“What’s your pronoun?”
She/her/hers. They/them. He/them. Xie/hir.
Pronouns are popping up all over: in social media bios, in our screennames on our nine million daily Zoom calls, in applications and various forms we’re asked to fill out (I just wrote out my pronouns in a volunteer application about fifteen minutes ago. LOVE that they asked). Odds are you’ve come across at least one person who uses what is thought of as a non-traditional pronoun; I know several in person and many more online who do. But is this really a new phenomenon? Not at all, says Dennis Baron in his study of the subject, What’s Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She (Liveright, 2020). This went on my list as soon as I learned about its existence; I’m a bit of a language nerd, so the subject interested me, but I’m also interested in being the best ally I can, so I knew I needed to learn more.
English is seriously lacking in a common-gender pronoun. What’s commonly used is they/them, but grammar fascists have long had their issues with that. (Insert eyeroll.) This isn’t a new problem. Dennis Baron points out that what we think of as ‘alternative’ pronoun use in the US goes back to the 1780’s, and that’s only how far back we’ve been able to dig up written sources. And singular ‘they,’ as in ‘I saw someone at your house, but they ran off when they saw me’ has been in use since 1376, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. If you’re looking for a book to convince a family member that your pronoun use isn’t just some modern-day fancy, this will help you clarify points and back up your argument. (Not that you should have to; your choices about your identity and how you want to be addressed are valid regardless.)
While at times this book is a bit of an information dump, it’s interesting and informative, and it’s written in a jaunty, fun style that doesn’t exhaust the brain to take it all in. The struggle to use English in a way that suits our needs in terms of identity has been going on for a long time, and it’s chock-full to the brim with whiny, tantrum-throwing men who gasped as though someone had kicked their puppy when it was suggested that maybe women didn’t enjoy being referred to as the generic he (as in, ‘If a guest doesn’t enjoy steamed fish, he is welcome to order something else off the menu’). “Men in power accepted the generic masculine only when it didn’t require them to give up too much,” Mr. Baron states, and then presents this to the reader in example after infuriating example (He meant men in terms of rights, like who could vote, but it meant men AND women in terms of punishment. SUPER CONVENIENT, RIGHT?!!?!?? *ragescream*).
Language changes. Uses change. New words crop up. If you don’t think that’s true, try explaining the sentence ‘I downloaded the browser extension, but then my modem disconnected and I bluescreened’ to someone from 1950. What is eternal is respect and how we treat each other, and though it may take some practice to use pronouns that you aren’t necessarily familiar with, if you can remember to use a woman’s new last name when she gets married and changes it to her husband’s, you can also remember to refer to your friend’s kid or your co-worker as ‘them’ or ‘hir’ when you speak about them. It’s not hard, and it’s not new.
Dennis Baron has really shed a lot of light on how far back the struggle for a gender-neutral pronoun goes. I had no idea that ze, for example, traces back to 1864. And one of the most fascinating quotes I found in the book refers to ‘em, as in “The dogs are missing! We need to find ‘em!”:
‘…the informal ‘em, so common in speech, is not a reduced form of them, but a holdover from the old plural object form hem, with unpronounced h.’
Fascinating! I never knew that!
Lots of history and information and men throwing fits because they didn’t want to share society with women (seriously, dudes, get over it. Who raised you???), but you’ll learn a lot about the English language and its use throughout history. It’s really true that everything old is new again in terms of pronoun use. 😊