Why is gender ever a thing?
June 4, 2014 11:04 AM   Subscribe

A Linguist on the Story of Gendered Pronouns. Gretchen McCulloch talks about why we have pronouns, why gender is a thing in English, and how gender is a thing in other languages.

Her source for comparative data is the super cool World Atlas of Language Structures Online.

On the Toast as on the blue, the comments are worth reading. This one goes into some interesting detail on the problem of gender neutrality in Spanish. This one traces gendered pronouns in written Mandarin to the first translations of Western literature.

Although the WALS does not include data for fictive alien languages, McCulloch covers that too in her piece about a recent Nebula Award winner's treatment of grammatical gender.
posted by clavicle (111 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite
 
Actor not actress, server not waitress. Those are pretty easy to adopt.

I would argue "he" and "she" are pretty useful though, considering sexual dimorphism.
posted by four panels at 11:13 AM on June 4, 2014


For a while, this extension led to gender being used as a euphemism for “sex,” where both words could refer to social or biological differences, but starting in the 1960s, feminist writers began using gender to refer to the social distinction and sex to refer to the biological one, presumably to make it easier to talk about these two phenomena separately.

Wikipedia say:

"Sexologist John Money introduced the terminological distinction between biological sex and gender as a role in 1955"
posted by Fists O'Fury at 11:32 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I would argue "he" and "she" are pretty useful though, considering sexual dimorphism.

The real question is whether "he" and "she" are more useful than, say, "top" and "bottom" (talking about the sexual meanings of the latter two words). It seems like it should be largely irrelevant to indicate the gender of a person outside of basically converstions about sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding.

How is saying "She went to the store to buy milk" any different from saying "The buttplug enthusiast went to the store to buy milk"? In both cases an arbitrary, irrelevant, and largely sexual quality of the actor is being used to indicate them. Perhaps the first should be as absurd as the second and we should jut say "A person went to the store to buy milk."

Of course, I'm not going to stop using "he" and "she"; they're part of the language. But I entirely agree with the idea that a language that had naturally evolved in a more egalitarian society would probably not bother wasting such high powered pronouns on something as minor as genitals.
posted by 256 at 11:40 AM on June 4, 2014 [22 favorites]


Okay. I surrender. After following the links through to this article as well as others, I admit utter defeat and I apologize for my prior ignorance. Authority has been thoroughly appealed to, and I have been schooled all the way to Chaucer and back. I understand why "Everybody put on their shoes" and "My family took photos on their vacation" are justifiable sentences. I have learned to stop worrying and love the singular "they."

I remain confused by only one point, which has not been addressed by any article I've read: When using the singular "they" as the preferred pronoun of a person of nonbinary gender, should one conjugate the succeeding verbs in the customary style of the plural "they," or in the style of the other singular pronouns "he/she/it"?

Which of the following pairs of sentences is appropriate:
A) "Pat is agender. They like cooking."
B) "Pat is agender. They likes cooking."

In (B), the verbs agree. In (A), they do not. It therefore seems appropriate that, to adopt the singular "they" as a nongendered third-person pronoun for sentient beings, we must conjugate its succeeding verbs accordingly. All I want is consistency. I will happily say "They plays basketball" and "They watches a lot of TV" if we agree that this is how we are to speak.

I swear to the gods, I just want things to make sense. This is a cry for help. Educate me so that the singular "they," in this context, will no longer keep me awake at night. I can't be any more sincere than this.
posted by Faint of Butt at 11:46 AM on June 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


Sex and gender are largely sexual qualities? I don't think I can agree with that.
posted by Too-Ticky at 11:46 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


The article mentions Persian as a language without gendered pronouns. I wish I had more to say about it, but the primary impact it had on my life as a child is that my mom, when speaking about me in English (her second language) to a third party, would frequently call me "she" instead of "he" to my endless dismay.

I had a recent experience which really got through to me how ridiculous gendered third person plural pronouns can be. I was the only male in a flower arranging class. Because this was typically an all-female class, the professor had a tendency to address the classroom as "Ladies," "Girls," or some such. One time, she wanted to call everyone over to look at an arrangement someone had made: "Hey girls, I want you all to come-- whoops, sorry BuddhaInABucket-- Guys, I want you all to come over here and look at this." Because 1/20th of a group was biologically male, suddenly the pronoun became male. What on earth for? I told her she could keep on calling the group "Ladies" for all I cared.
posted by BuddhaInABucket at 11:49 AM on June 4, 2014 [18 favorites]


The real question is whether "he" and "she" are more useful than, say, "top" and "bottom" (talking about the sexual meanings of the latter two words).

This comment reads as if it had been posted by Samuel Delany. In all seriousness, if you haven't read Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, you really should.
posted by aught at 11:51 AM on June 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


When using the singular "they" as the preferred pronoun of a person of nonbinary gender, should one conjugate the succeeding verbs in the customary style of the plural "they," or in the style of the other singular pronouns "he/she/it"?

My brain says the latter, but my ear says the former.

"Hey girls, I want you all to come-- whoops, sorry BuddhaInABucket-- Guys, I want you all to come over here and look at this."

In my circles, at least, Guys is pretty gender neutral.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:51 AM on June 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


I swear to the gods, I just want things to make sense. This is a cry for help. Educate me so that the singular "they," in this context, will no longer keep me awake at night. I can't be any more sincere than this.
Spend a few weeks chatting in English with native speakers of Mandarin who can't be bothered to match up English pronoun gender with the corresponding noun gender and the singular they will seem like a sweet luxury.

On the other hand, maybe we should adopt the genderless Chinese system. But I'll leave the question of whether we should trade a gender-based pronoun system for a formality-based one to someone else to decide.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:54 AM on June 4, 2014


Faint of Butt: Singular they conjugates like plural they. It's "I have a friend. They like cooking." In common singular they usage though, you would never use it to refer to an already named person. So in your example, your option is "Pat is agender. Pat likes cooking" or to adopt one of the neologistic agender pronouns like "Pat is agender. E likes cooking." Personally, I'd go for the former. It makes as much sense as anything else in English.

Too-Ticky: Yeah, I felt a little uncomfortable writing that too. I mean sex is by definition sexual, but gender, not really. Still, at the time when English was evolving, none of its speakers would have subscribed to the idea of sex and gender being distinct and, even today, most English speakers probably believe that "he" and "she" should correspond to genital configurations.
posted by 256 at 11:54 AM on June 4, 2014


Actor not actress, server not waitress. Those are pretty easy to adopt.

A few nights ago, my three-year-old son and I were outside, saying good night to things, like the mountain, the moon, dogs, etc. I was talking about the hatless scarecrow in a neighbor's yard, and as I stumbled on the pronoun ("he lost his hat, or the scarecrow a lady?"), my son said "it's just a scarecrow."

My son showed me I was trying too hard.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:56 AM on June 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


Interesting. That's the best explanation I've ever run across as to why gendered pronouns even exist: it makes pronouns more useful as a class, because you can use more of them in a sentence without confusion.

If we only had genderless pronouns, you'd be able to replace a noun with a pronoun much less often without introducing ambiguity into the sentence.

It seems as though English's use of gendered pronouns came out of a sort of 'balance of laziness': not too many types of pronouns, because that creates too many grammatical rules, but enough so that you can use them frequently and get the benefit of pronouns, which is to say the elimination of repetitive nouns, without ambiguity. And English seems to already lean towards the simpler grammatical structure end of the spectrum relative to other languages which have masculine/feminine/neuter or masculine/feminine/animate/inanimate (or even masculine/feminine and animate/inanimate as two orthogonal grammatical axes).

