The Sexist Pronoun

By Cyberquill 05/10/20166 Comments

Anyone who has ever dabbled in writing has likely encountered the vexing conundrum of having had to select—without running the risk of distracting his/her/his or her/their readers from the actual substance of the text by prompting them to try and glean the writer’s socio-political leanings from his/her/his or her/their selection—the aptest pronoun to refer back to a non-specific individual of undefined sex, as in Before you entrust a physician with your health, you may want to ask him/her/him or her/them if he/she/(s)he/he or she/they know(s) the difference between a femur and a spleen.

In cases where it would be impractical to preemptively sidestep this literary land mine altogether by simply pluralizing the noun in question and then using they, the hallowed The Elements of Style, published several decades ago, squarely recommends going with the traditional—and nowadays arguably sexist—he over the activist-sounding she, the thrice longer (“Omit needless words!”) he or she, the numerically mismatching and hence grammatically dubious they, the voguish s/he (bound to trip up anyone reading the text aloud), or alternating between he and she (which may come across as either indecisiveness or holier-than-thou equality-mongering); trusting that a person intelligent enough to read will also be intelligent enough to identify he, him, or his as catchalls whenever intended as such.

Opponents of the all-inclusive he like to put forth that language shapes the way we think, wherefore we ought to help establish, or improve, gender equality by way of diversifying our pronouns.

But does our language really shape our thinking, a popular notion a.k.a. linguistic relativity a.k.a. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis?

As I’m sitting here typing these words, I’m wearing gray jogging pants and a black t-shirt. How many articles of clothing have I just mentioned?

If you’re thinking two, then language clearly does not shape your thinking. If it did, you’d have answered at least three, as I referred to my pants in the plural.

Few of us count the pants we have on as more than one item, no matter how often in our lives we’ve referred to them in the plural, nor how often we’ve heard others refer to theirs (or ours, or anyone’s) in the plural.

And when someone says two pairs of pants, we understand this to mean two items, not four, even though the word pair in itself connotes two, which renders it arithmetically counterintuitive that two pairs of something could comprise no more than two items in total.

This seems to indicate that language does not impact our thinking.

An oft-cited example in support of linguistic relativity is that Eskimos have myriad terms for snow and, accordingly, can discern myriad different types of snow, whereas most of us know but one word for it and that therefore pretty much all snow looks alike to us.

More likely, though, while we generally couldn’t care less what type of snow it was that gummed up our morning commute, an Eskimo’s igloo might collapse and bury him and his family alive if he accidentally used [snow type 18] as opposed to [snow type 47] as mortar to hold the snowbricks together (whatever the Inuit words for these specific snow types may be), and this naturally motivates him to pay more nuanced attention to the white stuff, a more nuanced terminology being the consequence rather than the cause of his people’s snow discernment capabilities.

Chances are, he can differentiate between even more kinds of snow than he can name. (Yes, or she.) And so can we. It’s just that, in our more southerly latitudes, unless we’re attempting to determine what kind of wax to slather onto the bottom of our skis for improved friction performance, our minds are generally preoccupied with matters other than snow analysis.

What goes for snow goes for color as well. When I designed this little website, I frequently hunted for very specific colors to match particular page elements, for which purpose I consulted various online color charts that would tell me the hexagonal color codes I needed. I was struck by how many shades of, say, orange, my brain was instantly able to differentiate among, even though I know only one word to denote the color orange. If language shaped my perception, how come all orange doesn’t look the same to me?

Since we kicked off this discussion with the problem of gendered pronouns, let us have the concept of gender itself—grammatical gender, that is—deliver the coup de grace to the hypothesis that language influences our thinking. Having long ago bought the farm in English, grammatical gender is alive and kicking in many, perhaps most, modern languages.

While French and Spanish boast a paltry two genders—masculine and feminine, marked by the definite articles le and la, and el and la, respectively—my native tongue, German, offers a whopping three: masculine, feminine, and neuter (technically, the absence of gender, but commonly regarded as a gender in its own right; just as black, the absence of color, commonly passes as a color), marked by the definite articles der, die, and das.

The German word for human being, for instance, is der Mensch (masculine). The German word for person is die Person (feminine).

Having been raised on these linguistic gender distinctions, if language indeed shaped my thinking, I should be expected to gravitate toward perceiving human beings as masculine and persons as feminine.

