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Driving beyond gendered language: Paula Coston goes into neutral

August 30, 2013
Gender symbols: male, female, gender neutral

Gender symbols: male, female, gender neutral

A while back, I started a teenage fantasy novel with hermaphrodite characters, but as we know, English doesn’t have ungendered pronouns, so I had to invent some. I alighted on ‘che’ (nominative), ‘chen’ (accusative) and ‘chens’ (possessive), although they didn’t feel entirely satisfactory. I also searched for names other than Mother and Father for the characters’ parents, as these beings didn’t conceive or give birth the conventional human way and, of course, neither ‘parent’ had a ‘sex’. My tentative names were Maker and Donur (the latter with a u in place of the second o, as ‘Donor’ seemed too male).

In the novel I’ve just finished writing, I’ve had a different but related problem. A mysterious youth appears throughout, the character’s identity and gender deliberately withheld until the end. I really wrestled with this one. I sometimes referred to the youth as ‘the object’, meaning the object of the indecision of one of the other characters, as the text had to explain. Thus I found myself describing the youngster, for example at work on a laptop, using contortions like this:

‘The woodsmoke fingers tap, messaging in the shadows on the lower bunk bed. The object’s neon wristband glows, keys and feathers hanging from it….’

Not ideal.

I’ve become engrossed by these difficulties. And it turns out that there’s a long history, not to mention a political minefield, around them.

‘Our Desperate, 250-Year-Long Search for a Gender-Neutral Pronoun’ at describes the trajectory. In 1745 a woman, Anne Fisher – yes, a woman – prescribed in her book, The New Grammar, the use of ‘he’ – yes, ‘he’ – for situations where either gender could be meant. That male-biased usage predominated until, in the 1860s to 1880s, writers in the American press got militant, some advocating a totally new, gender-neutral pronoun, others settling for the singular ‘they’ – although none mentioned the potential social or legal injustice of leaving ‘she’, i.e. the woman’s viewpoint, out of important official documents. But nothing changed our pronoun usage in the English language, which intrigues me.

There was another flurry in the 1970s, coinciding with the women’s movement of the time: over 80 gender-neutral pronouns were invented. In addition, a vocal group championed the universal replacement of the almost ubiquitous ‘he’ with ‘she’. And indeed the Awl claims that academe these days, at least in the US, often does use ‘she’ – substituting, it argues, ‘one chauvinism with another’; meanwhile journalists, the media and the wider world still largely default to ‘he’ (and ‘he/she’ or – for short bursts of text, at least – that persistent singular ‘they’). Like me, the Awl writer puzzles why, despite our clear and changing needs, so little grammatical/linguistic evolution in English pronouns can have taken place over all these centuries.

Other websites tell me that this feature varies widely in the languages of the world. Many have gender-neutral pronouns. Icelandic has a neuter gender pronoun; Thai pronouns, including neuter ones, are numerous. In spring 2012, Sweden’s National Encyclopedia included a new gender-neutral pronoun, ‘hen’, alongside the existing ‘han’ and ‘hon’ for male and female; there is strong institutional encouragement to use it in Sweden when required. Whether it will catch on is debated, though. Linguistic surgery is different from natural linguistic growth, and anyway there is resistance from some to ‘feminist activists who want to destroy our language’ (author Jan Gillou). Can such cosmetic enhancements take?

If you’re as intrigued as me by this stuff, look at This alphabetically lists the many gender-neutral pronouns that have been promoted over the years, pointing readers to websites and written material that discuss, trial, demonstrate or actually use them. Needless to say, fantasy and sci-fi writing, in their stories of hermaphrodite, trans-sex and asexual characters, have promulgated many.