Which brings me to the problem I've always had with non-gendered pronouns like "ze" or even the singular "they", and why I don't think they'll ever catch on to the point of replacing "he" and "she": even if you were to eliminate gendered pronouns magically tomorrow, people would probably reinvent them. Pronouns are just too damn convenient and time-saving, and only having one class of pronouns limits their utility too much, by requiring you to forgo them or risk ambiguity (the "They told them that they liked their parents" problem).

a language that had naturally evolved in a more egalitarian society would probably not bother wasting such high powered pronouns on something as minor as genitals.

The pronoun used to refer to people, unless they're naked, very rarely takes into consideration their genitals. It's based on their gender presentation, probably under very casual observation. And in many contexts it's probably based solely on their name or previous pronoun usage. (E.g. "John" is going to be referred to as "he" and "Jane" as "her" even if the writer doesn't know a damn thing about John or Jane's reproductive organs nor cares to.) Of course, people tend to get offended if the wrong pronoun is used in reference to them, above and beyond the grammatical ambiguity that it creates, which is an unfortunate downside of using that particular characteristic.

In a society where everyone had exactly the same haircuts and wore jumpsuits to hide their other sex characteristics and had non-gendered names and basically didn't have gender (not just non-binary, but didn't have an obvious gender at all): in that case, they probably wouldn't have gender as a linguistic construct. For them, basing pronouns off of gender would make about as much sense as us basing them off of blood type. They'd have to find something else to base pronouns on (one could imagine something like eye color working okay, or more likely relative age/status).

But as long as most individuals have a gender presentation that can be quickly determined to fall into one or more of a small number of categories (doesn't need to be two, though, could be 3 or more pretty easily) and particularly if the distribution between them is roughly equal, it seems plausible that it'll be used for pronouns just because it's there. People are lazy, and constructs like "him" and "her" are convenient compared to repeating someone's name all the time, even though it's not strictly necessary--you can easily remove all pronouns and still have a language, it's just verbose.

All I want is consistency.

Then you want Loglan, not English.

Consistency is one thing you're never going to get out of English grammar. It may be that the singular 'they', when used to refer to non-gendered (or unknown-gendered) sentient people, is a special case when it comes to pluralization, and it'll eventually just be chalked up to "historical reasons".
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:00 PM on June 4, 2014 [11 favorites]


Let's just always add the "S" to like.

I likes it that way.
posted by blue_beetle at 12:04 PM on June 4, 2014 [14 favorites]


The pronoun used to refer to people, unless they're naked, very rarely takes into consideration their genitals. It's based on their gender presentation

This is wishful thinking. I mean, I also wish it worked this way, but it really doesn't. The vast majority of English speakers today, if they find out that a female-presenting person has male genitalia, will still believe that the proper pronoun for that person is "he." Until about 20 years ago, and going back as far as the origin of the language, this majority was damn near 100%.
posted by 256 at 12:06 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I would argue "he" and "she" are pretty useful though, considering sexual dimorphism.

This is what has always interested me the most about grammatical gender.

There are a lot of types of dimorphism in humans. Just thinking about clear binaries and not things that are gradations (like height or skin color), we've got people with light eyes and people with dark eyes, people with attached earlobes and people with unattached earlobes, right handed people and left handed people, curly haired people and straight haired people, innies and outies, "Greek"* toes vs. non-Greek toes, people who can digest lactose vs. people who can't, ad infinitum.

And yet we don't have special pronoun groups for any of those things, even though some of them (handedness, lactose digestion) would be probably more useful to know than it is useful to know someone's gender. We don't have special pronouns for people with disabilities, even extremely common ones or extremely visible ones. We don't have special pronouns for people with red hair (to think of a very visible physical difference that is common in the populations where English developed as a language). We don't even have special pronouns for other groups we tend to mark out as different, like different races, classes, or religions.

It fascinates me that we think of men and women as so fundamentally different that they need special syntactic structures deep within language, which are so ubiquitous even the most radical feminist doesn't question them. (Things like zie and hir exist, but are more common within the genderqueer community rather than being used by and for individuals who gender themselves.)

*Second toe taller than the big toe.
posted by Sara C. at 12:07 PM on June 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


Sex and gender are largely sexual qualities? I don't think I can agree with that.

In practice they're not; in theory they could be. (Think about it: when does your gender or sex, not the way your gender/sex is perceived, actually matter?) Our society has way too much baggage to sort out for this to be particularly likely, at least not in any reasonable amount of time.

And now I will take off my Gender Theory hat and put on my English Is Totally A Creole Language; Take That, You Guys! hat and be happy.
posted by capricorn at 12:12 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


the primary impact it had on my life as a child is that my mom, when speaking about me in English (her second language) to a third party, would frequently call me "she" instead of "he" to my endless dismay.

Apropos of this, I will say that as a (native English speaking) toddler, I really didn't see any difference between the words "mom" and "dad" and had a tendency to just call either parent by either word until I was, well, old enough to remember doing it, at least. So probably 4?

They corrected me about it all the time and I was just like, "ummm, srsly whatever I just want you to buy me this candy I don't care what kind of genitals you weirdos have."
posted by Sara C. at 12:14 PM on June 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


Still, at the time when English was evolving, none of its speakers would have subscribed to the idea of sex and gender being distinct and, even today, most English speakers probably believe that "he" and "she" should correspond to genital configurations.

At the time when English was evolving, it seems like just about everyone must have subscribed to the idea of sex and gender being distinct. As the article points out, Old English assigned grammatical gender to nouns referring to inanimate objects, just like most other Germanic languages.
posted by baf at 12:16 PM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


I remain confused by only one point, which has not been addressed by any article I've read: When using the singular "they" as the preferred pronoun of a person of nonbinary gender, should one conjugate the succeeding verbs in the customary style of the plural "they," or in the style of the other singular pronouns "he/she/it"?

The convention appears to be the former. This is my only hangup about singular they. Conjugating a singular as a plural introduces ambiguity.

One effective solution would be to embrace AAVE conjugation and omission of irregular verbs: He be, she be, they be, etc.; he my brother, she my sister, they my sibling, etc.
posted by Sys Rq at 12:17 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I find gendered pronouns very useful in that people who break out all the linguistic signs that they can hang on a person to mark me as someone who is very female and femaling with the femaleness are giving me advanced warning that Awkward is Coming.

(when they break out "young lady", I know I'm well and truly fucked)

The last such example was someone who was hleping me lift sandbags that I could easily lift myself, in such a way that any more such hlep would make some orthopedic surgeon very happy inasmuch as I had to catch the blasted things out in front of me and off to my non-dominant side, at slightly above my shoulder height, as they were swinging away from me.

I think we need a set of pronouns for people who can even physics, bro.
posted by sparktinker at 12:18 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


It should be noted that gendered pronouns referring to individuals that can be accurately sexed (humans, most animals) is a very, very different thing than gendered noun groups.

No French person thinks the beach (la plage, feminine) is actually female.
posted by Sara C. at 12:18 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


I swear to the gods, I just want things to make sense. This is a cry for help. Educate me so that the singular "they," in this context, will no longer keep me awake at night. I can't be any more sincere than this.

Singular they is conjugated just like plural they. Don't think of conjugation as a class based system: singular vs plural. Conjugation is based on specific pronouns.

I sincerely don't understand why so many people are uncomfortable with singular they because it's an incredibly common feature of everyday English. "Huh, somebody left a nasty note on my car. They must have been really mad at me."
posted by kmz at 12:18 PM on June 4, 2014 [12 favorites]


1st: I like cooking. We like cooking.
2nd: You like cooking. You like cooking.
3rd: He likes cooking. They like cooking.
3rd*: They like cooking. They like cooking.

