(An edited version of this article first appeared on Canada.Com.)
The Swedish National Encyclopedia has decided to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun into its catalog, officially recognizing a word that has been in casual use since at least the 1960s. Predictably, detractors see in this everything from a feminist agenda bent on destroying language, to psychological damage for our children.
Keep in mind that this is merely an introduction of the pronoun into the National Encyclopedia, and not a divine edict. While I appreciate the official show of support for the complexity of gender from a respected academic establishment, it’s not like the Swedish government is going around arresting people who do use gender-specific pronouns. They’re simply acknowledging the existence of this word, and its proliferation in the general culture. The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges the existence of the neologisms “Britcom” and “LOL”, too, and that hasn’t led to a downfall of society.
The gender-neutral pronoun issue rears its head with predictable regularity among linguists who study English, and we face the similar conundrum. There simply isn’t an elegant and universally accepted way to talk about a single person whose gender is unknown or irrelevant to the discussion.
“One,” after all, makes you sound stuffy and old-fashioned. “It” is largely reserved for animals. Numerous neologisms have been invented by academics, none of which have found much purchase in popular society. I travel in pretty progressive circles, and I still do a double-take when I see someone use ze, zie, zhe, or any of their variants.
Part of the reason these haven’t caught on is just because we don’t do very well with top-down decrees when it comes to language; you need organic support in the form of natural, day-to-day use. It’s why no man-made language like Esperanto has really caught on across the world, despite how much easier (supposedly) it is to learn. Despite what you might think of 21st century atrocities like “impactful” or “to action” or any sort of text speak, the reason they’re around more and more is because they arose organically from a specific linguistic need, and filled a vacuum. Another example of a language vacuum being filled is the word “cis” to indicate someone who identifies as the same gender as the sex they were assigned at birth. It’s a borrowed term from chemistry that stands in opposition to “trans”, and neatly identifies a component of someone’s gender identity without assigning default or superior value to either identity.
The other big reason these neologisms haven’t caught on could just be because a more organic alternative already exists – “they”. Contrary to what outdated grammarians would have you believe, “they” has been used as a gender neutral third person singular pronoun since about the 15th century. “Don’t use ‘they’ to talk about a single person” is about as relevant as “Don’t end a sentence with a proposition” – both of them hammered into the heads of impressionable students from a young age, neither of them particularly correct. (As Churchill famously said, this is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put.) Writing style guides for newspapers and universities and other are just now starting to catch up to this, finally allowing “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun to be used in an official capacity.
Still, when you use “they”, you’re still conjugating verbs in the plural. It’s “they drink a glass of water”, not “they drinks a glass of water”. It’s still not a perfect solution.
The language we use can empower or marginalize in equal measures. The use of the universal “he” in legal documents have been used as excuses to deny women their legal status, keep them form being able to participate in parliament, or practice certain religious rituals. And even without those stakes, it’s dehumanizing for women to be defacto excluded from the default state of humanity. You can’t have gendered words in a language and use one of those genders to encompass the other without conveying a subtle class difference between the two.
If you doubt this, consider how jarring it would be if you wrote all legal documents with a universal “she” instead. It’s already the standard in some niche subcultures, like designer board game instruction writers. But it’s by no means mainstream or universally accepted.
(Fun fact: Chinese didn’t really have a gendered pronoun until about the 1920, when a female version of the default pronoun was adopted in order to make Chinese seem more like those gender-specific western languages we looked up to so much. The previously gender-neutral pronoun then became standard for ‘male’, even though the components of the logogram use the neutral ‘human’ character.)
I applaud the efforts of the Swedish National Encyclopedia, even as I remain skeptical of its possible effects, given how these things have gone in the past. In Baltimore, high school students have been using “yo” as a gender-neutral pronoun in slang since about 2004, seemingly organically, but even that hasn’t seen much penetration in the rest of the country or the English-speaking world. I have a feeling the move is significant more for its indication of institutional support and its ability to raise awareness about gender issues than its actual impact on language use going forward. Nevertheless, it’s a heartening move, and a sign that maybe our endless efforts to equalize gender relations is getting somewhere after all.
(Now, let’s talk about a second-person plural alternative to “you”. My vote is for “y’all”.)