What interest me are the obstacles to popular takeup. Take ‘peh’ and ‘pehm’, or ‘phe’, ‘per’ and ‘pers’: like my ‘che’, ‘chen’ and ‘chens’, they’re hard to say within the word runs of ‘normal’ English sentences, even though both pronoun sets invoke in me a gut connection with existing English words and roots (‘person’ in the first case, ‘he’ and ‘she’ in the second). Other creations such as ‘ne’, ‘nis’ and ‘ner’ may be easier to pronounce, but, like ‘zhe’, ‘zher’ and ‘zhim’, as well as ‘zie’, ‘zim’ and ‘zir’, they look – in some strong sense – unnatural and improbable to anyone with a feel for the history of English words and spellings. Finally the sci-fi ‘ey’, ‘em’ and ‘eir’, from the concocted Spivak language, mentally and auditorily interfere, for me, with ‘they’, ‘them’, ‘him’, ‘their’ – i.e., with pronouns that we already have. Obstacles, obstacles, obstacles.

I turn to language history: perhaps more organic wordage is likelier to take root? According to the Gender Neutral Pronoun blog, ‘a’ is ‘a Middle English epicene pronoun, still found in some British dialects’ (‘epicene’ meaning, having characteristics of both sexes or none. That’ll be my New Word for Today). But again, it’s withering on the grammatical vine; I wonder why – pronunciation difficulties once more, or, since it’s so short and the same word as the indefinite article ‘a’, is it just too hard to understand at speed?

I like the efforts of the exquisitely named Pennsylvanian, Charles Crozat Converse, in 1858, to promote his own word ‘thon’, a conflation of ‘that one’. It sounds almost as if it could have derived from Old English, Norse or whatever, perhaps spelt with that now dead letter thorn (þ). And it allies itself nicely with other English words with similar pasts: no one, anyone, someone, everyone. It was still there in 1913, hanging on by a thread in the New Standard Dictionary of the English Language published by the Funk Wagnalls Company. But again, since then, despite its plausibility, it’s died.

Right up-to-date, scientists have noted the fascinating usage among Baltimore middle- and high-school students of ‘yo’ as their gender-neutral, third-person pronoun – not just as the exclamation or greeting well-known in black/gangsta culture (think The Wire and elsewhere). However the pre-existing greeting idiom creates a problem – for me, at least – implying, as it does, the singular or plural ‘you’ being addressed; in other words, its link with a different person, the second person, already, engenders a sense of blurring, of grammatical confusion. Or am I wrong?

Male/female echoes in word structure; associations with extant pronouns that are confusingly close; difficulties of pronunciation; a sense of unauthenticity – all these seem to militate against us changing our linguistic ways. And maybe there’s another factor: our wariness of the neutral and the neuter, perhaps even those words themselves. Politically, neutrality is on the one hand desirable and on the other, smacks of the non-committal, even the cowardly and escapist. (Is it coincidence that Iceland and Sweden, two neutral nations in World War II, are open to gender neutral, whereas the UK and the US, which ended up far from politically neutral in the same conflict, are much less so?) And maybe ‘neuter’ for us Anglo-Saxons carries unwelcome overtones of surgery and emasculation – excuse the pun.

In 2010, Norrie May-Welby, an Australian, became the first person to be designated officially as ‘neutral gender: gender not specified’ (following a sex change operation from man to woman whose outcome still, for thon, didn’t seem to express thon’s ultimate self). Where there is one person who feels this strongly, surely as time passes, there can only be more.

So I love people’s continued doggedness and creativity in inventing gender neutral solutions. However, I also respect a language that’s too mysterious in its development to obey my instinctive urge to control it.

This post pays homage to novelist Ursula Le Guin, who made brave gender experiments in her writings (see The Left Hand of Darkness, Winter’s King, Is Gender Necessary?, Dancing at the Edge of the World and her 1985 screenplay of TLH of D). Initially she adamantly refused to ‘mangle English by inventing a pronoun for “he/she”’; in her screenplay though, she used the pronoun ‘a’.

One Comment
  1. Duncan permalink

    Really interesting this stuff about pronouns. I looked up ‘a’ because I wondered whether it had anything to do with the regional ‘er’ which is definitely something I’ve heard. A West Country thing where someone might say, for example, ‘Er’s gone and done it now’. I didn’t find that connection but came across ‘ou instead which seems to be related to ‘a’, but perhaps a bit later. I’m sure I’ve heard ‘yon’ is this respect too, but that may be a shortening of ‘that one over there (yonder)’.

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