The gendered pronoun is the strange one.

Much like people who still insist on using "whom", refusing to acknowledge "they" as a singular third person pronoun is just meaningless pedantry, y'all.
posted by Nelson at 12:20 PM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


It should be noted that gendered pronouns referring to individuals that can be accurately sexed (humans, most animals) is a very, very different thing than gendered noun groups.

It is, in fact, noted in the article.
posted by Zozo at 12:22 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Conjugating a singular as a plural introduces ambiguity.

Because nothing else in English is ever ambiguous...

(Heck, Germans have to deal with "they are" and "you (formal) are" being identical.)
posted by kmz at 12:25 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


For better or worse, I'm the sort of person who bristles at neologisms. As a result, I've always had a hard time getting on board with things like womyn (which seems to provide a distinction without difference), and words like ze or zim or e.

But then there's the elegant, egalitarian, gender-neutral singular "they." Many English speakers already use singular "they" without thinking about it. I'm hoping that usage will increase, until even The Chicago Manual of Style caves in and gives its imprimatur.

The more I've thought about it, the more I've come to believe that there's absolutely no reason to gender pronouns. English, as we speak it, forces gender into a binary, and, even weirder, promotes gender as the single most important thing that one should know about a person.

There's no reason that someone editing an article about jelly beans or proton-pump inhibitors should have to confirm the gender identities of every person mentioned.

As goes repetition, gendered pronouns are a middling solution at best, given that they fail to help as soon as you're dealing with a group that doesn't consist of a single man and a single woman.

So: singular "they!" Who loves singular "they"? I do! And they do! Each of them.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 12:25 PM on June 4, 2014 [17 favorites]


Actually I'm really curious about this bit: Relics of an older, more abstract system of grammatical genders still shine through occasionally, such as the use of she to refer to ships, countries, and abstract nouns like Liberty, which are often but not always feminine in related languages with robust grammatical gender

Do any other linguist mefites know if this is actually true? Most of the sources I can find say it's unknown whether this is the case, if this is about personification, if it's sexism, or something else. I'd love to see some scholarly work on this topic if anyone knows of any.
posted by capricorn at 12:28 PM on June 4, 2014


It is, in fact, noted in the article.

I brought it up because baf referred to the existence of noun classes in Anglo-Saxon as some kind of evidence of something to do with this topic. When it's really not.
posted by Sara C. at 12:28 PM on June 4, 2014


Do any other linguist mefites know if this is actually true?

In French, the noun "liberty" is feminine, yes. As are a lot of other abstract qualities that end in the suffix "te", like "egalite", "fraternite", etc. I think this is pure coincidence: a lot of words that have the same suffix are in the same noun group, in general. For instance in French all of the "tion" words also tend to be feminine. I'm not sure that French has any rule that says that All Abstract Qualities are feminine in essence.

Regarding ships, I have no idea whether any language other than English does this. It's always struck me as just a tradition out of pure historical accident, and not really something buried deep within English grammar. For example it still sounds weird and stilted and kind of wrong to me, as an adult, in a way that other syntactic structures never do.
posted by Sara C. at 12:36 PM on June 4, 2014


Sara C. - my post may have been unclear, I meant does anyone know if it's true that that's why English speakers characterize liberty, ships, storms, etc as female.
posted by capricorn at 12:39 PM on June 4, 2014


Contrary to 256's assertion, my experience as a trans woman has been that genitals have nothing to do with pronouns. I have a trans woman friend who has different genitals than I have, and people who see us running errands or whatever usually gender both of us correctly. Certain people who learn that we are trans are more likely to misgender both of us than to ask which one of us has which bits. In real life this seems to have less to do with linguistics and more to do with ideology. See also.
posted by Corinth at 12:41 PM on June 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


Relics of an older, more abstract system of grammatical genders still shine through occasionally, such as the use of she to refer to ships, countries, and abstract nouns like Liberty, which are often but not always feminine in related languages with robust grammatical gender

Do any other linguist mefites know if this is actually true?


Eh. Most Western European languages take many country names and abstract nouns from Latin, so if libertas -atis is a feminine noun of course libertad, liberté, libertà and so on will be feminine. Freiheit can be a fluke :P (all -heit nouns are grammatically feminine)
posted by sukeban at 12:42 PM on June 4, 2014


I would argue "he" and "she" are pretty useful though, considering sexual dimorphism.

I think of it as kind of a linguistic hack -- useful perhaps, but not elegant and not without its downsides.

As the language was forming, there were certain attitudes about men and women and the difference between them and the immutability of that difference. The language serves to continue to reinforce those notions even while society is trying to move beyond them. The language artificially inflates the importance of a person's gender in situations where it should be completely irrelevant.

Once again I'm reminded of Cordelia Fine's thought experiment: replace "good morning boys and girls" with "good morning right-handers and left-handers." It's arbitrary, irrelevant, and leaves ambidextrous (or indeed, handless) people in the cold.


To address sexual dimorphism: that is not an absolute by any means, either. Even cisgendered, cissexual people are mistaken for a wrong gender on a regular basis -- visually, or based on a false assumption about their name, or a false assumption about the gender that people "should" be based on their profession or situation, or by simply using male as a default.

The map is not the territory, and it's not even a very good map.
posted by Foosnark at 12:44 PM on June 4, 2014 [15 favorites]


I have synesthesia and it's partly expressed in a weird kind of gender-placement for certain words and almost all numbers. I can easily memorize a list of numbers by grouping them in different genders - and it's not always binary - or playing the memory palace game by locating them in very specific restrooms.

I've long wondered if my form of synesthesia is the remnants of a much stronger, older kind that happened to influence a lot of languages. I've found that the object's gender is often not related to a (my) perceived femininity or masculinity but to shape and sound - perhaps related to the bouba/tikki effect, where certain shapes are associated with certain sounds. (If you're not aware of that effect, picture the kind of shape each word describes in your mind before clicking on the link.)

There is fascinating research about how specific sounds affect emotion, called sound symbolism - thus why gorgeous poetry works the way it does on evoking connotation, i.e. why brook evokes a different connotation than creek might. Or why "gl" is the beginning of so many "shining" words (gleam, glisten, glint, glass, glitter....(from the Wikipedia article). And partially having to do with all the different roots of languages, too, I surmise (want to sound scientific & erudite - use the latinate! Want to sound earthy and detailed? Use the german! i.e. launder vs. scrub, soil vs. dirt/earth....he labored in the soil versus he grubbed in the dirt...They ascended the mount versus they climbed the peak.....and a very interesting one: womanly versus feminine. I also imagine that these...connotations.... might change with culture and time, and of course, within different languages themselves. It's a serious theory and is applied in actions like naming a business (perhaps most famously, why Blackberry is blackberry.)

Thus, in English at least, when it comes to the discussion of gendered pronouns, I then wonder if the different sounds of he/she/they have something to do with how we accept/view/use them. I know hardly anything about this, but is it possible the "th" and "ey" sound mean something different to us than "ee"? That we evoke, subconsciously, something different with the "sh" versus the "h"? And so on and so forth.

