Wednesday, 30 July 2014

"I'm a Boy!": Why New Gender-neutral Pronouns Are Moribund

Having recently written about the impotence of words, I find this news, reported by Russia Today, to be very well-timed, indeed. The 2015 edition of the Swedish Dictionary is set to include a gender-neutral pronoun (hen, pronounced, I believe, like the fowl), apparently rather a new word, to be used, if one wants, instead of the Swedish versions of 'he' and 'she'. More specifically, the article reports that:
"In the dictionary, the pronoun will have two uses: for cases when the gender is unknown or irrelevant, or if the information is viewed as irrelevant."
In my aforementioned blog post from earlier this month, I referenced the legendary H. L. Mencken's report in his great book The American Language (a book that is certain to feature again on this blog) of a similar episode in the English (American) language when the word hesh was proposed to mean he-and-she about a hundred years ago. The book contains other such attempts; the word thon (originally meaning yonder in Northern English) and thon's for he-or-she and his-or-her, respectively, for instance. So one may think of the new Swedish pronoun as corresponding to thon.
Notice the two uses of the new Swedish pronoun: the first says that the word is to be used when the gender of the person is unknown, the second that it is to be used when the information is irrelevant. Trans-gender people and individuals fitting into the "third legal gender" introduced in Germany last year would therefore be certain thons. Persons viewing themselves as male or female are thus apt to feel offended if referred to by thon. The presence of persons with one clear gender (i.e. most people) would drive down the use of the new Swedish pronoun. Perhaps down into oblivion. After all, thon was in Webster's New International Dictionary as recently as 1934 (Mencken, p. 460 n.), but who uses it now? Who even remembers it now? does not recognize it.
At least I know I would feel offended if referred to by a word used to indicate (even if only by some small probability) third-gender and trans-gender individuals. This is not because there is anything wrong with those people. There is not. But if people think I have uncommon preferences, it will adversely impact my opportunities in the marriage market. I would think most people reason similarly, so my small "model" above should hold: The presence of men and women and the relative fewness of individuals in-between drive out the use of third-gender or gender-neutral pronouns. The prediction which comes out of this model is clear: languages which have ever had established gendered pronouns will remain that way and never see gender-neutral pronouns; languages with gender-neutral pronouns may evolve into gendered-pronoun languages, but will not necessarily do so.
This is actually a testable hypothesis. The word son from the French language is a gender-neutral pronoun (third-person singular genitive). I don't know Latin, but French comes from Latin, so if Latin had gendered third-person singular genitives, my hypothesis fails. There are many other languages to consult for yet more evidence. This is something I will keep in mind.

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