In our gender diverse world, personal pronouns are still stuck in the past. In the future I hope that we will have updated our language to suit the needs of modern citizens.
Currently, difficult moments can arise when talking about a third person whose gender is unknown, as it’s impossible to find quite the right word. I like to use ‘one’, but in spoken language and outside of an academic context it sounds too stiff and formal. I could use ‘it’, but unless I was referring to a baby, it would sound creepy and off. I could use ‘he or she’, or ‘she or he’, but it sounds clumsy out loud. I usually end up saying ‘they’, which fits perfectly as a gender-neutral plural pronoun, but more awkwardly as a singular one. Hopefully, greater linguistic diversity will mean that we will face dilemmas like this less frequently by 2116. But how will we get there?
As the world is globalising, environments and people are changing. One could assume then, that the English language would adapt to its users’ new identifications and add non-gendered alternatives. Unfortunately, most languages have genders woven through them. Mandarin has a generic pronoun for feminine, masculine and neutral, which all have the same sound. Arabic and Spanish are even harder, for they are distinctly gendered. Japanese can often ignore pronouns altogether, but the very fabric of the language is built on a rigid hierarchy that identifies one’s social standing and yes, gender. Perhaps we should look elsewhere then…
An alternative is to consider that language develops from social needs, and either create a new pronoun or re-re-purpose an already existing one like ‘they’. The Swedish have already coined a new pronoun, ‘hen’ – a phonetic compromise between the masculine ‘han’ and feminine ‘hon’. This modern term has found its way into the Swedish dictionary, mainly due to widespread lobbying by activists.
Despite various proposals since the 18th century for an English gender-neutral third person pronoun, none have been widely accepted – recent attempts have been ‘ze’, ‘e’ and ‘ey’. When I was thinking about what could be a phonetic compromise between ‘he’ and ‘she’, I came up with ‘che’ – to be pronounced like the Mandarin ‘chi’, as in ‘tai chi’.
People often argue that by using a pronoun such as ‘they’ inclusively, we are misusing and destroying the English language, but constructed languages give us the opportunity to not just accumulate vocabulary, but to deconstruct and adapt them over time. Creating new grammar rules could help us re-evaluate the new dynamics of society.
Pronouns are used when the name of the subject has been already used, or is unknown, but as our perceptions of sexuality become more fluid, so too should our usage of language.
As to whether or not ‘they’ will still be used for a singular personal pronoun by 2116, hopefully we will have reached a consensus on a new pronoun by then. Ideally, education on matters of linguistic equality will have meant that we have obtained the maturity to not assume that anyone is a ‘he’ or a ‘she’. For the time being, however, let’s use ‘they’.