Anyway, not an expert, just pondering...and, as the strict gender binary gets broken down by the recognition/acceptance of different gender identities, am fascinated to see how that might affect language.
posted by barchan at 1:15 PM on June 4, 2014 [9 favorites]


I adopted the singular "they" a while ago so I could further anonymize stories I tell about previous parishioners or people I've counseled - or my silly, wonderful friends. Incidentally, when someone asks, "Was this person a man or a woman?" I immediately know that they are attempting to complete some mental calculation to attribute their own biases to the narrative. "It makes no damned difference," is what I want to say. "Can't rightly recall," is what I often say.
This habit has thoroughly colonized my own mind. I have found my fondest memories and personal fables now retroactively populated with humans instead of arbitrarily gendered beings and it gives me joy.
Such that, when I drink too much and need to address a crowd, I usually wave my hands and shout, "Humans!!"
posted by Baby_Balrog at 1:17 PM on June 4, 2014 [21 favorites]


I just finished reading Ancillary Justice, a scifi novel about a future where AIs exist and can be networked across multiple human bodies, once the human has been killed, its existing consciousness removed. The main character is part of an AI from a culture where the native language--and surrounding culture--pays very little attention to gender; and the AI refers to everyone as "she" by default. In her conversations with people from other cultures she's constantly having to guess what gender people are and frequently guesses wrong.

At one point she alludes to two characters having sex offscreen, and I wondered what genders they were (male and female? both male? both female? someone agender? something else I hadn't anticipated?), and realized that--in terms of story--it really didn't matter unless they faced prejudice because of it.

I really enjoyed the book--a good recommendation for fans of Ian Banks, I'd say. It just won the Campbell and the Nebula, and is on the ballot for the Hugo.
posted by johnofjack at 1:21 PM on June 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


What's missing from this discussion is the distinction between pronouns-of-laziness and pronouns-as-variables.

The pronouns that Gretchen McCulloch discusses in "Why do we have pronouns?" are pronouns of laziness. In these cases, the pronoun is just an abbreviation for a proper noun or definite description. For example, (1) is an abbreviation of (2):

(1) Horace sat down and then he went to sleep.
(2) Horace sat down and then Horace went to sleep.

When you use "he" or "him" as a pronoun of laziness, you refer to some specific guy (in this case, Horace).

But you can also use pronouns as "variables" (as the logicians say). For example, consider:

(3) Every man at the party was delighted when I gave him a drink.

The pronoun "him" in (3) doesn't refer to any specific guy; instead, it "ranges over" all of the men at the party.

Now it seems to me that the singular "they" comes into its own when pronouns are used as variables. Suppose for example that the bus has both men and women on it, and think about:

(4) Every person on the bus was delighted when have ? two apples.

What's the right pronoun to use here? "Him" is imperfect because some of the people on the bus are women. "Her" is imperfect because some of the people on the bus are men. My solution: the singular "them":

Every person on the bus was delighted when I have them two apples.
posted by HoraceH at 1:21 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I brought it up because baf referred to the existence of noun classes in Anglo-Saxon as some kind of evidence of something to do with this topic. When it's really not.

Wait. You're disagreeing with me? Because it sounded to me like you were supporting my position. 256 said that people "at the time when English was evolving" equated gender with sex. I disagreed, on the basis that Anglo-Saxon (which I take to be part of "when English was evolving") had genders that had nothing to do with sex. Then you provided more evidence for my point by asserting that modern French-speakers don't equate gender with sex, but you did it in order to show how irrelevant this is? To a discussion about grammatical gender?

(To unscramble things a little: 256 said this, then I said this, then Sara C. said this and this.)
posted by baf at 1:27 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


"good morning right-handers and left-handers."

Everyone should read A Person Paper on Purity in Language, where Doug Hofstadter imagines a world where language is divided up based on race rather than sex, in order to demonstrate how oppressive, arbitrary, and dangerous language can be. It's really really good.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 1:30 PM on June 4, 2014 [12 favorites]


HoraceH -- your dichotomy falls apart when you consider a case in between the two examples.

"A friend of mine had that problem, once. He waited in line for hours, but the train never came."

This is arguably a "pronoun of laziness", in that "He" refers to "friend". But in the story, I don't identify my friend by name or presume that the listener already knows it, and it doesn't matter what the friend's gender is. So in a sense, it's also a "pronoun of variables", since the friend really doesn't refer to a specific known individual.

That it's never OK to use "it" instead of "he" in the above example is really interesting.

It's also interesting that, while it might be OK to use the gender neutral "they" in that case, it would be conspicuous that I had left out my friend's gender. It's also probably assumed that, in telling that story, I would use the gendered pronoun by default unless there was a reason not to.
posted by Sara C. at 1:34 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


You're disagreeing with me?

I'm disagreeing with you inasmuch as the existence of noun groups does not support your argument, since noun groups aren't really based on perceived femininity or masculinity. They're just groups. They might as well be called "Group A Nouns" and "Group B Nouns" rather than "feminine" and "masculine".

Whether previous people in the olden times equated sex and gender is a very different (and more complicated) question that has nothing to do with really anything in this FPP.
posted by Sara C. at 1:36 PM on June 4, 2014


The essential question is whether you can get matching towels for the bathroom marked "Theirs" and "Theirs".
posted by George_Spiggott at 1:46 PM on June 4, 2014 [12 favorites]


TL;DR Gender in English is the way it is because of a small helping of general principles of human language and a very large helping of of historical accidents.

And the story of exactly what those principles are and what those historical accidents were is an interesting one, and this is an awesome little article and explains them very well.
posted by edheil at 1:49 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I, as well, would find it much easier to use singular they if it was in fact used like a singular word. The plural form of the verb keeps throwing me off and making me think, wait, there were two people? I thought this was about one person.

I suspect that this is harder for people like me who do not speak English as a first language, because when you learn English at a later age, you usually learn it by being taught, not naturally. Thus you tend to be less flexible, because you spent all that time and energy learing that this is correct and that isn't. You've had all those rules drilled into you and it's not easy to let go of them.

To make things even more fun, my language does not have an equivalent for singular they.

I would however happily use a genter-neutral pronoun. I think it's something every language needs.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:50 PM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


Well, we have one. It. The extremely weird thing about all of this business is that there's a very distinct taboo against using "it" to refer to a human being. Which is why we use "they"; I suppose it's seemingly more polite? Which of course doesn't make any sense at all. English is the worst.
posted by Sara C. at 1:58 PM on June 4, 2014


As a real American I think the pronoun should depend on the amount of money someone has. So everyone is "he", but you vary the number of "e"s in it by approximate net worth; that way we know who's important.

"He thinks we should get pizza, but heeeeeee wants to go to the sushi bar."
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:02 PM on June 4, 2014 [8 favorites]


I'd like to invite the curious to visit the Wiktionary page for the Hungarian pronoun ő and click on the tab to expand the declension.
posted by tykky at 2:04 PM on June 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


E. Nesbit sometimes used “it” as a gender neutral pronoun when she wished to avoid giving things away. I find that it reads fine, and doesn’t seem demeaning when used naturally. It’s a pity that it’s unlikely to catch on because of the taboo.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 2:06 PM on June 4, 2014


"Hey girls, I want you all to come-- whoops, sorry BuddhaInABucket-- Guys, I want you all to come over here and look at this."


That's the situation where this Yankee uses "y'all."
posted by Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug at 2:07 PM on June 4, 2014 [4 favorites]


It. The extremely weird thing about all of this business is that there's a very distinct taboo against using "it" to refer to a human being

The linked article explains that it was an inanimate word at a time when genders were inanimate & animate. Then the animate gender split into male and female, which left inanimate to become "neutral".
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 2:09 PM on June 4, 2014


To me the use of "it" is too reminiscent of the asides in the film "Alfie", in which he uses it exclusively in reference to women. I wouldn't call it subtle but it was damned effective.
posted by George_Spiggott at 2:09 PM on June 4, 2014


That's the situation where this Yankee uses "y'all."

