The best and worst ways to tackle linguistic sexism

EENGLISH A a long tradition of disputes over its lack of a neutral pronoun. For centuries, the Orthodox view was simply that “he” includes “she”. But in the 19th century, when suffragists in Britain and America argued that they had the right to vote, they were told that the “he” used to describe voters in laws only referred to men. . More recently, some (including this columnist) have argued for a singular generic “they”, used in this way for centuries. But the Conservatives insist it is illogical.

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As the argument roars, people invented pronouns to fit the bill: uh, hizzer, herm and others. Many aim to combine he, she, him and her sort of. But English is unfortunate in that those words just don’t blend into a word that feels completely natural.

Activists trying to remove the default masculinity of other languages ​​have banged their heads against the same wall. In German, the current solution is “Sexesternchen»(Gender asterisk). The feminine ending (often –innen) is added after the male base plus an asterisk, as in Student * hostel, a plural without a kind of “student”. Some organizations, such as the Green Party, have adopted this practice. But it’s hard to pronounce (to avoid it sounding the same as Studentinnen, “Students”, the speakers take a brief break). And, unsurprisingly, he’s unpopular with traditionalists.

French feminists sought a similar solution, triggering feminine endings (like –e) with dots, as in student. Naturally, the Académie Française (almost always conservative) rejected innovation. But the same goes for public figures who proclaim their feminist credentials differently; Édouard Philippe, the Prime Minister until last year, called for the feminization of official job titles, so a woman Chief of Staff could be a boss– but rejected the interposed points.

Linguistic engineering doesn’t have to be so clumsy. In this regard, some languages ​​are more fortunate than others. Swedish is one of them. He does not distinguish the masculine from the feminine in adjectives and articles; they merged into a “common” genre a long time ago. So the Swedes mainly had one pronoun problem to solve: how to refer to a generic person without using han (he or Dear (she). The activists embraced chicken, which is perfectly close to both and easy to pronounce. Unlike the German and French equivalents, it has received some formal approval. Sweden’s largest teachers’ union advises educators on their use in the classroom.

The solutions found by Spanish speakers are perhaps more intriguing. A few people in America have adopted the term “Latinx” to avoid the masculine “Latino” (it is pronounced “la-teen-eks”). This has crept into English but is rarely used by Latinos themselves. This doesn’t really solve the problem in Spanish, where –X cannot replace the masculine –o and feminine –a in a way that seems native.

Another solution fits perfectly into the Spanish spelling and sound system: –e, as in a Latin or many Latin. This also ties in with the detail that many Spanish nouns and adjectives (those that end in a consonant) already take the plural form –es. It creates new words like old students (students) seem less foreign: they sound like traditional Spanish words like spanish. The –e the end also gives a pronoun, she, sitting between el (he is ella (her), without the strangeness that noble hizzer Where uh in English

It remains to be seen whether such innovations will be adopted by the large community of speakers. Many people laughed at the creation of Mrs as an alternative to Mrs and To lack. Perhaps against all odds, it is now ubiquitous. But the fact that sexually neutral pronouns can also be used by those who claim that none of the mainstream genres will drag them into yet another culture war.

Ultimately, languages ​​allow for engineering pronouns in the name of social goals, if not always the type of top-down, planned reform. You was once the object form of you, former plural pronoun of the second person of English. Later it became the subject form, but always in the plural. Then it became a polite way of referring to one person (unlike you, for intimates and inferiors). Over the centuries, speakers gradually decided that everyone deserved the polite “you” and the days of the “you” were numbered. Amid the change, many decried the singular “you” (the Quakers were long-time holdouts). They lost the debate.

It is often said that personal is political, and so are personal pronouns. When politics change, they end up doing it too.

This article appeared in the Books and Arts section of the Print Publishing under the title “He, she, hizzer”

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