Sunday, April 11, 2010

Revolutionising English One Word at a Time

I have long felt the need for gender-neutral pronouns in English. The traditional form of ‘he’ excludes women and the ‘he/she’ dichotomy excludes intersexed people. Using the form ‘he/she’ or alternating between ‘he’ and ‘she’ also raises a number of problems and is rather cumbersome. Saying ‘he or she’ while speaking breaks the flow of speech and sounds awkward. Then there is the trouble of deciding which should come first; ‘he’ or ‘she’. One could write ‘s/he’ on paper but speaking without putting either gender first cannot be practical. Always using ‘they’ or ‘one’ is confusing and doesn’t sound very good. So, I found this website a very interesting read. Here is an extract:

One problem with the idea of choosing a standard pronoun set is the fact that many people have already adopted different sets, and they might be as reluctant to change as most people are reluctant to adopt GNPs [gender-neutral pronouns] in the first place. This would be especially true, i think, of people who use GNPs mainly out of personal inclination and not from some sociopolitical purpose. They might be resentful about having their writing style seemingly put up to a vote. But i don't think it a serious problem — i think most standards supporters on the net would be violently apposed to any form of coercion in the matter, and posts whining about others not adopting the Chosen Pronouns would probably go down in a flurry of flames. The more serious problem would be, i think, the simple fact that most current GNP users might be strongly attached to the ones they've been using, and might completely ignore any standard even if they were sympathetic to it. (I myself have become rather attached to ey eir and em, and don't think i could bring myself to use zie or zir, though i could probably manage sie and hir if i had to.) I'll pretend that it is possible to create a standard, and will hereby heavily lobby for my favorites. People can choose as they see fit: one sort of freedom is that of individual expression, another is that which comes with widespread comprehension due to a common, agreed upon language. The currently agreed upon language, which uses gendered pronouns, has been irritating people for centuries. And as the explosive growth of GNPs on the net has demonstrated, the time has come for an alternative standard.

Problems with "sie" and "hir":
"Hir" is actually a Middle English feminine pronoun (some have claimed that Chaucer used it as neutral-gender, but this doesn't seem to be the case); "Sie" is German for "she" (amongst other things) and will be seen as female by most native German speakers.
"Sie" can be pronounced to rhyme with "she"; "hir" can be pronounced to rhyme with "her". This is sort of a blessing/curse situation: the similarity to the existing feminine pronouns that people grew up with probably aided them in becoming as widespread as they are on the net now, but it also gives them a taint of gender that may make people resistant to using them. That's probably not a big problem, certainly not as big as the problem of trying to use "he" as the generic. But having "hir" be pronounced the same as "her" could cause confusion and snickers if the GNPs move out of the world of ASCII and into the world of speech.
Pronunciation is a problem. First, it's ambiguous: do they rhyme with "her" or "hear", "see" or "sigh"? Second, no matter what they rhyme with, they sound the same as already existing words, which could cause confusion. Third, to avoid the feminine pronunciation, one could use "hear", but that has an uncomfortable feeling in my mouth, and i bet the vowel would be pulled towards a schwa and would sound more feminine. (Not that it's bad to have a feminine feeling, but it seems likely that antagonistic nitpickers that want everything cleaved right down the middle (or kept the same) would come to be a problem if the GNPs started to work their way out into the general populace.

Anyway, some of the above complaints seem to be validated by the fact that the alternative set "zie, zir" was felt to be needed. Spellingwise, this is a nicer set, since they all start with "z", and don't bear a strong resemblance to either the masculine or the feminine. And in pronunciation, there is no danger of mistaking them for other words. But speakers of English don't tend to like the letter "z". In the dictionary i have handy here, there are 57 pages of words that start with "e", 60 "h" pages, 170 "s" pages, and only 4.5 "z" pages. The system would have been much better if "f" or "l" had been used instead (though other problems would have erupted then). I personally really dislike the feeling that "zie" has in my mouth, and feel the need to soften the "z" to an "s" sound. Widespread adoption "zie" and "zir" therefore seem unlikely to me.