I usually use "people," "folks," or (in certain circumstances) "scalawags."
posted by Faint of Butt at 2:10 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Sara C. one of the linked to comments discusses gendered spanish nouns and while I agree that there is a very real difference between using gendered pronouns for people / things that actually have a gender and using them in the way that spanish and french use them, I'm curious if anyone does feel like there are consequences of referring to inanimate objects with a gender all the time. It's outside my experience but it seems like it must have some effect to be using gendered terms all the time.
posted by macrael at 2:11 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I liked this comment:

I remember another moment of shock in a language class when my bootlace got caught on a chair. The teacher tried to disentangle me, and then pointed at the chair and said "Il problemo e lei." -- "The problem is *her*." I could just about get my head around the chair being feminine when the noun was in play but that it could be a HER as a pronoun just kind of scrambled my mind.
posted by macrael at 2:13 PM on June 4, 2014


Conjugation of singular they-

The core issue here is grammatical number versus practical number, in the same way that the article distinguishes between grammatical gender and practical gender. Singular they is 'they' with a singular referent, but it is still grammatically plural, and words around it will continue to be conjugated as such. The grammatical number of the pronoun and the non-grammatical number of the referent don't have to match, just like grammatical gender.

Looking historically, you can see the same thing when the plural you expanded into singular you - it brought over the same conjugations.

Thou likest cooking.
You like cooking.
but not: *You likest cooking.

I don't know for sure that that third never happened, but I suspect that it didn't, in the same way that *"They likes cooking" doesn't happen unless someone is thinking about it too much.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 2:15 PM on June 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


when I drink too much and need to address a crowd, I usually wave my hands and shout, "Humans!!"

"Mortals!" can be very attention-getting too.


The essential question is whether you can get matching towels for the bathroom marked "Theirs" and "Theirs".

I would buy the hell out of those.


I could just about get my head around the chair being feminine when the noun was in play but that it could be a HER as a pronoun just kind of scrambled my mind.

English As She Is Spoke
posted by Foosnark at 2:18 PM on June 4, 2014 [3 favorites]


The article explains that it was an inanimate word at a time when genders were inanimate & animate.

Well, sort of? Chickens and roombas and fetuses are still "it", even though they are animate.

And either way, it doesn't matter, since a zillion things about language have changed between PIE and 2014. There's no particular reason not to call everyone "it". We just don't. The singular "they" is arguably weirder than simply making the decision that it's fine to call humans "it" now.
posted by Sara C. at 2:20 PM on June 4, 2014


My Latin teacher, a self identified and decidedly antediluvian feminist, swore that the English pronoun "he" was gender neutral and by God, I'm not about to cross that crusty old curmudgeon, 40 years later. I'm petrified with fear to this day.

I've never encountered any evidence this is strictly incorrect, although I understand the argument against it, as an archaic and unknown useage. I distinctly recall those endless lectures on the rise and fall of western civilization vis a vis the rise of the grammatical abomination "he/she" although I don't have strong opinions about English pronouns anymore, I have bigger fish to fry in the pedant wars these days.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 2:21 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


I'm curious if anyone does feel like there are consequences of referring to inanimate objects with a gender all the time.

One consequence that is a real problem in French is that some words for occupations don't lend themselves to gender neutrality at all. You can have le masseur/ la masseuse, but le docteur and le professeur are just masculine, period. You don't go around talking about docteuses and professeuses. My guess is that female doctors and professors are just called by the masculine occupational term, but I have dim memories (from college linguistics courses and possibly also French class) of this being an Issue Of Concern for the Academie Francaise and other conservative institutions.

Weirdly, this is only a problem in French and not other Romance languages. Spanish is totally fine with "la doctora" and "la profesora".
posted by Sara C. at 2:27 PM on June 4, 2014


I'm disagreeing with you inasmuch as the existence of noun groups does not support your argument, since noun groups aren't really based on perceived femininity or masculinity. They're just groups. They might as well be called "Group A Nouns" and "Group B Nouns" rather than "feminine" and "masculine".

They are several studies that show that in languages with genders for inanimate objects, it influences how the speakers think about those objects. They are much more likely to view objects marked feminine as having feminine characteristics and objects marked masculine as having masculine characteristics.

For example, if "bridge" is feminine in Language A and masculine in Language B, speakers of Language A are more likely to describe it as, say, graceful and pretty. Language B speakers are more likely to describe it as strong and tough.
posted by nooneyouknow at 2:29 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Either way, it's considered axiomatic by linguists that they really are just noun groups.

The groups' impact on how speakers think about concepts is interesting in a sociolinguistic sense, but the idea that French people think bridges are strong, thus it's "le pont" as opposed to "la ponte", is simply incorrect.
posted by Sara C. at 2:45 PM on June 4, 2014


By the way:
It's great that this is a thread where we can talk about singular they and it's not a derail.
Good call!
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:51 PM on June 4, 2014 [7 favorites]


My guess is that female doctors and professors are just called by the masculine occupational term

Actually, this is true in France but not in Quebec, where la professeure and la docteure (for example) are standard. Most occupation names have been gendered in Canadian French for a couple of decades (at least).
posted by bulgroz at 2:58 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


I am well acquainted with someone whose personal pronoun is singular they, though I'm still training myself to have it feel "natural" to me.

What English really needs is a set of universal gender-invariant pronouns that distinguish between referents.

"They told them that they liked their parents." -> "They1 told them2 that they1 liked their2 parents."

Obsoletes the disambiguating value of gendered pronouns while providing additional utility. There's been lots of attempts to introduce artificial neutral pronouns to the language, but none of them that I know of actually address this particular issue. (Are there any existing natural languages that have this feature?) If we're going to be deliberately reworking pronouns, let's make them as useful as possible!
posted by NMcCoy at 4:15 PM on June 4, 2014


"A friend of mine had that problem, once. He waited in line for hours, but the train never came."
[…]
It's also interesting that, while it might be OK to use the gender neutral "they" in that case, it would be conspicuous that I had left out my friend's gender. It's also probably assumed that, in telling that story, I would use the gendered pronoun by default unless there was a reason not to.


Interestingly enough, I've tended to use the singular they like that since childhood. I think I tend to do it when referring to people who aren't present and aren't named (like in the story above) or named in a way that doesn't indicate a gender ("Dr. Smith is a great professor. I love their teaching style."), especially if the person I'm talking to hasn't met "them". This occasionally causes confusion or consternation from the prescriptively inclined, as well as the rare misunderstanding
("I have a crush, but they just started dating someone else." "…'They'? are you trying to tell me something?").
posted by JiBB at 4:29 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Are there any existing natural languages that have this feature?

Depends on what you mean by natural. (In ASL, you can sign any number of nouns, proper or otherwise, in volumes of air outside your usual signing space, and then point to the relevant space whenever you want to refer to that for the rest of the conversation.)
posted by 256 at 4:32 PM on June 4, 2014 [6 favorites]


The article mentions Persian as a language without gendered pronouns. I wish I had more to say about it, but the primary impact it had on my life as a child is that my mom, when speaking about me in English (her second language) to a third party, would frequently call me "she" instead of "he" to my endless dismay.

Ha, after over 20 years in America, my parents still get he and she mixed up occasionally. I grew up speaking Persian, and I barely even noticed the lack of gendered pronouns, but it has apparently sufficiently influenced my English that I use the singular they way more than other people seem to.

