A Singular Transition

In the past two weeks I’ve been in three deep conversations about the need for a functional, gender-neutral pronoun in English. With the the growing comfort of transgender and intersex people in demanding equitable treatment, and with the increasing momentum for acknowledgment of the entire gender spectrum, more English speakers are being faced with a pronoun challenge. The conundrum might be, “What do I call myself if I’m transgender, intersex, or transitioning?” Or it might be the wish for a pronoun that acknowledges gender fluidity within an individual or a relationship. Because English options are limited to “he” and “she,” a lot of folks get left out.

Apparently Sweden is working on this problem by attempting to add the neutral “hen” to the previously available “hon” (she) and “han” (he). This addition was just included in the Swedish National Encyclopedia.

There have been some attempts to add a gender-neutral pronoun to English, like “thon” in the late 1800s, the movement to use “co” back in the 70s, and the sometimes-heard “ze” these days. “Thon” and “co” withered predictably, but “ze” has gained more foothold, probably because it sounds somewhat related to “she” and “he.” I have to say, however, as both a student of linguistics and a political being, I really dislike it.

Here’s my short case against “ze”:

“Ze” requires English speakers to make a sound we almost never do. We make the sound “zee” in common conversation under only two circumstances I can think of: when we say the word “zebra” and when we are making fun of French people. In non-gender-sensitized circles it’s generally accompanied by some stereotypical “French” mannerism, a pinch of the fingers or a shrug of the shoulders, probably quickly followed by a “How you say ….”
The sound zzz is inherently unpleasant. It’s a warning sound. When I’m talking about someone I like I don’t want to evoke a horde of bees or a loose electrical wire.
It’s a neologism developed by a group of speakers that is by definition a small minority and a word that’s of little daily use to the majority — a combination of characteristics that’s proven to be lexicographically lethal.

If we really want to inculcate English-speakers with a gender-neutral pronoun, what we need is a word that is composed of sounds we frequently make, that members of the majority won’t feel weird saying, and that makes some kind of sense in vernacular grammar. The great news is that there is such a word and English speakers are already using it in a gender-neutral sense.

Think of this hypothetical situation: You are talking about some unknown person who will be taking a position in your workplace. Applications are being reviewed but no one’s been hired yet. Gossip turns to the question of which office this new person will get and you say to your coworkers, “Well, I hear they might have to share space with Steve.”

Very few of us — even we editors — are likely to opt for the stiff, “Well, I hear she or he might have to share …” in a basic water-cooler conversation with coworkers. Native English speakers already use “they” in a gender-uncertain or hypothetical situation to mean an individual unknown person.

Although many of us have been browbeaten into giving up the use of this singular “they” in our writing, we are already using it in common speech. So how about if we stretch this existing use to include and honor people who have been pushed to the social, political, and linguistic margins?

If you think your 9th-grade English teacher is going to come after you with her red pen, let me know. Given the need to make our society more inclusive and whole, this editor will write you a pass.

May 7, 2013 Blog Posts