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New Horizons for the Modest Pronoun

A modest soul, the pronoun. Not like the endlessly descriptive adjective. Not like the world-defining noun. Not like the decorative and often misunderstood adverb. No. The pronoun is, among parts of speech, second only to the article in modesty. Even prepositions carry more weight. It really matters whether one is for or against, up or down, in or out, before or after. But pronouns, well, they quietly do their work and never brag.

Ah, the pronoun. Used instead of a noun or noun phrase, standing in for either a noun that has already been mentioned or for a noun that does not need to be named specifically. So Webster's Dictionary tells us. Really, pronouns are modesty incarnate. It's constant, thankless work. You, I, me, he, she, him, her, they, them and it, standing in, day in and day out, for the more solid and important nouns and proper nouns, quietly taking their place until nouns reassert themselves and pronouns are brushed off like toast crumbs from the breakfast table. Without complaint or fanfare, pronouns have always known their role and fulfilled it.

This is not to say that pronouns do not hold a respected place in grammatical history. They do. They are, after all, listed as one of the eight parts of speech in The Art of Grammar, a treatise on Greek grammar written in the 2nd century BCE by Dionysius Thrax.

In fact, if we look more deeply, we see that pronouns are humble but not simple. In their own quiet way, pronouns can be troublemakers, causing no small number of disagreements. Some linguists, for instance, do not agree with the simple definition of pronouns as replacing nouns or noun phrases. There are, these linguists point out, many sub-categories of pronouns that do not quite fit that definition. Pronouns have varied roles to play. In fact, in English, counting personal/subject pronouns (I, she, you, etc.); object pronouns (us, it, them, etc.); possessive pronouns (your, his, theirs, etc.); reflexive pronouns (myself, itself, yourselves, etc.) many indefinite pronouns (no one, anything, each, either, etc.); demonstrative pronouns (such, these, etc.); and interrogative pronouns (what, which, whomever, etc.) - there are more than 100 English pronouns! And let's not even get started on the archaic pronouns like thou, thine and ye.

Who knew? Which of us, absorbed as we are in our own concerns (please note the pronouns without which that sentence fragment would not have been possible), have ever really considered how many pronouns there are, and how indispensable these humble creatures are to our communication?

Despite their impressive number in English, English was, until rather recently, one of the simpler languages regarding pronouns, because regular nouns in English do not have gender. Our windows are not 'she,' our noses are not 'he.' French and many other languages have male and female nouns. German and many others have male, female and neuter. I remember being amused in grade nine German class to learn that 'girl', or 'das mädchen' is a neuter noun. Not only that, but the word for 'manliness' is feminine – 'die männlichkeit.'

English is actually unusual in that its nouns are non-gendered. As linguist Gretchen McCulloch says, "It is quite weird cross-linguistically to lack a grammatical gender system and yet still encode natural gender on one tiny set of grammaticalized words, aka, your pronouns."

We do not in English assign gender to chairs or tables, windows or doors. Things have been simple that way. But lately, the pronoun story has gotten more complicated. Personal pronouns are being whisked along on a whirlwind cultural ride. 'They,' always a plural pronoun until the recent past, is now an acceptable or even required substitute for 'him' or 'her,' because gender, in Western culture, has become a chosen, fluid thing.

Language both reflects and shapes culture. Ludwig Wittgenstein, the great philosopher of ordinary language, wrote, "If we spoke a different language, we would perceive a somewhat different world." Language contains and expresses culture. In many ways, language is culture. And vice versa. Recent changes in the 'rules' of pronoun usage reflect the shift in Western culture to the belief that gender is chosen, not inborn, that gender is fluid and may change, and that people can choose the personal pronouns that reflect their choice of gender identity.

It will be interesting to see how longstanding these changes in pronoun usage will be, and the extent to which they are and will be reflected in literature. Writers, whether they like it or not, will be making political statements when they assign pronouns to their characters.

Finally, I would like to issue a note of caution to the part of speech that is without question the least numerous and the most modest: the article. A, an and the. That's all we have, just the three. Keep your heads down, little fellas. Who knows what changes might be coming for you?

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Leah Shnitzler
Leah Shnitzler
Apr 27, 2021

I always loved that non-gender noun freedom (no agreement of adjectives!) in English compared to the complexities of French and Hebrew, a point I tried to share with students, although it did not usually convince them that English was easier! Leah S.

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