What really trips me up though is the lack of a second person plural/formal you, like the French vous. This bugs me to no end, and among my family at least, leads to some weird workarounds for maintaining "formality" in pronoun usage. If we're speaking in English about a relative or friend of the family who we would use the formal pronoun usage for in Persian, we default to using the singular they. I have no idea if this is common or not, and if it's something we do just because switching to gendered pronouns in English sounds weird compared to the Persian, or if it's a carryover of the plural/formal you.
posted by yasaman at 4:32 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


The groups' impact on how speakers think about concepts is interesting in a sociolinguistic sense, but the idea that French people think bridges are strong, thus it's "le pont" as opposed to "la ponte", is simply incorrect.

In the write-ups I've read, the hypothesis has the causality going the other way. French speakers grow up calling bridges "she", so they unconsciously ascribe feminine characteristics to them. Why "pont" is a feminine noun in the first place is not discussed.

(But as you say, I think the default assumption is that it wasn't because proto-Romance speakers were all like "O frater, vide bridgam sexiam", not least because given all the inconsistencies in the evidence that tends to end in straight-up question-begging. "These nouns are feminine because proto-X speakers thought of their referents as feminine. How do we know they thought that? Because the nouns in question are feminine.")
posted by No-sword at 4:42 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Or, you know, "pont" is actually a masculine noun, so just flip everything I said around. The structure still works. Ahem.
posted by No-sword at 4:54 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


The constructed language Lojban is interesting in this way, in that all of its pronouns are inherently non-gendered. You have to work to give them a gender if its really important. The language gets around the problem of having too many "they"s in a sentence by manually assigning pronouns to certain referents. So, you might say {la suzyn goi ko'a}, which basically means "The person named Susan, which I will refer to henceforth as ko'a". When that gets too cumbersome, simple initials are interpreted as pronouns as well. So if we were talking about {la suzyn} already, than simply saying {sy.} will be understood to be a reference to the most recent noun with "s" as the first letter.
posted by Inkoate at 5:02 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's worth noting that you get the same pronoun/referent problem if everyone you're talking about is the same gender.

"He wanted him to eat his dinner" is just as confusing as "They wanted them to eat their dinner," or "It wanted it to eat its dinner."

I'm not sure the case is really that strong for gendered pronouns as a stand-in for two abstract groups so as to make pronouns parse out in confusing situations.
posted by Sara C. at 5:06 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Something that's been interesting to me is to be involved in an online community in which a bunch of people use a wide assortment gender-neutral pronouns. It just . . . underlines how personal pronouns feel when applied to one, by making them quite personalized, like names. Out in "real life," however, most of the folks I know with nonbinary gender identities use "they," because it's so much easier to get people to use it without a lot of fuss and resistance. So many people seem to feel that being asked to use a pronoun that is unfamiliar to them is a huge, bizarre imposition.

People just get so weirdly attached to gender-specified terms. On the one hand, you have the people who won't stop using masculine job titles like "fireman," and they'll be damned if feminists are going to get them to say "fire fighter" because it sounds weird and forced to them, and anyway, fighting fires is something they deem manly. On the other hand, you have the feminists who get up in arms when urged to use terms like "birth parent," because they view giving birth as so essentially female an experience. It's frustrating.
posted by DrMew at 5:50 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


hobo gitano de queretaro:

I definitely sympathize with the difficulty of breaking out of habits that teachers have drilled into us. But buried deep on like page 3 of the Toast article is this point:

But then, in the late 18th century, grammarians started recommending that people use he as a gender nonspecific pronoun because they was ostensibly plural, as part of the grand tradition of awkwardly shoehorning English grammar into Latin...

...which I definitely read as evidence that gender neutral usage of "he" is incorrect, or at least no less artificial than gender neutral singular "they."
posted by branduno at 6:00 PM on June 4, 2014


I should clarify: I don't mean to argue or anything! I just think you raise an interesting point.
posted by branduno at 6:01 PM on June 4, 2014


I've not read Ancillary Justice, but I was reading Max Gladstone's Three Parts Dead (which I quite liked) and was struck that at every opportunity where usually you'd use the so-called epicene "he", Gladstone chose to use "she". It painted a really interesting world of strong women doing interesting stuff---and made it clear how much the use of "he" as a generic pronoun influences perceptions of what men and women do.
posted by leahwrenn at 6:04 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


Sara C.: "There are a lot of types of dimorphism in humans. Just thinking about clear binaries and not things that are gradations (like height or skin color), we've got people with light eyes and people with dark eyes, people with attached earlobes and people with unattached earlobes, right handed people and left handed people, curly haired people and straight haired people, innies and outies, "Greek"* toes vs. non-Greek toes, people who can digest lactose vs. people who can't, ad infinitum. "

None of those things are actually dimorphic.
posted by desuetude at 6:44 PM on June 4, 2014 [5 favorites]


How so? The word means "two different forms".

Of course, a few of those examples are really more than two, for instance eye color, toe size, and hair texture. And a few others are sort of a stretch, like lactose tolerant/intolerant. But they're all examples of ways that the total population of humans can be split into two groups.

If you wanted to have a pronoun that made important physical differentiations clear, there are a lot of options besides male/female.
posted by Sara C. at 6:52 PM on June 4, 2014


All of those examples are really more than two and also exist on a continuum.
posted by desuetude at 6:59 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Sara C.: "Of course, a few of those examples are really more than two, for instance eye color, toe size, and hair texture..."

Yes, that's precisely the point. They're not dimorphic at all. Dimorphic - from the Greek, means literally, only "two forms." Not "arbitrarily dividing large continuums into two sets."

On edit, what desuetude said.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 8:20 PM on June 4, 2014


"There are a lot of types of dimorphism in humans. Just thinking about clear binaries and not things that are gradations (like height or skin color), we've got people with light eyes and people with dark eyes, people with attached earlobes and people with unattached earlobes, right handed people and left handed people, curly haired people and straight haired people, innies and outies, "Greek"* toes vs. non-Greek toes, people who can digest lactose vs. people who can't, ad infinitum. "

I think the best way to think about this is to look at other social animals. If there's a variation in social behaviour based on a dimorphism within a species, then that dimorphism will be gender, unlike any of the dimorphisms you mention. Gender-based social roles within animals are common, hellenicness of foot-parts less so. So as humans evolved, gender is already an influence on how we carve up semantic space.

However, none of this means that we have to treat men, women, intersex and trans* people in particular set ways. Just that it has a long history and that will have a weight on our patterns of thought. Humans also have a great capacity to observe and reason about our own behaviour, so we can now see how dividing up people based on perceived gender and assigning them fixed social roles creates injustice - and it's right that we should work on fixing this.
posted by elephantday at 8:23 PM on June 4, 2014


The more I've thought about it, the more I've come to believe that there's absolutely no reason to gender pronouns.

From the article: The ambiguity inherent in "they told them that they liked their parents" vs. "he told her that he liked her parents", in the fairly common case where you have two possible subjects to which each pronoun might refer, and one is male and one is female.

Using gendered pronouns reduces ambiguity while also not being as verbose as "Robert told Alice that Robert liked Alice's parents". Without some replacement that's as easy-to-use and compact, I think people will continue to use gendered pronouns because they're a handy linguistic feature, the unfortunate side-effect of perpetuating the binary conception of physical gender aside.

You'd have to make a lot of changes outside of language/grammar if you wanted to use some other quasi-dimorphic quality instead of gender, because to work it has to be obvious on casual observation and also when the subject is referred to (preferably by name only!) in writing, so that you can then use the correct pronoun. You'd have to make your eye-color-based categorization at least as obvious as gender presentation currently is, in order to offer it as an effective alternative.

As other languages have demonstrated, though, linguistic gender can become divorced from actual gender: as in the case of inanimate objects. Perhaps in time he/she will remain as linguistic constructs even though everyone understands they represent an idea of 'gender' that is not reflective of actual reality, any more than a beach or a mountain is male or female.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:49 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]


If there's a variation in social behaviour based on a dimorphism within a species, then that dimorphism will be gender, unlike any of the dimorphisms you mention.

