He, she, they, are simple pronouns we all know and use every day. Prospects for gender-neutral language have stirred the debate around the existence of an unambiguous gender pronoun. The structural evolutions of society have influenced the importance of finding pronouns against the use of a male-oriented, strictly binary language. To compensate for the lack of a generic third person pronoun, he, predominantly, and they were both used very early in the history of English. You can commonly find books, newspaper articles, or university papers, which use he/she or singular they. He/she does not solve the issue of a non-binary language, and singular they, perhaps the most straightforward non- gendered pronoun, is considered too ambiguous.
Alternatively, neologisms such as ze or xe, hir or xem, have appeared but remain relatively rare, especially in written English, but are sometimes more difficult to identify.
It’s an old debate. In Old English, nouns and pronouns were arbitrarily assigned gender and in inflected for case. The loss of grammatical gender triggered the search of an unambiguous, gender-neutral pronoun. For centuries, androcentric views have shaped our society, language, and grammar. In France, an 18th century grammar rule established that the masculine prevailed over the feminine. Adjectives that refer to different gendered nouns agree with “an undermined gender”, i.e. masculine! (Maurice Grevisse, Le BonUsage). In 18th century England, grammarians advocated the use of he, and an 1870 Act of Parliament decreed he officially replaced he or she. I shall spare you the dither of the next couple hundred centuries.
It is only during the second half of the 20th century that the inherent sexism of the generic masculine pronoun “he” was finally criticised. However, a cleavage between written and spoken English remains. “He” is preferred in the first, and “they” in the latter, influenced by social, political and psychological implications beyond grammar. “They” prevails in spoken English for reasons beyond simple grammar, such as social, political and psychological influences on language. “It” remains largely controversial in written English.
The second half of the 20th century allowed the question of a gender-neutral third-person to return to the spotlight. Furthermore, they is grammatical, and it has indeed been used in English Literature by none other than Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Coleridge, Wilde, and White. It’s not ungrammatical or illogical, but prescriptivism against it still infuses written English though it is fully accepted in spoken English.
What is socially acceptable has now led to the choice and use of pronoun badges in English and their ascribed sociolinguistic subtext.
During the 2018 Freshers’ Week at the University of Edinburgh, the Students’ Association offered pronoun badges to students to avoid misgendering. It showed that the university’s student body, and therefore the university itself, was open-minded, welcoming, inclusive, and not afraid of tackling such a pervasive issue.
The initiative was reported by a few newspapers. The Tab published a controversial poll, in which 81 per cent of voters said that they were against the idea of pronoun badges. This was addressed by a Pride Society meeting on Monday 24 September in George Square. The Independent showed, in the interview of a fresher, that it could lead to more labeling instead of creating unity, exposing aspects that are, in the end, deeply personal in the public space. Two sides of one coin, pronoun badges continue to divide.
In the end, respect might be the word to remember. What can you do about it? You are the future. It is you we will be hearing about, and your voice counts, so open the debate. In your university years, you learn many academic skills, but you also discover so much about yourself, it is your chance to get out there and do something about it. Be the Christine Jorgensen of gender-neutral pronouns: question, exchange and confront your ideas to other people’s. In your essays, articles, research papers, tutorials and seminars, introduce your pronouns, whatever they may be.
Creating a safe and respectful space for everyone to express themselves confidently might be the answer to solving the pronoun question.
Image credit: Ludovic Bertron via Flickr