A Modest Proposal for the Adoption of an Epicene Pronoun in English

I do not mean any of the following satirically, I assure you.

We are plagued today by the question of what pronoun to use to refer to people. Volumes have been said on the matter on the Internet; judging from personal experience, which I shall offer as the basis of this discourse, Tumblr appears to be all for political correctness, or at least that’s what people like to say on Facebook, where SJWs (Social Justice Warriors, if you’re reading this years from now) are mocked for their demands and ‘modest’ proposals.

The debate centres on gender in society and how it is socially assigned. Language being a defining attribute of human beings, it is crucial to take note of how it is used in this kind of social interaction. Simply put, every time you call someone a guy, you’re imagining him as male, with certain attributes that you associate with maleness (like a beard or a moustache); you’re also giving your listeners some kind of mental image about maleness. This isn’t fair, as many argue (I’m trying to be neutral here) that this forces the people being talked about to take on certain roles in society that they don’t want. So, maybe you’re a woman in India who wears western clothes (many people’s vocabularies classify jeans and T-shirt under ‘western’); this oversimplifies the matter, but let’s say that when you’re called a woman, your listeners imagine you in local clothing, which is something you wouldn’t wear. The problem becomes a real one, so to speak, when one is not what traditional society (or at least what may be easily termed so) defines as one of its niches: say, when one feels one is, or identifies as, a woman, while having the body, and therefore the social identity, of a man.

The entire debate on gender identity and how far freedom in its assignment may be accepted is too vast to even summarise here. For the uninitiated, let me jump to the issue at hand: to the derision of millions, people have begun identifying as different races (trans-black), different species (pandas), and even fairy tale creatures and vegetables (elfkin, cabbagekin). I’m sure many of us would like to accommodate our leafy friends, but the problem is that every such – creature, I’m afraid I must say – uses its (I shall say ‘it’ for now) own pronoun. Yes, that is the problem; I do not say ‘creature’ and ‘it’ to insult. Pronouns range from ‘xe/xir’ and ‘ve/vir’ to certain constructions which must need a new language. ‘Get my pronoun right’ is an emphatic demand that some never tire of deriding; one feels little malice towards these mockers when one sees the sheer volume of words that have been coined for non-heterosexuals and non-cisgenders.

The quest for an universal pronoun is old. Long before these times, people were trying to find gender-neutral pronouns. The neologism ‘Ms’ was hailed with mixed joy and ridicule, if recounted facts are to be believed. Harry Potter, I think, introduced many of us to the neutral ‘they’ and ‘them’. But the sense of the plural is inalienable to ‘they’, and it does not serve as well as ‘he’ when it comes to writing something formal for old people – in an examination, for example. Might not this search for a gender-neutral word guide us in the day of ‘ze’ and ‘zir’?

The past few decades have seen a boom in the use of constructed languages. I don’t think people ever learned Esperanto as gladly as the fans of Star Trek took to Klingon. When Avatar came out in 2009, Na’vi was the hottest conlang, and now that Season 5 of Game of Thrones has ended, it’s probably time to brush up on our Dothraki. What I’m getting at is that many of us speak, or would love to speak, a fictional language. And, not surprisingly, we eagerly learn the idiosyncrasies of the people who speak that language. If we hailed someone in Klingon by saying ‘What do you want?’, it would not be so much rude as normal; ‘negrita’ is a term of affection in Spanish, and carries no racial connotations; ‘May the Great Mother smile on us’ is acceptable in Na’vi, but not so in even formal English – or perhaps it is among neo-pagans, but let us not digress. My point is that we accept the modes of communication in other languages easily enough, especially if they are fictional, but we feel compelled to be correct in every way when speaking English, as if it were some One True World Language, instead of a popular tongue spoken by many. Certainly this may be hard to swallow in this age, when people would ban free speech in American college campuses. I shall, however, dare to say that the issue of referring to people without offending them is a real one, and I would rather use a strong medicine than pray to the heavens for a panacea.

My modest proposal, then, is this: use ‘he’. Refer to every human being or human-body-cabbage-soul as ‘he’. Say ‘he’, ‘his’ and ‘him’ every time you need to refer to someone. The umbrella term will take in men, women, children, and all queer people and almost-people-by-choice. As and when necessary, say ‘her’, ‘it’, ‘xir’, or what you will. A sample paragraph may illuminate my idea:

‘The poet writes his poem while keeping in mind things he may have read, things he expects his reader to find out for himself, and things he may have been thinking without realising. If the poet is a woman, she may think of something in a uniquely “feminine” way, or she may not. The readers of a poem must judge for themselves what influences work on the poet when he is writing.’

Simple enough, I should think. Now to address two possible arguments that may be advanced. The first is that this hardly gives everyone equal voice, and instead subsumes everyone under a single pronoun; to which it may be briefly said that if we were machines possessed of infinite patience, we should not be compelled to use one simple pronoun in English instead of 250. The second is that someone may not identify as a ‘he’, in which case I am oppressing them every time I say ‘he’. May I remind these people that ‘he’ encompasses even that powerful pronoun, ‘she’? Or would they prefer to be referred to as ‘they’, implying that they identify as a swarm of insects? Imagine yourself a Dothraki bloodrider or any manner of creature, and then imagine yourself speaking their language. Quietly accept, after that, that far from being the language of the gods, English is simply a set of words governed by an accepted grammar, spoken by a great many people. It only hurts us so much to make it a little easier.

3 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal for the Adoption of an Epicene Pronoun in English

  1. The problem of acceptance of a new style still remains. I, for one, use “she” or “her” to refer to a person whose gender is unknown. For instance, “The critic might feel that the story is a bit underconstructed, and she might expect the author to invest a little more time and energy to fleshing out some of the plot points.”

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