A few days ago, a friend of mine engaged me in conversation about gendered pronoun usage in English. After spending some time considering the topic, they’d decided it would be a positive political move to start using gender neutral terms by default—not assuming, in other words, that they could automatically guess the gender identity and pronoun preference of anyone they met. They wanted my view—as a linguist, as well as someone interested in queer and feminist politics—on the practicality of switching to entirely gender neutral pronoun use, and on which pronoun was the best option.
A lot of ink, both figurative and physical, has been spilt on the issue of pronoun choice and gender neutral pronouns. Most mainstream discussion of the topic has concerned how to refer to individuals of unspecified gender in formal writing. Traditional style manuals advocated using ‘he/him/his’ in this context, but this has been criticised from a feminist standpoint for a long time. To my ears—and, I assume, to others of my generation—using ‘he/him/his‘ to refer to individuals of unspecified gender now sounds stylistically weird nearly to the point of ungrammaticality. You’ll more commonly come across other solutions in formal writing, like ‘she or he / her or him / her or his’ or ‘they/them/their’.
In queer politics, the same need for a gender neutral pronoun also arises for a different reason. People who are neither female or male, or not solely female or male, such as nonbinary trans* people, may feel the need for a pronoun that doesn’t misgender them. In these spheres ‘they/them/their’ is common, but other alternatives are also used such as the so-called Spivak pronouns ‘E/Em/Eir’ as well as the gender neutral pronoun ‘ze/hir/hir’ used by some online genderqueer communities.
My friend’s proposal is radical, but is not unique. One similar example you may have come across in the news in the last few years comes from Sweden. Some preschools in Sweden such as Egalia in Södermalm practice genuspedagogik—pedagogy focused on highlighting the effect of gender on children in educational contexts—and aim to use the recently coined gender neutral pronoun ‘hen’ (instead of feminine ‘hon’ or masculine ‘han’) for all children. This pronoun is a convenient fit in Swedish: it obviously resembles the feminine and masculine forms, and it happens also to have the same form as the (gender neutral) 3rd person pronoun in neighbouring Finnish. It is beginning to gain a little ground in Swedish: it has been used in children’s books, in parliament and even in a published legal judgement.
In this post, however, our focus is on the linguistic issues involved. So can you just choose to use a new, gender neutral pronoun in lots of contexts where your native grammar specifies you should use a gender marked form? Will people understand you? If it is possible, which of the various options are preferable?
Introducing a new pronoun into a language is an unusual enterprise. Languages add new words all the time and speakers have no trouble acquiring and using them, but these are what are referred to as ‘open class’ words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs. These classes of words are open in the sense that they can be added to and speakers have many strategies (derivational morphology) in their grammars for doing this. Consider a recently coined word like ‘selfie’: it’s immediately obvious how it has been formed and how that composition relates to its meaning. However, ‘closed class’ or grammatical words, such as pronouns, auxiliary verbs and prepositions, are much harder to coin. Speakers have no strategies for creating these words, but instead seem to list them as a fixed—closed—set in their mental grammars. So when we try to add a new one, we’re not really engaging in a normal linguistic process, and accordingly it’s a lot harder for such usage to become entirely automatic and unconscious in the way that most of our language use is. Anyone at home in queer social spaces is probably aware of how easy it is to make mistakes in using others’ preferred pronouns, especially when those pronouns are neologisms such as ‘E/Em/Eir’ or ‘ze/hir/hir’.
Nevertheless, there’s no reason to believe it an impossible task, and, I think, several good reasons to assume that it’s quite feasible. Speakers clearly do change their grammars over the course of their lifetimes, at least in minor ways, as they’re exposed to new grammatical variants through diffusion (that’s the spread of new forms between speakers). This is one of the normal processes of language change, and is going on all the time. Although this individual change is limited, the evidence is that the sort of changes that are easiest for adult native speakers to acquire are structural mergers—changes which remove a previously maintained grammatical distinction. And the introduction of a gender neutral pronoun is effectively just such a merger.
In addition, the target situation—one in which the 3rd person singular pronoun used in many, most or even all situations doesn’t encode gender—is perfectly normal, cross-linguistically. The map below (reproduced from WALS) shows gender distinctions in independent pronouns in languages across the world: white dots represent languages with no gender distinctions, and it’s easy to see that they’re pretty common.
So which gender neutral pronoun should my friend pick? Obviously this is primarily a political question. Nevertheless, I think that we get can another interesting insight here by comparing the introduction of a gender neutral pronoun to ‘normal’ (that is, not consciously initiated) language change. Generally, when innovative forms or usage patterns enter into a language, they do so by gradual spread along many axes: they spread between adjacent geographical areas, between interconnected social groups, by a gradual increase in frequency, and, crucially, gradually from linguistic context to linguistic context. A new form is generally innovated in a particular grammatical context from which it spreads, first to very similar grammatical contexts and eventually to very different ones. As a result, we’re relatively used to coming across and acquiring new usages that are partially familiar to us but have been extended to related-but-slightly-different contexts.
The proposed gender neutral pronoun that most resembles this ‘natural’ situation of language change is ‘they/them/their’. This already exists in most varieties of spoken Modern English as a gender neutral pronoun used in contexts where the gender of the referent is unknown or the referent is non-specific—in speech, sentences like ‘if someone wants a piece of cake, they should have one’ don’t sound at all marked. You might even come across it used by speakers where they are intentionally avoiding mentioning a referent’s gender, such as when maintaining the anonymity of someone in an anecdote. So where for the other proposed pronouns it would be necessary to introduce an entirely new form, for ‘they/them/their’ all that’s needed is to extend the use of an existing form into new—but clearly related—contexts.