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The problem with pronouns – or is there one?

March 4, 2016

I’ve been evaluating gender, for a change. I’m thinking specifically about pronouns. In theory, I’m not against gender neutral pronouns. In fact, I think they’re a fine idea; it would remove completely any pressure to change pronouns so absolutely when one has non-absolutist qualms about one’s gender. It would also largely remove any incidence where one can be accidentally misgendered.

However, in practise, it’s a little more difficult than that. I know from experience that it is intensely jarring to attempt to introduce new pronouns into the language. Your brain just sort of rejects them; we are used to “he” “she” “they” and “it” like we’re used to “and” “or” “but” and “of”. Trying to replace them with something else feels quite foreign.

Indeed, a number of foreign languages do have non-gendered pronouns, or simply don’t use pronouns at all, either implying them by context or using names instead wherever this is not possible. Clearly, a pronounless language is well within the capabilities of language, it is just hard to do in English. I’d say that this is because pronouns are fundamental to English linguistics, but I can’t be sure that I’m not just being a crabby old stick in the mud.

After all, lots of changes are difficult, yet we manage them because we must. Training ourselves not to use certain words because certain groups find them offensive might be difficult, but we do it anyway. We might not like it, but clearly we do it anyway, or certain words would not have all but disappeared from socially acceptable language.

Some people might argue that, if you remove the gender from a pronoun, it becomes meaningless. Well, not entirely, because pronouns can simply be a distinction between the animate and the inanimate; the human and the non-human animate; the plural or the singular. If clear distinction between genders is increasingly less a part of our everyday society, terms which constantly reinforce assumptions of gender are more of a hazard than a help.

On the other hand, perhaps pronouns themselves are meaningless. Since some languages operate largely without them, and only have them to signify that you are still talking about the-thing-you-were-talking-about-before. Gendered pronouns maybe the most meaningless of all; for in our changing world, “he” and “she” are not the general concepts they seem to be.

They are becoming individual; they are becoming more like proper nouns, which are so abundant and variable because they describe a large number of distinctly different people or places. Moreover, even when they share a term, they are entirely unrelated; “George” can refer to your lover, your dog, the royal toddler, a number of American ex-presidents or the Chancellor of Exchequer.

None of these people are related; the name was arbitrarily selected and thus gives no information about the person to whom it refers. You can’t “look like a George”, whatever some people may say. All people at the point of naming look like a cross between an alien potato and a new-born rodent. No logical naming took place, so the umbrella of “George” is a phantom location.

When we hear the name George, we imagine whoever it is George is in that particular context by visualising his (or indeed, her) face. In other words, their Georgeness is irrelevant to their identity; it is just a label by which you can pick George out from Sophie when the two are standing side by side. It is entirely practical, in a way that gendered pronouns are increasingly not.

Pronouns are so general as to be useless. When transmen and genderqueer male people; genderqueer female people partially transitioning to female; female people who feel slightly more masculine gendered; and biological men are all known as “he”, the label of “he” tells you sod all about that person. It informs you of, not their identity, but only part of their identity.

It is thought that the pronouns “he” and “she” give you undisputed information about the people to whom they refer. But even with the most liberal views in the world – that gender is something that is present regardless of sex, or else formed as desired – people still simplify the range of people that are likely to identify under the pronoun of “he”.

In actual fact, he-ness and she-ness are as individual as a name, and gain meaning only as you begin to know that person. No two hes, even if they are both biologically male, are the same. “He”, therefore, tells you less than “George” since the title of “he” contains less information than the title of “George”, however you are interpreting them each.. There is no umbrella of Georges that tell you what all Georges will be like, and no umbrella of “he”s that tell you what all hes will be like.

In other words, pronouns have no meaning, except in private context. “That’s all very well,” you might say, “But that makes pronouns useless to me. I’m calling someone who looks male for all the world ‘she’. It goes against all my instincts.” True, it does make them useless to you, just as your chosen pronoun is useless to everyone else; it tells them nothing of any worth and meaning about you. It tells them only stereotypes and limiting assumptions, many of which you may defy. The only person to whom one’s pronoun matters is oneself.

It matters in the same way one’s name can come to matter, or one’s age – not because it makes you the same as others, but because it makes a part of your self-image, and thus an integral part of you. The simple question is: if everyone else who called themselves “she” tomorrow stopped calling themselves it, would you? The answer, most likely, is no; at least, not immediately. Your attachment to it is culturally defined but so ingrained that the reason for its importance is unclear.

Whether “he” or “she” have inherent meaning will never matter to you personally. You’ll choose your pronoun in relation to your engagement with the word, which is so personal that neither you nor anyone else will properly understand it. People can’t tell you to not want to be known as “she” or that it is in some way incorrect. In your opinion, their ideas about it are utterly without consequence.

Therein lies the reason why people’s choice of pronoun matters more than others’ perception about what they “look like” or what they “should be”. When a pronoun tells you nothing, its meaning is up for grabs; every new George will redefine what “George” encompasses, simply by existing. He is not bound by the constraints of what the Previous Georges have done, not even his namesake, if he has one.

Similarly, I think it’s more freeing if we can except that no “he”, “she” or otherwise is bound by the conventions of others who share the label. And if it’s hard to change the language and our perception of its meaning so that it fits new understandings of society, let it be hard. Challenges are fun.

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From → Language, LGBT

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