Beyond He Said, She Said: An Abridged History of Personal Pronouns

This piece originally appears in the College Hill Independent Issue 7 and is published here with The Indy’s permission.

For over a year now, Danii Carrasco B’17 has identified as genderqueer, nonbinary and sometimes trans-masculine. “In the simplest terms it means that I’m neither male nor female,”  Carrasco explained. “I’m read as female, but I would prefer to present more masculinely or more androgynously. I haven’t had the opportunity to do so.” What Carrasco can do—and has done—is ask their English-speaking friends to refer to them by “they/them/theirs.”

Carrasco attended an all-girls high school in New York before coming to Brown. “I’m used to hearing ‘she,’ ‘hey girl,’ and things like that,” Carrasco said, “so I’m used to keeping quiet even though it bothers me. It’s hard to remind myself I should speak up.” Despite being socialized with feminine pronouns, Carrasco describes the experience of being incorrectly gendered as “dysphoria inducing.”

It’s not uncommon to hear students at liberal arts universities, such as Brown, jokingly remark that “gender is a spectrum, not a binary.” But as Carrasco’s experience shows, the majority of society still does perpetuate binarism, a framework that makes sense of the world through constructing stable binary oppositions, to conceptualize sex and gender, in this base, but also many other aspects of our lives. If binarism perpetuates the myth that there are only two sexes or genders, that the only valid (‘natural’) genders are ‘men’ and ‘women,’ then it is distinguishable from but a key component of cissexism, which equates a person’s body with their sex with their gender.

On a structural level, binarism and cissexism invalidate or altogether erase the lived experiences of intersex, trans, and nonbinary or genderqueer people, but also more subtly police and regulate gender expression. This regulation can be seen in almost countless places, such as sexual education classes, hospitals, public restrooms, and language is one of the more subtle locations of the enforcement of gender norms.

“Pronouns are an extension of my identity,” Carrasco said. At home with their family in New York, they mostly speak Spanish, “which, as you may know, is a highly gendered language,” Carrasco said. “There’s no way to use gender-neutral pronouns.” But for Carrasco, English is rife with opportunities. “People learn new words every day. Nobody has a problem with iPhones or Skype but for some reason people have a problem learning pronouns.”

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World languages according to the number of genders used.
World languages according to the number of genders used.

Unlike 145 other languages, English does not have a grammatically correct way to refer to people or their possessions without invoking gender. English pronouns are the only gendered survivors of Old English, when all parts of speech were heavily inflected. While the hypotheses differ in the details, some linguists suggest that these endings fell out of use after Normans, who spoke a highly Germanic dialect of French, conquered England in the 11th century; the process of Old English and Norman French merging was also a process of simplifying.

English grammars in the 1500s marked the beginning of standardizing modern English, a process that continued through to the early 18th century. Tools for mastering the language were geared towards preparing the sons of wealthy families to study Latin, and so the masculine pronoun, reflecting both the authors and the audience, became the default.

Generic use of “he” was repeatedly promoted over the centuries, but perhaps due to the coinciding so-called first wave of feminism, linguists continued to search for a more inclusive alternative. Otto Jespersen  noted in his 1894 book Progress in Language: With Special Reference to English, that a sentence like “It would be interesting if each of the leading poets would tell us what he considers his best work” contained “the disparaging implication that the leading poets were all men.”

Another singular construction, “they/their,” had made its way into English through the Danish spoken by Scandinavian invaders in northern England in the early 11th century. It was commonly used by the late 1300s. But grammarians in the 16th century decided to follow Latin rules, which dictated that a singular “they” was grammatically incorrect. Although this opportunity to standardize “they” as an epicene—meaning having one form to refer to both genders—pronoun was lost, authors like Jane Austen, Goggrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Lewis Carroll and George Orwell would later continue to employ it in their writing.

Other attempts to avoid binary pronouns, dating back to around the 1850s, are numerous: eer, hie, ha, hesh, thir, se, heesh, hse, kin, ve, ta, tey, fmshem, se, j/e, jee, ey, ho, po, ae, et, heshe, hann, herm, ala, de, ghach, han, he, mef, ws, and ze. Fittingly, linguist Dennis Baron describes the gender-neutral pronoun as “the one most often advocated and attempted, and the one that has most often failed.”

