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Language, Culture and the Pronoun Revolution

We have talked in this blog about how language changes, how new words are introduced from the surrounding culture, and how language and culture affect one another. The whole pronoun revolution has brought confusion (some would say enlightenment) to how we address one another. People have been reprimanded and actually fired for using the wrong PGP (Personal Gender Pronoun). Words like 'ze' (a non-gendered pronoun, actually coined in 1864) are found in dictionaries and organizational materials, but less so have they entered common parlance. Many people, recognizing and accepting the cultural shift from he as the main singular pronoun, are more comfortable using they. For me, this tweaks an old rule of grammar that was deeply embedded in school – they is plural! I resort to he or she, or even the awkward s/he in my writing. I just can't make they singular.

It is pretty clear that cultural movements spawn changes in language, but what about the reverse? Do changes in language feed back into culture? The great ethnographer, Clifford Geertz, famously wrote that humans "are suspended in webs of significance that they themselves have spun." Wrote Geertz, "I take culture to be those webs." We spin these webs partly through our words. Culture, according to Geertz, is "a behavioral map" and also "an abstraction from behavior." We can already see how the pronoun revolution feeds back into personal and organizational behavior. Behavior is changed, and this affects consciousness. In our time gender has taken on vast significance that permeates public policy, education, politics and medicine (though most of us probably do not buy into the notion that there are 56 genders, the number listed on Facebook).

If you are planning a conference or other gathering, you can buy Hello Pronoun Stickers for each attendee to fill in, saying, Hi. Address me as (and the choices are) – they, them, theirs; he, him his; she, her, hers; ze, hir, hirs; xe, xem, xyrs (WORD still marks these last two sets as spelling mistakes. Get with the program, Microsoft!) These stickers also have a blank space if you use a different pronoun, or want to make up a new neopronoun. One website advises adding your preferred pronouns as part of your email signature, so that all your correspondents know what's what. Harvard University and many other Western academic institutions ask you, on your application form, to choose your preferred pronouns from a rather impressive list. And a New York City employee circular warns us that we (meaning the cisgenders – see previous blog post) may be cursed with Pronoun Privilege: "If your gender pronoun is something that never matters to you or that you rarely think about, then you may have pronoun privilege."

This heightened gender awareness in the English language goes beyond pronouns. It is no longer acceptable to write or speak of mankindhumankind is preferred – and professions that have traditionally ended in man are being renamed. In British Columbia, which has a large fishing industry, it has for twenty years been unacceptable to speak of fishermen (indeed, there are quite a few women who do this work). One should now use the term fishers.

Interestingly, while the pronoun revolution is connected to heightened gender awareness, gender fluidity and gender change over the last few decades, the idea of having gender neutral pronouns in English is by no means new. A gender-neutral pronoun from the Middle Ages persisted in uncommon use until the 1700's: ou, still listed in the English Dialect Dictionary, could be used to mean he, she, it, they and even occasionally I. And the use of they, while considered ungrammatical to use with a single person at the time that I was in school, has been used as a singular gender-nonspecific pronoun since the 13th century, seen in Chaucer, Shakespeare and others.

Since the 1850's several alternatives for a gender non-specific singular pronoun have been suggested, but did not survive, among them heer, heesh, thon (short for 'that one') and bun.

The general use of he as the singular pronoun for any person was suggested by grammarians only in the 18th century. Not everyone approved; some preferred to use they. Clearly he relegated women to second (or non-existent) place, expressing the general belief that women were lesser creatures, and also subtly feeding back into people's consciousness, reinforcing this belief. The search for gender-neutral pronouns in the 1800's was fueled by early feminists who wanted to eliminate bias against women.

Perhaps the pronoun revolution has been especially pointed in English because our language does not gender regular nouns. When we use a gendered pronoun we always refer to a person, not a chair or a lamp. There are genderless languages as well. There is no pronoun revolution raging in Estonia: In the Estonian language, a man and a woman are both referred to as ta.

Examining our language shows us important things about our culture. Clifford Geertz expressed it succinctly: "We don’t know what we think until we see what we say." Studying how language changes over time – and it always does - is a way of examining cultural history. Carl Sandburg expressed it thusly:

There are no handles upon a language Whereby men take hold of it And mark it with signs for its remembrance.

It is a river, this language, Once in a thousand years Breaking a new course Changing its way to the ocean.

It is mountain effluvia Moving to valleys And from nation to nation Crossing borders and mixing.

Languages die like rivers.

Words wrapped round your tongue today And broken to shape of thought Between your teeth and lips speaking Now and today Shall be faded hieroglyphics Ten thousand years from now.

Sing—and singing—remember Your song dies and changes And is not here to-morrow Any more than the wind Blowing ten thousand years ago.

Till next time.

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