"Ey, eir, em" have the following problems:
Uncertainty in the reflexive form, as mentioned above.
Possible disagreement on whether the subject should be "ey", "E", or "e". (Hopefully settled to "ey" by my argument above.)
A slight weird feeling when using "eir" in some cases (though it's similar in sound to "her"). But i've pretty much gotten over it.
The other GNPs have a head-start in the newsgroups, and it may be hard to catch up. (But then, a large number of "sie/hir" folk seem to have migrated to "zie/zir" based on a single German speaker in, so maybe GNP folk aren't so resistive to change.)
"Em" sounds similar to "him", but the fact that it comes from the neutral "them" should satisfy the previously mentioned cleaving nitpickers.

None of those seem too serious to me. They have the following good points:
Easy mnemonic: just chop off the "th" from the plural. People uncertain about proper usage can start out with plural sentences and then convert them.
Has five unique forms, unlike the others.
They all start with "e", a popular and comfortable letter of the alphabet.
Based on existing language, rather than being artificial constructs. (The same could perhaps be said of "sie, hir", but if one grants that then one has to admit that they come from the feminine.)
Has support from areas other than the newsgroups.
No real possibility of complaint about it being too masculine or feminine in form or history.
Pronunciation is easy to learn and remember: just drop the "th-" from the plural.
People have been using singular "they, their, them" for centuries as an indefinite form, and the transition to using "ey" in these cases for singular beings is very natural. Part of the battle is already won.

And so, i recommend "ey, eir, em" as the ultimate standard. If that turns out to not happen some how, then i would recommend "sie" and "hir" as second choices. I honestly don't think i could ever feel comfortable using "zie" and "zir", but if there's a strong net consensus in that direction i could hand my FAQ over to one of those users and spend the rest of my days in my own private land of ey eir and em. If no consensus of any sort is forthcoming, then i imagine that things will evolve as such things tend to do.

As for the standard pronunciation, my current feeling is to rhyme "sie" or "zie" with "see", "hir" or "zir" with "her", and the "ey, eir, em" with "they, their, them". I assume the zie/zir crowd already does that, but there might be disagreement from the sie/hir realm.

I have personally been using the ‘ze, hir, hirs, hirself’ set, but the website’s suggestion of using ‘ey, em, eir, eirs’ makes sense. I feel that there is one plus point and one minus point in both the sets. I agree that ‘ey, em, eir, eirs’ could be easier than ‘hir’ to adopt in common usage as people are already familiar with ‘they, them, their, theirs’, but ‘hir’ is already widely used on the internet. As the website says, getting people to change to one set when they have already been using another would be difficult. Next, the problem with ‘sie’ can easily be corrected by using ‘ze’ instead of ‘sie’ and the problem with ‘hir’s’ pronunciation can be corrected by pronouncing it ‘heer’ as in ‘eel’ or ‘hir’ as in ‘him’. But again, getting a new word and a new pronunciation of a word already in use into common usage will be difficult. These two problems with both sets nullify each other and I feel equally torn between them, though I don’t feel as comfortable with ‘ey, em, eir, eirs’ as I do with ‘ze, hir, hirs, hirself’. I think I’ll try using both sets and whichever entrenches itself more firmly in my sub-conscious will stay with me. What are you thoughts? Which set do you feel is better? You can find another article that gives a comprehensive overview of the subject on Wikipedia.

I really like the word ‘y’all’. As there is no official plural second-person pronoun in English, making it popular and getting it in the dictionary makes sense. I think I’m going to use it as often as I can. *grins*

I want to be clear: I’m an agnostic atheist. I was, in the past, agnostic theist and believed in God only as a psychologically comforting thought while accepting ze may or may not exist. Since the word ‘God’ is masculine and the masculine again becomes the default for any omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent deity in monotheistic religions or belief systems, I had a problem with using it. Therefore, to be gender-neutral, -since gender had no role my idea of God- I began to simply call it ‘Thought’, as it was primarily a comforting thought; an idea of someone or something. I don’t believe in ‘Thought’ anymore, but whenever I still read the word ‘God’, I mentally correct it to the gender-neutral ‘Thought’. I would like a gender-neutral word for ‘God’ in common usage, would anyone else like to use ‘Thought’? Or does anyone else have any other idea for how we can gender-neutralise the word ‘God’?

