Language and Gender: the New English Pronoun

Something in the English language is changing, but not many people have noticed it. Maybe a teacher, here or there, has noticed it on one of their student’s papers, and thought it was an error. Or a pundit has railed against it in their column, or someone has written an angry note about it on their facebook page. But the average person is just making the change naturally, by themselves, without even noticing what they’re doing.

A reader of English in 1900 — or even 1950 — would have read the above paragraph and cringed at the horrible “mistakes” I made. It wasn’t a mistake, though; it’s a fundamental change in the English language. You’ve probably spotted it, given the title of this article. If not, here’s the way I “should” have written it:

Something in the English language is changing, but not many people have noticed it. Maybe a teacher, here or there, has noticed it on one of his student’s papers, and thought it was an error. Or a pundit has railed against it in his column, or someone has written an angry note about it on his facebook page. But the average person is just making the change naturally, by himself, without even noticing what he’s doing.

appalachiantrailEnglish has been struggling with sexist language for about a hundred years. (Before that, it was just sexist, with no struggle.) According to general usage conventions, English, like most languages of Indo-European descent, used the masculine pronoun (he, him, his) to refer to a person of indeterminate gender. In other words, if you didn’t know or care whether the person you were talking about was female or male, you just used “he”. But people have been getting less and less comfortable with this. Even though “he” was supposed to refer to either gender, and grammarians claimed that it really was genderless, most people felt instinctively that the choice of pronoun really did have consequences — subconsciously, if not consciously.

The same issue came up with the use of the word “man” to refer to any human. Man developed agriculture around 6000 BC. Did he, now? And what was Woman doing at the time? People said that “man” was genderless, but this was clearly false. Back in the 1960’s, you could still find textbooks that said things like “Unlike most primates, man hunted his food, and brought it back to feed his females and children.” (False on so many levels!)

The fact is that, while the language you speak certainly does not determine what you can think, it can and does influence it. Some excellent examples — including the matter of gender — can be found in this opening debating statement by linguist Lera Boroditsky:

For example, languages divide up the world of colour differently, and as a result speakers of English, Russian, Korean, Himba, Tarahumara and Greek differ in their ability to perceptually discriminate colours…. Unlike English, many languages do not use words like “left” and “right” and instead put everything in terms of cardinal directions, requiring their speakers to say things like “there’s an ant on your south-west leg”.  As a result, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented (even in unfamiliar places or inside buildings) and perform feats of navigation that seem superhuman to English speakers… Some languages do not have exact number words (there may be words for “few” or “many” but none for “seven” or “sixteen”). Speakers of such languages generally are not able to keep track of exact quantities—they cannot count… In some languages all nouns (moon, penguin, toaster) are treated as grammatically masculine or feminine, and speakers of such languages actually take these genders seriously. German artists paint death as a man (masculine in German) while Russians paint her as a woman (feminine in Russian), and non-artists are no less affected… When tested in Hebrew, bilinguals showed more favorable implicit attitudes toward Jews than when they were tested in Arabic. That is, even something as basic as how much you like or do not like others depends on the language in which you are asked.

Boroditsky went on to win the debate.

Notice that language does not control your thoughts. Just because your language is sexist, or racist, or anti-numeral, or whatever, does not mean you are doomed to be sexist or racist or mathematically illiterate. And vice versa: Chinese is a relatively gender-neutral language, but China has never been renowned for its gender equality. Nevertheless, language does give you a nudge — and sometimes a push.

And so it’s a big deal, I think, that English has given up on using he, him, his as the default “genderless” pronouns. There was a period of perhaps twenty or thirty years where English speakers and writers just didn’t know what to do: they were uncomfortable using “he”, but “he or she” was too long, “s/he” was awkward (and how do you pronounce it?), and using “they” was just too weird. Since it was so clearly plural, it sounded odd to say something like “a pundit might rail against it in their column”. Some suggested alternative, made-up pronouns, like “ze”, but those sorts of things never catch on (unless they’re used by prestigious speakers and writers — and that kind of person never wants to adopt odd usages, in case it makes them less prestigious).

So people started just trying to avoid using genderless singular pronouns entirely. Instead of saying “a pundit has railed against it in his column,” they changed it to “some pundits have railed against it in their columns”. Nice trick, isn’t it?

And that’s how they, them, their got a foot in the door. Used in this indefinite way, it wasn’t really clear any more — and it didn’t really matter — whether you were making an example of a single pundit, or talking about a bunch of them. Whether “they” was singular or plural wasn’t the salient fact; what was important was that it was genderless.

The change has caught on quickly, and has now advanced to the point where I can say “Someone was coming towards me down the street, but I couldn’t see their face,” and hardly anyone will bat an eye. It’s not as popular yet in more formal writing, but it’s probably just a matter of time.

So I have to say that I’m pretty proud of English. For a long time, English has been among the most gender-friendly of Indo-European languages: it has no grammatical gender marking on nouns, adjectives, determiners, or verbs; nouns are usually not marked by gender (other than some holdouts like waitress); and it generally does not use the masculine gender to refer to mixed groups (although you might do it with guys).

So English was already pretty good, but now it’s taking the next step: it has created a genderless singular pronoun. As a linguist, it’s been fascinating to observe the language change around me. And I look forward to the day when I can look my daughter in the eye and tell them that they will be judged not by the gender of their pronoun, but by the content of their character.


3 responses to “Language and Gender: the New English Pronoun”

  1. I read your paragraph 3 times before I caught the word “their” instead of “he”. I was one of those unaware people. Now I will have to go back to my blog and see which one I have been using in my own writing. I know 10 years ago, I would have been using “he” just to be grammarically correct. I was still very conscious of “fitting in with the crowd” to be liked – not so much today. My conscience guides me today, not whether you are going to like me. Thanks for making me aware of this change. It is a good change.


  2. It took me a while, too, to notice the errors, but I am seeing this more and more. Since I’m a writer and editor, it really bugs me! I understand that the meanings of words do change, but I’m not yet ready to accept “their” as a singular pronoun. There are ways around using it, but that requires all of us to think a bit more before we speak or write.


  3. I myself never considered “he” correct to use for a person of indeterminate gender. That’s what “they” was for. I remember a school “English” textbook of mine that showed an illustration of people eating, with a caption reading “Everyone is eating his lunch,” with “his” in bold type. I assumed it meant the man in the center of the illustration made lunch for everyone, and they were eating his lunch, as in the lunch he made for them.

    Also, I’ve always internalized “man” as what a boy grows up to be.


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