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There is, supposedly, a linguistic reason for the historical failure of gender-neutral pronouns: like prepositions and conjunctions, pronouns belong to a closed class of parts of speech, a group of words that are functional or grammatical in nature. As the name suggests, new items are rarely added to this group. Open classes like nouns and verbs are generally more related to the content of a sentence and therefore are open to additions. Given that we’re constantly inventing new things that need names, it follows that creating new nouns is relatively easy and speedy process. From there, add “to” (e.g. to Google, to Skype) and ta-da: new verb.

Linguists, however, are having difficulty making clear-cut distinctions between the classes. What may be more important, Baron notes, is less that “pronoun systems are slow to change,” but that the process of change comes from the bottom up. “When change comes, it is typically natural rather than engineered,” he says. For example, “to Google” became a verb because people were using Google more than they were using Yahoo or other search engines—not because Google made it into Merriam-Webster first. Rather than being told to start using a word, we found a word to describe what we were already doing.”

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Reacting to Sweden’s recent adoption of “hen” as a gender neutral pronoun, Jan Guillou, one of Sweden’s most famous authors, blamed “feminist activists who want to destroy our language.” But linking gender-neutral pronouns to feminism ignores the way in which the language of some feminist discourses—for example, referring to abortion as a “women’s issue”—often excludes trans, genderqueer and nonbinary people in order to create some sort of a (cissexist) solidarity. “In many feminist spaces when people are talking about body image, reproductive rights, that kind of thing, the language is so gendered,” Carrasco said. “It can be very uncomfortable for trans people. Like me, being assigned female at birth, these issues affect me and are important to me but constantly hearing them gendered is a reminder that I’m the other.”

In response to the exclusion of gendered language, a variety of individuals and communities have developed alternative gender-neutral pronouns. In the 1980s the “Spivak system”—e/eim/eir—was developed by mathematician Michael Spivak and popularized by LambdaMOO, a text-based virtual reality that reached its peak in the mid-1990s with about 10,000 members. Although Baron has since seen frequent use of Spivak pronouns in transgender forums online, ze/hir/hirs appears to be the most popular gender-neutral pronouns, at least in the online genderqueer community. The first recorded usage of “hir” was on Usenet in 1981; eleven years later, in 1992, Baron found that it was regularly used on the electronic newsgroup alt.sex.bondage.

Authors of the past decade like Leslie Feinberg and Kate Bornstein brought the concept of  preferred gender pronouns (PGPs) into public consciousness, but they are still far from mainstream. “No one asks you your pronouns in any space other than queer—and usually not even in most queer—designated spaces,” noted Bennett Knox B’15, who identifies as genderqueer. “I feel like the impetus is on me to say ‘can we also say our pronouns?’ because it’s just generally assumed. Most people are going to use the pronouns that they feel like they should use for someone based on how they read them.”

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Normalizing the question of gender pronouns, rather than only asking in certain contexts or singling out individuals, would be a key step for the safety and inclusion of trans and nonbinary people. For example, asking a binary-identified trans person their preferred pronouns, particularly in a public space, may “make them question: am I passing? Do they realize that I’m trans? Am I safe here?” Carassco said. “Because it’s not a commonly asked question.”

In The Atlantic in 1787, philanthropist and politician Napoleon Bonaparte Brown said, “the need of a personal pronoun of the singular number and common gender is so desperate, urgent, imperative that . . . it should long since have grown on our speech.” Given the failed results over a century to do so, it seems unlikely that a gender-neutral pronoun, if introduced and accepted, would be commonly used or last. Awareness of the multiplicity of identities and respect for them, on the other hand, is doable: “in terms of what people can do just in daily life to make a trans person more comfortable,” Carrasco suggested, “pronouns really go a long way. I know that when I’m hearing ‘she’ all day and then one of my friends who knows that I’m genderqueer and knows my pronouns says ‘they,’ it’s a relief! It’s like ‘Oh, they remembered!’ It feels nice.”

Sami Overby B’17, who identifies as male-of-center and genderqueer, said that using correct gender pronouns is “the most basic, and the most common, and the most everyday thing that needs to happen. I think that being able to see trans people verbally, to have that visibility for who they are will begin to change the way that people think about trans people.”


Image Courtesy of Bluestockings, Sean Simonson.

Data via The World Atlas of Language Structures Online

3 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Tiffany's Non-Blog and commented:
    YES omg I have no words for how much I absolutely love this write-up. Gender-neutral pronouns have been on my mind since I was a child, and I had no idea that others have called for them for centuries before the recent LGBT movements of today.

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