But no other animals have language, so this is completely beside the point. This is an area where what other animals do is completely beside the point, because they don't do it.
posted by Sara C. at 8:59 PM on June 4, 2014


it has to be obvious on casual observation

Have you ever met humans? It's really... not, unless your entire experience of the world is drawings on bathroom doors.
posted by Sara C. at 8:59 PM on June 4, 2014


For those who assume that it's super simple to tell what is the "correct" gender to assign, might I direct you to our recent thread...Though please don't take the gendered pronoun argument there. Just perhaps read, consider, and come back here.
posted by HermitDog at 9:03 PM on June 4, 2014


But no other animals have language, so this is completely beside the point. This is an area where what other animals do is completely beside the point, because they don't do it.

No, but other animals have social behaviours and therefore social cognition and social action are part of their ethology as well as ours. Human language developed from animal cries as a way of performing social acts. So, there is a relationship between the tendencies we have in thinking and the tendencies we have in speaking. One scholar you may want to read up in this regard in Michael Tomasello.
posted by elephantday at 9:05 PM on June 4, 2014


The problem is that is that all human language doesn't have gendered pronouns. So to say that it's because blah blah something something all animals doesn't work.
posted by Sara C. at 9:26 PM on June 4, 2014


No, of course not all human languages have gendered pronouns. The original article clearly states that 43% of studied language do and if you go through to WALS you can see that languages that do tend to organise around particular systems. But, there's a reason that none of the other dimorphisms you mention have influenced any language - none of those dimorphisms have influenced the social behaviour or social roles of any species. They are not pertinent. Languages can be influenced by tendencies in thinking and language is primarily a system of communicative social action. Those tendencies needn't be absolute but something that has no influence on social behaviour will be incorporated into grammar.

Let me take an example from another area of grammar. Evidentiality is the marking of the source of knowledge about an event. Not all languages have obligatory marking of evidentiality and for those that do they use a variety of distinctions of evidentiality. However, for those languages that do, the different sources of knowledge will be perceived as being stronger or weaker along a cline - so that if a language has a participatory evidential that will be stronger than visual evidence, which will be stronger than audio evidence, which is stronger than indirect evidence, which is stronger than hearsay. So:

Participatory > Visual > Audio > Indirect > Hearsay

A particular language need not have any of these categories, but if they have some subset they will be arranged in that way. Why? Because that is a useful arrangement for the kind of social animal we are.

So going back to your original question, why don't we have special pronoun sets for other kinds of dimorphism? They've never been consistent tendencies in our thinking. But gender dimorphism and the other distinctions we get in grammatical gender - animate/inanimate, differentiability - are related to how we tend to think.
posted by elephantday at 9:57 PM on June 4, 2014 [2 favorites]


Not mentioned in the article is the value that grammatical gender has in terms of redundancy when listening to someone speak. The endings on articles and adjectives reinforce what you're hearing so even if you missed a syllable in a word, the rest of it comes through from context.
posted by empath at 1:01 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Actually, this is true in France but not in Quebec, where la professeure and la docteure (for example) are standard. Most occupation names have been gendered in Canadian French for a couple of decades (at least).

In France too. The 1990 Reform created the feminine forms and they're used in official communications. They're not widespread otherwise, though, and I've no idea how or even whether they're taught in schools.
posted by snakeling at 1:25 AM on June 5, 2014


> If there's a variation in social behaviour based on a dimorphism within a species, then that dimorphism will be gender

It can also be age.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:15 AM on June 5, 2014


And if you now reply that age is a spectrum and not a dimorphism, then the next reply will be:
Yes and so is gender.
posted by Too-Ticky at 4:17 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Have you ever met humans?

Most people can determine another person's gender presentation pretty accurately, most of the time. Yes, there are cases where that's not true. But if you were to randomly choose 100 people from the global English-speaking population, asked them what their preferred pronoun was, and then took another 100 people and randomly asked them to determine someone from the first group's preferred pronoun from a photograph of that person walking down the street, I suspect you'd get 95+% matches. This is, of course, not because gender is necessarily 95% (or whatever) cleanly dimorphic, but because people spend a lot of time curating their own gender presentation in order to make it obvious what pronouns to use, and other stuff, to a casual observer.

If you wanted to stop using gendered pronouns and instead switch to some other quasi-dimorphic characteristic in order to obtain the same linguistic benefits (brevity, mostly), people would eventually probably end up doing the same sort of self-curation and presentation management. E.g., if we used eye color, it might become de rigueur to wear tinted eyeshadow of the same color, in order to make it more obvious from a greater distance what our eyecolor-based-pronoun is, and avoid socially awkward faux pas caused by using the wrong one.

It can also be age.

The relative age of the subjects would probably work fairly well as a gendered pronoun alternative, the more I think about it. I wonder if there are any languages that actually do this? (There are lots of languages with formal/informal tenses but I mean actual pronouns that shift based on relative age.) The closest I can think of offhand are languages that have special first-person-singular pronouns to convey respect or special status, but that's more equivalent to the "royal we" in English or "your honor" than a commonly-used pronoun like he/she/they.

I do wonder whether a linguistic system like that would end up being less egalitarian (at least insofar as you believe that language drives behavior or has qualities like 'egalitarian' in the abstract) than a gendered system, since it would seem to presuppose a hierarchy of participants within every conversation. My guess is that the 'older person' pronoun case would end up being a formal/respectful case over time, if for no other reason than it would be the case used to refer to parents in sentences referring to parents and children, and thus would end up being socially loaded in a generation or two. So instead of just older/younger pronouns, you'd end up with superior/inferior ones. Very hierarchial.
posted by Kadin2048 at 5:51 AM on June 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


Japanese has no gender system, but has an extensive formality system.
posted by empath at 6:23 AM on June 5, 2014 [3 favorites]


"Singular they is conjugated just like plural they."

The same is true of singular you, speaking of plural pronouns that ended up reused as singular ones. Hence we have:
  • He goes (singular)
  • He and she go (plural)
but also:
  • You go (plural)
  • You go (singular)
  • They go (plural)
  • They go (singular)
posted by mbrubeck at 7:24 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


It can also be age.

You're completely right and in comparing the gender distinction to the others I may have been to to quick to talk about gender rather than other distinctions that could be ethologically important. But if you read my first comment in this thread you will notice that nowhere have I assumed that gender is a pure binary, but that cultures have often coalesced around a bimodal distribution in the spectrum of gender, like our closest cousins. In fact, I explicitly said that just because it is historically so is no reason to reinforce it. They are merely dynamics we have inherited. We have the capacity to be introspective about our relationships and should stop the oppression of all genders.

But the relevance of age actually reinforces my point, there is radical difference in social roles of humans between the young and the old. Languages make grammatical differentiation where there has been long-standing difference in social behaviour - so you get distinctions (not always in pronouns, perhaps honorific terms) between male/female, mature/young, animate/inanimate (or human/animal/inanimate etc - it's just a way to divide a spectrum into entities like me their entities). This is opposed to the other examples that were listed (toe length etc.) as they have had less influence on social interaction.

The fact that these are commonly encoded distinctions which have influenced language is not a defence of the injustices they can create. Merely an observation in how they can arise.
posted by elephantday at 7:37 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


I think part of the problem is that using the wrong gender is a "socially awkward faux pas".

This ties in with the non-binary thing again, but people are SO WORRIED I am going to be insulted if they use the "wrong" pronouns that they (not very subtlely) switch mid interaction, even if I haven't corrected them, or make a huge show of apologizing for their error. Personally? I don't care what they use, though I know other people would get super offended.