But—guess what—I don’t.

When I hear or read that “one person was killed, another injured in the crash,” my mind no more jumps to the snap conclusion that these unfortunate individuals were females than does the mind of a native English speaker, in whose brain, unlike in a native German speaker’s, it was never inculcated that person is feminine.

Most bizarre of all, the German word for girl is not feminine but neuter: das Mädchen. Translated literally, us German speakers will say The girl wore its favorite dress. That’s right. Not her dress but its dress. And now it puts the lotion in the basket, as the avocational tailor in The Silence of the Lambs so chillingly commands the terrified girl trapped at the bottom of the well shaft in his basement—nothing dehumanizing about that it when translated verbatim into German, where all girls are it by grammatical dictum.

Not that we lack words for she and her. We most certainly do. We just don’t use them on girls. We use them on forks, for example, as in Check out this fork—she has “Made in Taiwan” embossed on her handle!

That being so, I can assure you that I have never ever thought of girls as anything other than thoroughly female human beings (human beings being marked as masculine, if you recall), nor of dining utensils as anything other than wholly genderless objects, irrespective of whatever gender I habitually impose upon either when communicating in my native language.

So what am I to make of the popular theory that our language—i.e., its vocabulary, structure, and grammar—prejudices our thinking and that, therefore, opting for he as a co-ed pronoun to refer to generic individuals of either sex invariably biases our minds in favor of the referents being male, resulting in a distorted perception of reality?

Quite on the contrary, I would venture to postulate a fundamental disconnect between our language and the way we think, feel, and perceive the world around us.

Otherwise, absent a singular second-person pronoun (discounting the mothballed thou), how could an English speaker ever tell whether he’s addressing one person and a group?

Or she.


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  • Richard

    You are quite right, of course, though it seems a pity to neglect the sensibilities of our readers.

    Perhaps a new set of words is required, although the distortions of chairman do not bode well for this approach. Chairperson seems to dehumanise that esteemed office whilst chair on its own dispenses altogether with the need for a human being and elevates an item of furniture to the conduct of proceedings. Maybe, in time, committees will be composed entirely of inanimate objects -- but I forget, language does not impact upon our thinking.

    All the same, it seems a pity that the obvious chairer is overlooked, as are ish, esh, mish etc.

    German is quite another matter, although girl was once used non-pejoratively for both sexes, or so they say.

    • Cyberquill

      German contains man and person contains son. Eventually, the terms Gerwoman and perdaughter will have to be introduced for equality reasons.

      Not only that, if we wish to honor the evolving sensibilities of the modern reader, we’ll also have to get used to alternating between history and herstory, helium and shelium, and Himalayas and Hermalayas.

      And, of course, we’ll have to start using male versions of scourges like herpes and heresy, lest we perpetuate the sexist assumption that females are afflicted primarily.

      • Richard

        If instead we follow the lead offered by chair (as we are bound to do, being good Europeans) we have the option of docking the offending syllable. Thus: Ger, Alayas, lium, story, pes, esy.

        We can meet concerns about ambiguity by repeating the remaining syllable to emphasise the duality of the concept: perper, chairchair, etc. etc., or by instead combining, rearranging and contracting the offending letters: Gerwan, Ishalayas, eshlium, ishtory, ishpes, etc.etc.etc.

        Eventually, these adaptations will offend individuals and there will be a trend to the old ways, regarded by then as an inspired innovation, sexist sensibilities having been rejected in favour of masculine gallantry towards the fairer sex, who will wish to be absolved of all responsibility for the desecration of the language.

      • Cyberquill

        Eventually, nostalgia may kick in, but for now, the trend seems to be to eliminate all references to gender in language, to which end your suggestions warrant serious consideration.

        Just yesterday, your Telegraph ran a piece titled ‘They’: the singular pronoun that could solve sexism.

        I’d like to propose motley as the adjective that could solve racism.

  • Cheri

    This post is brilliant. It almost makes me wish I were still teaching grammar so I could print it for my students. ( I’d get your permission first.)
    You had me engaged until the very end. I thought you were going to transgender this post. You have the tremendous wit and facility of language to do so.

    • Cyberquill

      Permission? Seems to me — although, granted, I’m not a lawyer — that the presence of Share buttons and a Print button on a web page constitutes implicit permission for the reader to print and share as he desires. (Or she, if he were your kind.)

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