The Bran Report

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Thursday, January 11, 2007

What we need more of is...

...gender-neutral pronouns.

For real! We (by which I mean Anglophones) could go a little way to that ideal of gender-blindness summed up by Pratchettian dwarves: where a person's gender is only discussed at that point in a courtship at which embarassment might otherwise occur. (A state that I also believe is how rational folk would deal with sexuality: instead, we have formulaic sitcoms.)

Anyway! We have already addressed this problem in some parts of grammar, mostly due to feminism. At risk of being characterised as "the biggest geek ever", I submit the opening dialogue in the Star Trek theme.

...to boldly go where no man has gone before. (1964-1969)
...to boldly go where no-one has gone before. (1987-present)

There's no better way to sound pre-sexual-revolution than to use "man" as gender-neutral, a bad habit that (as I understand it) goes right back to "Adam". Now you can use "one", "person", "human"... but we're still stuck on pronouns.

Probably most people are using plural, "they". I guess that's OK, but it's kind of awkward. Almost as bad as using "it", though given the choice I think I'd rather be plural than impersonal. What's most awkward of all is any attempt to make up a gender-neutral grammar.

Man, He, Him, His
Woman, She, Her, Hers
Thing, It, It, It's*
People, They, they, their
Person, Pe, Per, Pers
Xe, xir, xirs
Te, Tet, Tes
Ne, Nim, Nis

Though I like the idea that pronouns are derived from "Person", I think I like "xe" best, though the other forms from that are a bit awkward. Having said that, the shock of using an x detracts from the fact thay only rhyme with the female forms. Maybe I just like it becuase it uses an x to stand for a variable.

The irony of it all is that the lack is so fundamental that any attempt to fix it goes badly wrong. Adding a neologism to the most basic bastions of grammar is just uncomfortable.

The biggest problem is that most people, not being as abstract and petty as me, don't really care if the male pronoun is used to describe people in all cases except for describing mothers and housewives. Neologisms will never get off the ground unless a significant number of people start using them, much as making the possesive of "it" the logical way will be regarded as wrong as long as it is in the minority.

Actually, I seem to remember ancient Greek having gender-neutral words (Anthro, Andro, Gyno), and Latin and it's descendants have more tenses than they know whyat to do with... hey, you, the classically educated! What's Classical for "S/He"?

7 Comments:

At 1:10 pm, January 11, 2007, Blogger Nathan said...

I have just remembered that Richard Dawkins, being every bit as abstract and cantankerous of mind as I am, has a habit of using "She" as the inclusive gender.

He's also campaigning against the use of phrase like "a blank child" where "blank" is any complex system of philosophy, most particularly religions. This aversion is one that I share and I think it's very telling. Why? I'll tell you another time.

 
At 1:20 pm, January 11, 2007, Blogger Laura said...

Here's a Geekism for you - in Hebrew, when descriing a group of people (they), one must use the masculine plural ending if there are any males in the group (so, even if we're talking 20 females and one frightened chap), and may only use the feminine if there are no males present. One professor at the Hebrew university decided to buck the convention when lecturing. She was fired.

 
At 3:47 pm, January 11, 2007, Blogger Maxwell Edison said...

You know what I love? I love the implication here that "Classical" is a language.

I also love chocolate spread though.

 
At 7:28 pm, January 11, 2007, Blogger Peter said...

But seriously, Nathan: "A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bonds of fellowship... but it is not this day." While I agree with you in principle, let's not wipe out man/men from the description of humans. Even though it can refer to both males and to all people (making man the base and female the other, blah blah blah philosophers), it sounds pretty goddamn cool in certain contexts. A day man come when the courage of pers fails?

 
At 12:03 pm, January 12, 2007, Blogger Nathan said...

All these are pronouns, not terms for people as a whole. If I were writing it today, I'd probably have gone for something like "the courage of humanity"... But yeah, there are times when it's legitimate to use "mankind", viz. poetic and literary contexts. Which, thinking about is, is more or less the only time you'd want to refer to "mankind".

So it was justified for neo-mthology, and it was justified when Neil Armstrong used it because the intention was to compare and contrast "man" with "a man", and people don't describe themselves as "a human", though I don't know why. Also, I guess they'd have had to go with "one small step for a human, one giant leap for humanity" had the first person on the moon been a woman.

 
At 2:21 pm, January 12, 2007, Blogger Maxwell Edison said...

Or "who left all this dust lying around". Boom boom.

 
At 2:36 pm, January 12, 2007, Blogger Nathan said...

I like Eddie Izard's suggestion for First Words on the Moon: "Ooh, it's all sticky!"

 

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