If it isn't a horrible unforgivable offense to use the "wrong" pronoun, then using a neutral one would be lovely as well. Not sure which will/should come first, but long live the singular they.
posted by HermitDog at 11:17 AM on June 5, 2014 [1 favorite]


Most people can determine another person's gender presentation pretty accurately, most of the time.

I don't want to extend this derail too far, but as a cisgendered, petite, typical-bodied, and femme-presenting woman, you would be shocked at the number of times I've been misgendered.

I can see this being less likely to happen in O Ye Olden Tymes (whatever the hell those are) where there are very strict standards about gender performance. I mostly get misgendered if I have short hair, and it used to happen constantly back when baggier jeans were in style. Whereas in O Ye Olden Tymes I'd have been required to wear a skirt and elaborate hairdo or possibly a wimple or something that would have marked me as Female.

On the other hand, there are tons of cases throughout history of people who simply decided to start living as the other gender by presenting as the other gender, and it was never questioned at all until they died. So YMMV even on how easy it was to gender someone in some idealized historical Olden Days that never really existed.

If anything I think so many languages force the issue via pronouns in order to make it easier to gender people, and not because it's already obvious which category people belong in. If we had real visible sexual dimorphism, we wouldn't need all this cultural patriarchy to keep the genders strictly delineated, whether in language, dress, social norms, whatever.
posted by Sara C. at 11:46 AM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


When I first saw this headline yesterday I thought, geez can't we just say 'her' and 'his' instead of the dreadful 'per' ? The French gender everything, it makes the language more fun & more musical, what's wrong with that. Can't accommodate every little difference that everybody has. Get off my pelouse...

And then yesterday I had to fill out some forms, all of which asked are you "male" or "female"? Typically this doesn't cause any angst in me since I'm uh what do they call it? cis female? Whatever means that I was born XX, mentally correlate with XX and all that baggage and like to do the deed with XY's. I'm prototypical female. (The kool-aid was tasty, thanks for asking.)

But what if I didn't feel comfortable making that selection? What if the box said instead "are you artsy? or sciencey?" I'd be like DONT YOU MAKE ME CHOOSE or YOU CANT DEFINE ME!!!

Anyway it really gave me perspective on what to me is an everyday "tick this box" item could be incredibly alienating for someone, especially when there isn't a third option. It's that same 'ugh' feeling when men in tech talk about women like we're not even there. It so clearly says 'you don't belong in this worldview.' So lonely!

vive third person singular THEY!!!

(just no 'per' please it sounds horrible)
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:26 PM on June 5, 2014


> I was born XX, mentally correlate with XX and all that baggage

Oh nice, someone who has a clearly defined gender.
If I may ask: what's it like?
posted by Too-Ticky at 12:38 PM on June 5, 2014


And while I'm on my soapbox, I'm still waiting for the English version of vous that I can use to mark polite distance with strangers. My vote is for: y'all
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:40 PM on June 5, 2014


Psssst: You're looking for "you". Once upon a time, the second person familiar was "thou", and the formal was "you". Gradually over time, the familiar form disappeared.

This is why I always roll my eyes when a TV show or video game or amateur Ren Faire theatrics has some vassal addressing the king with a sentence like "Thou hast a regal countenance, milord." Dude, you just like MAJORLY insulted the king with that kind of over-familiarity!
posted by Sara C. at 12:54 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


Oh nice, someone who has a clearly defined gender.
If I may ask: what's it like?


whoa nelly, I'm just writing my experience, clearly hitting some nerves in doing so, it's nothing personal.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 12:55 PM on June 5, 2014


One wonders what was in the Kool-Aid.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 1:38 PM on June 5, 2014


St. Peepsburg, that was actually a genuine question, not an expression of me being upset in any way.
I'm not upset. I'm curious.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:55 PM on June 5, 2014


Faint of Butt: I swear to the gods, I just want things to make sense. This is a cry for help. Educate me so that the singular "they," in this context, will no longer keep me awake at night. I can't be any more sincere than this.

If it's logic in language you're looking for, you'll need to take classes from the Software Department.

Logic never has and never will be a guiding force in language.
posted by IAmBroom at 3:33 PM on June 5, 2014 [2 favorites]


T-T: Oh ok, I read it as super snarky but thanks for the clarif.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:58 AM on June 6, 2014


I wanted to work this into the thread somewhere without editorializing, but that didn't happen, so I'll just leave it for anyone reading the posts this far down: as an ersatz linguist and as a human with a lot of feelings about gender I am secretly delighted by the use of singular they. Because sure, it's also plural, but as Margaret Atwood wrote, "There is never only one, of anyone."
posted by clavicle at 7:00 AM on June 6, 2014 [3 favorites]


Sara C: So he should have said:

"Y'all hast a regal countenance, milord."

I like it!
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:02 AM on June 6, 2014


In a society where everyone had exactly the same haircuts and wore jumpsuits to hide their other sex characteristics and had non-gendered names and basically didn't have gender (not just non-binary, but didn't have an obvious gender at all): in that case, they probably wouldn't have gender as a linguistic construct...

If such a hypothetical society is not also sexless, I don't think it would stay genderless for long before it reinvented gender as a way to communicate sex.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 11:10 PM on June 9, 2014 [1 favorite]


The problem with all that is that there already are languages without a syntactic gender construct. For instance, already mentioned right in this thread, Persian.

It really doesn't follow that "doesn't have a syntactic category for referring to someone's gender in context" = "egalitarian sexless society", like, at all.

That's what's so fucking weird about language.
posted by Sara C. at 11:45 PM on June 9, 2014 [2 favorites]


I'm curious if anyone does feel like there are consequences of referring to inanimate objects with a gender all the time. It's outside my experience but it seems like it must have some effect to be using gendered terms all the time.

You might be interested in some of Lera Boroditsky's work, which I think is what some people were referring to earlier in this thread.
Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does. In one study, we asked German and Spanish speakers to describe objects having opposite gender assignment in those two languages. The descriptions they gave differed in a way predicted by grammatical gender. For example, when asked to describe a "key" — a word that is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish — the German speakers were more likely to use words like "hard," "heavy," "jagged," "metal," "serrated," and "useful," whereas Spanish speakers were more likely to say "golden," "intricate," "little," "lovely," "shiny," and "tiny." To describe a "bridge," which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish, the German speakers said "beautiful," "elegant," "fragile," "peaceful," "pretty," and "slender," and the Spanish speakers said "big," "dangerous," "long," "strong," "sturdy," and "towering." This was true even though all testing was done in English, a language without grammatical gender. The same pattern of results also emerged in entirely nonlinguistic tasks (e.g., rating similarity between pictures). And we can also show that it is aspects of language per se that shape how people think: teaching English speakers new grammatical gender systems influences mental representations of objects in the same way it does with German and Spanish speakers. Apparently even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people's ideas of concrete objects in the world.

In fact, you don't even need to go into the lab to see these effects of language; you can see them with your own eyes in an art gallery. Look at some famous examples of personification in art — the ways in which abstract entities such as death, sin, victory, or time are given human form. How does an artist decide whether death, say, or time should be painted as a man or a woman? It turns out that in 85 percent of such personifications, whether a male or female figure is chosen is predicted by the grammatical gender of the word in the artist's native language. So, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas Russian painters are more likely to paint death as a woman.
She's done a lot on the relationship between language and thought - not just with regard to gender but also things like time and colour. Super interesting.
posted by two or three cars parked under the stars at 8:51 AM on June 10, 2014 [3 favorites]


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