The English language is a funny thing, constantly evolving and changing with the needs of the people using it. So it’s no surprise that, as more transgender folks are self-identifying and making their needs known, the language is adapting.
The fraught question becomes, of course, how is it adapting—and is it enough?
Amidst all the rigmarole about gender-neutral pronouns, it’s worth noting that we’ve actually had one available to us since the mid-1000s: “he.” Sure, it has a masculine connotation now, but that hasn’t always been the case.
“There was a rather extended period of time in the history of the English language when the choice of a supposedly masculine personal pronoun (him) said nothing about the gender or sex of the referent,” wrote historian Susanne Wagner in a 2004 study. Think the general use of “mankind” to refer to humanity at large, or even the quote from the philosopher Hume given as an example in Webster’s Second International Unabridged Dictionary’s definition of “men”: “All men, both male and female.” The pronoun “he” may have come to specifically refer to men, but that wasn’t always the case. For a much longer period of time, it was neutral.
The purpose of new gender-neutral pronouns like “ou” or “zir” is, no doubt, to more accurately represent genderqueer or non-binary individuals. Trouble is, by putting completely new pronouns into practice rather than reclaiming the ones that already exist, activists may very well be doing more harm than good.
Take the case of xoJane writer S.E. Smith’s article on yoga and cultural appropriation, which was completely derailed by an argument about pronouns. Gawker’s Hamilton Nolan misgendered Smith in a follow-up article and, when his error was pointed out, he responded in an asinine and immature way, crossing out all the female gendered pronouns in his article and replacing them with Smith’s preferred “ou.” His colleague then passed around the article with the commentary “crazy correction request.” Naturally, the Internet exploded, focusing on this kerfuffle rather than the actual topic of the original discussion.
There’s also the problem of the sometimes extreme reaction to misgendering, including laws on the books in New York and the District of Columbia that can actually lead to criminal charges and hefty fines for using the wrong pronouns for someone in a work situation. And since “asking personal questions about an individual’s…gender identity or expression or transition” is prohibited, it’s that much more difficult to even ask if you’re using the right pronouns in the first place.
Self-identifying is an individual’s own business, of course. And there’s no doubt that we will always need a fluid, ever-changing language in order to keep up with the times. But when it comes to pronouns, clarity is key. We want signifiers that make sense—not ones that derail every conversation in which they come up. So if the English language already has one in place—albeit one that could use a bit of reclaiming and redefining—why not use what’s already there?