Not a Him or a Her, Not a Madam or Sir

This is a post which elaborates on a comment I left on the Macmillan Dictionary blog. The post (by Stan Carey) discussed the nature of gendered pronouns in English and the ways people have tried to invent a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. It’s worth a read (as are the comments in this post, where Stan was kind enough to indulge my ramblings). I tried to be very concise in my comment, but I feel like the point I tried to make deserves more attention (and page space) than is usually permitted in comments. So I’m making a post out of it.

My comment was this:

I’m going to try my best not to be too vague or overarching, but I wonder if the use of gender-neutral pronouns to point out chauvinism in language is anything like restructuring the history class curriculum to not be just one war after the other. The idea is that making war a priority in the history classroom perpetuates its priority in students minds year after year and so shapes the world they live in. Changing the curriculum would be interesting, but at the same time, war has been a major part of history and humans will always the capacity to be violent on a large scale.
What I’m trying to get at is the ways in which we are able to recognize and assess our own biases and the point at which we start fighting against our nature. Pronouns are learned first and then sexist meanings are attached to them (in varying degrees, I assume). But there’s no doubt that people distinguish between genders. I wonder how long it would take – or if it’s possible at all – to break down all the sexist meanings attached to our gendered pronouns. Just like how many years would it take to strip war of its priority in students minds?
Certainly experiments like the Egalia school’s will lead us to better understand how our brains relate natural necessities (like pronouns) with nurtured meanings (like equality or sexism), right? It should help us see whether finding a gender-neutral pronoun is a step in the process of breaking down inequality or if it’s a necessity, depending on how deep in our minds sexism lies and the ways in which it is learned.

That wasn’t too confusing, was it? Am I grasping at straws here or applying too much meaning to aspects of language?

The idea of using language in a different way in order to eliminate inequality in society is very interesting, especially when it involves pronouns because of their necessity in language. Racist words, for example, could arguably be removed from the language, but pronouns can not. If we removed one, it would need to be replaced. And that’s where things get tricky.

In the comment, I mentioned a post about how teaching history as being one war after another may be perpetuating the importance of war in young students’ minds. So, while war was a major part of life and possibly even a necessity in the past, it doesn’t need to be anymore (and shouldn’t). But if we keep teaching history in the way we have been, we may be creating a future where war is a constant. Changing the curriculum may be able to stop this, but there is no denying that humans have (and probably always will have) the ability to be violent.

In a similar way, racist words have been a part of languages, but no longer need to be (and should have never been). Removing them may sound fine to some, but racism and its motivations run deeper than the language we use. Remove one racial epithet and you’re liable to end up with another one just as quick (assuming you could even remove a word from the language, which you can’t). And yet, teaching people to not use racist words goes a long way in teaching them to not be racist, simply by bringing the effects of such words to the forefront. We can’t remove the violent nature of humans or the importance of war in the past, but we can possibly change how war is viewed today, just like we can change how people of other races are viewed. And we can do it (at least partly) by changing the ways we use language.

But pronouns and their entanglement with sexism is a whole different beast. We can’t do without pronouns – gendered or not. We can, however, do without the sexist meanings attached to them. From experience, I have noticed that children have no trouble learning to use gendered or neutral pronouns. My son is a bilingual speaker of English (gendered third-person pronoun) and Finnish (gender neutral third-person). To the best of my knowledge, he is not a chauvinist. Then again, he’s only two. Later on, as his vocabulary grows, the third-person English pronouns that he uses will acquire more meaning as he differentiates between men and women more and is influenced by other speakers. This is where sexist or chauvinistic meaning may come into play. And this is why people have tried to use gender-neutral pronouns in English – in order to raise people that do not place so much weight on the differences (real or imaginary) between genders. A similar motivation inspires changing the teaching of history. And yet, adults are the ones who recognize the sexist meanings that our pronouns carry. Our vocabulary includes those meanings, the vocabulary of children does not. And using gender-neutral pronouns is not guaranteed to make people less sexist. As I said before, Finnish has a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun and Finns can be just as sexist and chauvinistic as English speakers (no offense, mun Finnish veljet). What I’m saying is that gender bias and sexist meanings are at play in Finnish society. So is it even worth using only gender-neutral pronouns around our children?

I think there are two ways in which it’s worth it. First, English speakers may be at an advantage when compared to Finnish speakers. If we were to use gender-neutral pronouns, we would be bringing the sexist nature of gendered pronouns to the forefront, much like not using racist words brings the ugly nature of them into people’s minds. In English, we can compare pronouns to lessen sexism in society. Presumably, Finnish speakers can not do this. How ridiculous would it be for them to invent gendered pronouns to compare to their non-gendered ones? But this learning by comparison requires speakers to have the knowledge of sexist meanings, which is something that children do not have. So in order to teach them why the words he or she are sexist, we must first teach them sexist notions of gender. And we’re right back to square one.

Or are we? Because the second reason I think such a debate is important is that experiments such as the teaching of gender-neutral pronouns to children may lead to a better understanding of how much of our biases come from nature and how much come from nurture – just like the changing of the history lesson might give insight into how violent humans really are or how much they need war. Of course, it may be that we can never know how ingrained our biases or desires are, but impossibility has never stopped science from trying before.

Sorry for the serious post. I’ll return to the mindless drivel that normally makes up this blog soon. Just had to get these thoughts out on paper and decided to share them. I’m interested in hearing what you, dear readers, have to say on this matter, especially if you can point me to certain studies or books that relate to it. I don’t know of any off the top of my head or have the time to look any up, but I’ll try to update this post as I come across them.

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

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