Paul Makepeace ;-)

January 18, 2005

Gender neutral pronouns

Posted in: Language

A café conversation prompted me to re-look up a page I'd found years ago but mentally filed to read properly some time later. One of those times you read just enough of a page to sound clever in a conversation but yet be left with a secret nagging sensation you might've missed something...

English is cursed with the inability to refer to a third person without giving away their gender, or talk about a general third person without specifying a gender they mightn't have: you've got just 'she' or 'he'. And the raft of possible alternatives mostly all have severe disadvantages: 's/he' is pronounced 'she'; 'he/she' is awkward; 'one' is archaic; 'they/them' only works in certain grammatical situations. And on.

What to do?

The Gender Neutral Pronoun FAQ examines the subject in detail with what I think is a convincing side-by-side set of five examples. The set includes the FAQ's proposed use of 'ey', 'em', 'eir', etc whose only real downside seems to be initial awkwardness becoming familiar with them. The 'comments' section (3.7) of the FAQ is fascinating, documenting about every objection to GNPs and rebuttals to those objections, not to mention intriguing ideas like the possibility of gender-neutral erotica.

The only omission I spotted was not noting that none of the other pronouns specify gender (I, we, you, they). So why should the third person singular do so?

Incidentally, Esperanto has an unofficial but widely used word 'ri' to denote a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. Ri is part of a movement known as riismo to remove the less agreeable, to some, aspects of Esperanto's gender-related linguistic oddities. Riismo has an in-depth treatment in Esperanto here on which makes similar points to the GNP FAQ plus that Esperanto has a he/she distinction is an historical accident. The same is probably true of other natural languages relative to their ancestors.

Esperanto kicks ass. On the riismo page, there's a word 'disdialektiĝo': 'something that causes dialects to proliferate'.

Posted by Paul Makepeace at January 18, 2005 03:16 | TrackBack

disdialektiĝo - actually, wouldn't that mean "dialect dispersion" or perhaps "the spreading of one or more dialects"?

Posted by: David P at March 7, 2005 20:23

Have you ever heard of Thomas Reed’s review of Grant’s book? (Easily Googled.) If so, what is your impression of it?

Posted by: life coaching ottawa at February 29, 2012 14:44
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