Opinion Columns & Blogs

Can we talk about pronouns?

Now that the issue of same-sex marriage has been resolved by the Supreme Court of the United States (majority Catholic and Republican appointees, surprise!), transgender concerns have surfaced as the newest social issue. I've become rather interested in this and other, related areas.

For those not familiar, the online WebMD site has a good introduction. To quote from the site, "Many people have assumptions about what it means to be transgender, but it isn't about surgery, or sexual orientation, or even how someone dresses. It's how they feel inside." The site also says that you can't tell if someone is trans by looking.

Another study indicates that trans people are less than 1 percent of the population — 0.6 percent in 2016.

The ambiguity and fluidity of transgender identities makes it very hard to properly refer to someone without the proper language tools. Add to this the relative rarity of transgender people and the burden falls on the bulk of the population.

So let's talk pronouns. To review our grammar schooling, a pronoun is a word that represents a noun. A pronoun can be singular or plural; first, second, or third person; male, female, or neutral gender; subjective, objective, or possessive case. Pronouns are used for convenience when the noun has already been defined or is known (Mary, tree, bird, cloud ...) A particular woman is "she" or "her." A particular man is "he" or "him." A rock is "it." Thus we come to the present issue.

Much is being made of gendered pronouns. The previously normal male and female pronouns are not enough to refer to the plethora of genders in the new, diverse environment. The common first person (I, me, mine, myself) and second person (your, yours, yourself) are all gender neutral. Only the third person pronouns (he, she, it, him, her, his, hers, its, himself, herself, and itself) are at issue. It might seem a bit of overreach to try to control someone else's speech when they are not even speaking to you, but Canada has made it a violation of human rights laws to use improper third-person pronouns. A little strange, eh?

The pronoun issue is being dealt with openly on our higher education campuses. A search has revealed a table, extensive but perhaps incomplete, of new gender pronouns compiled by the University of Wisconsin. The table contains 52 pronouns, 15 of which are in common usage, leaving 47 new pronouns to cover other genders.

Now, there is no way this geriatric, cisnormative, white male is going to memorize 47 new pronouns and apply them appropriately for any number of individuals who can change their gender identity at will. I have a hard time remembering people's names for one minute. I would love to be able to and don't want to offend anyone, (well, I know, bear with me here) but it just ain't gonna happen. I suspect that most people would have difficulties doing this. So I have a suggestion.

How about giving the other 99.4 percent of us a break? We need to address third-person, gender-neutral pronouns. We already have some based on "it" but they generally apply to inanimate objects so might be considered offensive. This is not always the case, though. When someone knocks on our door, we ask, "Who is it?" When we are unsure of the gender of an animal or a newborn baby, we ask. What if we pushed to make "it" a gender neutral pronoun acceptable in reference to humans? It could even be used, then, without insult in reference to cisnormative people. The word might even completely replace gendered pronouns and equity in language would be established.

That would be convenient but, failing that, let's pick a set from the University of Wisconsin table. My favorite is "ey, em, eir, eirs, and eirself." They seem a bit Irish to me and remind me of my Scots/Irish grandmother. Further, they seem to have the least similarity to the gendered pronouns so should be pretty acceptable. How about it?

Next we need to tackle "Mr./Mister," "Mrs./Misses", "Miss," and "Ms./Miz." I'm going to pass. I'm out of ideas for now.

Ed Pole is an engineer, retired from IBM and Intel, and resides in Lacey. He is a member of the 2017 Olympian Board of Contributors. Contact him at ejp.olyboc@gmail.com.

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