This one is rather tricky for me. I don’t like the history of class oppression and set of expectations defined by the words ‘gentleman’ and ‘lady’. But finding a polite word to call a stranger is rather hard. Which one sounds better? ‘That man’ or ‘that gentleman’? ‘That woman’ or ‘that lady’? The words ‘lady’ and ‘gentleman’ mean and imply a glorification of gender roles, plain and simple. On top of that, they imply classism; historically, one was born a lady or gentleman; one couldn’t become one unless supported by nobility of birth and marriage. One’s social standing and set of privileges completely depended upon it.

Let’s see how a lady is defined in a dictionary:


1. a woman who is refined, polite, and well-spoken: She may be poor and have little education, but she's a real lady.

2. a woman of high social position or economic class: She was born a lady and found it hard to adjust to her reduced circumstances.

3. any woman; female (sometimes used in combination): the lady who answered the phone; a saleslady.

4. (Used in direct address: often offensive in the singular): Ladies and gentlemen, welcome. Lady, out of my way, please.

5. wife: The ambassador and his lady arrived late.

6. Slang. a female lover or steady companion.

7. (initial capital letter) (in Great Britain) the proper title of any woman whose husband is higher in rank than baronet or knight, or who is the daughter of a nobleman not lower than an earl (although the title is given by courtesy also to the wives of baronets and knights).

8. a woman who has proprietary rights or authority, as over a manor; female feudal superior.Compare lord (def. 4).

9. (initial capital letter) the Virgin Mary.

10. a woman who is the object of chivalrous devotion.

11. (usually initial capital letter) a. an attribute or abstraction personified as a woman; a designation of an allegorical figure as feminine: Lady Fortune; Lady Virtue.

b. a title prefixed to the name of a goddess: Lady Venus.


12. Sometimes Offensive. being a lady; female: a lady reporter.

13. of a lady; ladylike; feminine?

A ‘lady’ is supposed to be passive, silent, and submissive, quietly and unobtrusively working around the house. An object in a glass display window, to be viewed, admired, protected, passed along and finally discarded after its use as an adornment is accomplished.

Now, how is a gentleman defined?

–noun, plural-men.

1. a man of good family, breeding, or social position.

2. (used as a polite term) a man: Do you know that gentleman over there?

3. gentlemen, (used as a form of address): Gentlemen, please come this way.

4. a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered man: He behaved like a true gentleman.

5. a male personal servant, esp. of a man of social position; valet.

6. a male attendant upon a king, queen, or other royal person, who is himself of high birth or rank.

7. a man of good social standing, as a noble or an armigerous commoner.

8. a man with an independent income who does not work for a living.

9. a male member of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives: The chair recognizes the gentleman from Massachusetts.

10. History/Historical. a man who is above the rank of yeoman.

Since the set of behaviours defined by the word ‘gentleman’ is not, on the whole, objectionable (except for the benevolent sexism bit wherein a gentleman is supposed to ‘take care of’ and ‘protect’ a lady), and since the word ‘lady’ carries all the baggage of a thousand years of sexist expectations from women with it, I propose that we continue using ‘gentleman’ to refer to a stranger and use ‘gentlewoman’ instead of ‘lady’ as its feminine counterpart. The definition of ‘gentlewoman’ is similar in its expectations of behaviour to ‘gentleman’ and, ignoring its classist similarity with ‘gentleman’, is not at all as offensive as ‘lady’:

–noun, plural-wom·en.

1. a woman of good family, breeding, or social position

2. a civilized, educated, sensitive, or well-mannered woman; lady.

3. a woman who attends upon a lady of rank.

4. a female member of the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives: The chair recognizes the gentlewoman from Maine.

The word ‘lady’ can be left to accompany and be the counterpart of ‘lord’ in all its classist and sexist glory. In my opinion, it makes both sets of words sound better and maintains symmetry. I also wish to remove the class implication in calling someone a ‘gentlewoman’ or a ‘gentleman’ with the words simply remaining as polite epithets that can be applied to anyone. This has been, to a large extent, achieved in modern usage, with ‘gentleman’ and ‘gentlewoman’ being applied to anybody and everybody without being offensive. Less successful is the word ‘lady’ which carries an inherent meaning of sexism and can also be used as a gendered insult towards women.

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