold Butler (or queer theorists) responsible for undermining the feminist analysis of gender and distorting the ‘real’ meaning of the word. I’ve never been satisfied with either of these views, and I wanted to see what light I could shed on them, using various sources of information about the history and usage of English words.

One key source I used is the Oxford English Dictionary: fortunately for me, its entry for ‘gender’ has been revised very recently, so it’s as close to fully up to date as historical dictionaries get. I also made use of large text corpora–in this case, collections of American English texts, because the usages I’m interested in were first recorded in the US. I used COHA, a historical corpus which covers the period from 1810 to 2010, and COCA, a contemporary corpus which covers 1990-2015. Dictionaries and corpora typically aim to represent ‘general’ usage, and their coverage of non-mainstream sources can be sparse. So, I also used some 20th century feminist texts to provide supplementary evidence about the way feminists used ‘gender’.

I discovered some things I was expecting, and others that surprised me. For instance: it wasn’t feminists who first made the sex/gender distinction (actually it took a while for them to adopt the term ‘gender’ consistently), and it wasn’t queer theorists who first defined the concept of gender identity. The ‘identity’ meaning of ‘gender’ has only recently become mainstream, but it isn’t new: it’s been around for approximately the same amount of time as the one it now competes with, and both of them were in use well before the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s.

I’ll come back to these points, but first let’s take a very quick look at the earlier history of the English word ‘gender’. You may have heard that it started out as a grammatical term, used in the description of languages where nouns are classified as masculine, feminine and neuter. The usual story is that this grammatical sense got extended later to talk about the distinction between male and female persons. ‘Later’, however, is a relative term: in Norman French, which was where English got the word from, gendre was already being used to mean ‘the quality of being male or female’ by the second half of the 12th century. The first record in the OED of the English form ‘gender’ being used with the ‘male or female’ meaning is dated 1474—a reference to ‘his heirs of the masculine gender’. In short: the ‘male or female’ meaning of ‘gender’ goes back a long way. People have been using it in a way feminists often complain about–that is, as just a fancy word for ‘sex’–for more than 500 years.

When did the sex/gender distinction first get made in English, and who made it? You might imagine its first appearance would be in some feminist text from the late 1960s or the 1970s. But in fact the OED’s earliest illustrative quotation for the relevant sense (‘the state of being male or female as expressed by social or cultural distinctions and differences, rather than biological ones’) comes from an article published in 1945 in an academic psychology journal:

in the grade school years, too, gender (which is the socialised obverse of sex) is a fixed line of demarcation, the qualifying terms being ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’.

The same journal is the source of the next quotation [1], dated 1950:

it informs the reader upon ‘gender’ as well as ‘sex’, upon masculine and feminine roles as well as upon male and female and their reproductive functions.

As these examples illustrate, the meaning of ‘gender’ which depends on an explicit or implicit contrast with biological sex was first used by academics in social science disciplines like anthropology, sociology and psychology. The quotations I’ve reproduced suggest that this usage was initially confined to a fairly narrow group of specialists: even when writing for their fellow-academics, the authors evidently didn’t expect all readers to be familiar with it (hence the parenthesis in the first example and the inverted commas in the second).

The earliest quotation in the OED which doesn’t come from an academic source, or treat ‘gender’ as a piece of obscure jargon, is from a 1968 issue of Time magazine. That might imply that by the late 1960s the social scientific concept of gender was beginning to move into the mainstream. But the historical corpus data show that even in the 1960s ‘gender’ (used in any sense) was still an uncommon word. In COHA it is recorded from the 1830s, but until the end of the 1950s its frequency remains low—under one occurrence per million words of text. In the 1960s the frequency rises to (just) over one use per million words, and there’s a further very slight increase in the 1970s. It isn’t until the 1980s that there’s a larger jump to more than five uses per million words.

Does this mean that the story about feminists before 1990 having no theoretical concept of gender might be true after all? That question raises the somewhat tricky issue of what the relationship is between theory and terminology. My reading of early second-wave feminist texts suggests that ‘gender’ during this period (that is, the late 1960s and 1970s) was still largely an academic term: it’s common in feminist academic writing (Gayle Rubin’s 1975 article ‘The traffic in women’, which I quoted earlier, is one example), but it seldom appears in writing by feminists who were politically active outside the academy [2]. However, that doesn’t mean the activists made no distinction between biology and culture: often it’s clear they had the concept of gender, they just expressed it using other terms.

Here’s an example taken from Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex (1970):

Just as the end goal of socialist revolution was not only the elimination of the economic class privilege but of the economic class distinction itself, so the end goal of feminist revolution must be… not just the elimination of male privilege but of the sex distinction itself: genital differences between human beings would no longer matter culturally.

Firestone doesn’t use the term ‘gender’, but she does differentiate between the biological markers of sex and what she calls ‘the sex distinction’, by which she evidently means something like Rubin’s ‘socially-imposed division of the sexes’. It’s this, she argues, that feminism aims to eliminate. After the revolution there will still be ‘genital differences between human beings’, but they will ‘no longer matter culturally’.

Shulamith Firestone acknowledged a debt to Simone de Beauvoir, whose observation that ‘one is not born a woman, one becomes one’ has often been hailed as the founding statement of modern anti-essentialist feminism. Beauvoir didn’t use the word ‘gender’ either. In 1949 when The Second Sex first appeared, and indeed for some decades afterwards, French-speakers did not make a linguistic distinction equivalent to the English one between ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ (though some have recently adopted the term genre to fill the gap). But that obviously didn’t stop French feminists (or feminist speakers of other languages that lacked the distinction) from rejecting biological determinism and developing an analysis of women’s subordination as the product of social forces.

What about the ‘identity’ sense of ‘gender’? When does that start to turn up in the texts sampled for dictionaries and corpora, and what kinds of texts do you find it in? The answer is that it first appears in the 1950s, in texts dealing with the clinical treatment of what were then called ‘hermaphrodites’ (i.e., people with intersex conditions) and ‘transsexuals’. It isn’t entirely clear whether this medical usage developed in parallel with the social science usage or directly from it, but in any case the clinicians soon began to produce a distinctive body of knowledge, which included proposals about the definition of ‘gender’.

There are two names which turn up repeatedly on quotations illustrating the medical usage of ‘gender’ in the mid-20th century. One is that of Robert Stoller, a psychiatrist who was associated from the mid-1950s with the Gender Identity Clinic at UCLA. He was the author of a 1968 book called Sex and Gender: On the Development of Masculinity and Femininity, and he is often credited with introducing the term ‘gender identity’, meaning more or less what it means in current usage.

I say ‘more or less’ because Stoller’s ideas about gender identity weren’t exactly the ones we’re most familiar with today. He believed there was a biological basis for what he called ‘core gender identity’—defined as an innate sense of being male or female which is normally fixed by the second year of life—but he also wrote extensively about the influence of nurture. As well as having a medical degree, he was trained in Freudian psychoanalysis, and he was interested in the idea that an individual’s sexual desires and behaviours, particularly those defined at the time as ‘perversions’ (including homosexuality, sadomasochism and transvestism), develop in response to childhood events which threaten the individual’s core gender identity.

The other name is that of John Money, the psychologist who founded the Gender Identity Clinic at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. Money was an influential proponent of the view that gender is learned rather than innate: his clinical observations showed, he claimed, that children acquire the gender they’re raised in, even when it’s incongruent with their natal sex. The case study he relied on most heavily to support this claim was later discredited, damaging Money’s reputation and the credibility of his theories. But the work done at Johns Hopkins made a significant contribution to the history of gender—both the concept and the word.

In a 1955 research report, Money and two of his colleagues explained their concept of ‘gender role’, which they defined as

all those things that a person says or does to disclose himself or herself as having the status of boy or man, girl or woman, respectively. …Gender role is appraised in relation to: general mannerisms, deportment and demeanor; play preferences and recreational interests; spontaneous topics of talk in unprompted conversation and casual comment; content of dreams, daydreams and fantasies; replies to oblique inquiries and projective tests; evidence of erotic practices, and, finally, the person’s own replies to direct inquiry.

‘Gender role’ is conceptualised here in a similar way to gender identity today–as an internal characteristic of individuals, ‘disclosed’ in their behaviour and what they say about themselves. The missing element of the current meaning is the idea that gender isn’t a binary division: this early definition acknowledges only two categories (‘boy or man, girl or woman’). Stoller, too, assumed that a person’s ‘core gender identity’ must be either male or female. The more recent emergence of alternative categories (including ‘nonbinary’ and ‘genderfluid’ identities) may reflect the influence of queer theory; but in all other respects, arguably, today’s understanding of gender as a form of identity owes more to the medical model elaborated by people like Money and Stoller.

I can’t claim to have produced an exhaustive account of the history of ‘gender’, but I’ve still found the exercise revealing. Knowing that the two competing senses have developed from different intellectual traditions (one sense has its roots in the social scientific study of human culture and behaviour, while the other is rooted in the theory and practice of clinicians working with gender-variant individuals) makes it easier to understand why they conflict in the ways they do. And the conflict is profound: if I use ‘gender’ to mean ‘a social status imposed on people by virtue of their sex’, and you use it to mean ‘an innate sense of identity linked to the sex of a person’s brain’ (a now-common understanding which derives from the medical tradition), we may be using the same word, but our conceptual frameworks have almost nothing in common (for instance, your ‘gender’ has a biological basis, whereas the defining feature of my ‘gender’ is that it doesn’t).

This situation particularly annoys those feminists who feel they’ve lost ‘their’ word. But it might be asked how much we really need that word. It didn’t originate in feminist political analysis or grassroots activism: it belonged to an academic register (and is still, according to the corpus evidence, used predominantly in academic contexts). Many classic feminist analyses of the social condition of women (like Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex and Angela Davis’s Women, Race and Class) do not use it at all.

In recent years I’ve become more careful about when and how I use ‘gender’, since in some contexts and for some audiences I know it might not be clear which sense I’m using it in. Now I’m asking myself if there are any contexts where I really couldn’t manage without it. As I’ve said, plenty of feminists in the past did manage without it. Maybe what was good enough for Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Davis should be good enough for me.

_____________________

NOTES

[1] The ‘it’ referred to in this quotation is the work of the US cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead. Mead herself did not use the term ‘gender’, but in her books Coming of Age in Samoa (1928), Sex and Temperament in Three Primitive Societies (1935) and Male and Female (1949) she gave an account of the variability of men’s and women’s qualities and social roles across cultures which prefigured, and in some cases directly influenced, later discussions of gender among social scientists and feminists. (If you read French, there’s a good short account of Mead’s contribution to this history here).

[2] One academic book which examined both the concepts of sex and gender and the associated terminology in some detail was the sociologist Ann Oakley’s Sex, Gender and Society, first published in 1972 and now considered a feminist classic (this year it was reissued in a new edition with a retrospective introduction by the author). The book discusses Margaret Mead’s work, as well as the work of Robert Stoller and John Money. Oakley’s new introduction also briefly alludes to Mathilde Vaerting, a German near-contemporary of Mead who was writing about the way societies constructed men and women as both different and unequal as early as 1921. (There’s some information on Vaerting here.)

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.

**********

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.