This is a response to a recent Opinion piece by Geoff Nunberg published by WBUR-FM.
English’s third person pronouns really haven’t changed much since the Middle Ages. My biggest question with many of the alternative, gender-neutral, third person pronouns like “xe” or “ze” or “zhe” is how should they be pronounced? Between those three I can think of at least 9 different pronunciations that I would lean toward. So, is it up to the individual to decide how their preferred pronoun should be pronounced?
I recognise the need for gender neutral pronouns, after all there are many people who find the traditional binary system of understanding gender as constricting, if not baseless. Personally, I prefer that languages evolve naturally, without much influence from one particular linguistic authority. Thus, to find an answer to this question, my first inclination was to go into English’s past and look at earlier forms of English’s pronouns to see if there was a good third option. As it turns out, “it” has been the only third person singular pronoun in the history of English to date. Granted, for the first thousand years, or so, “it” was written “hit,” yet today “it” holds a particular set of meanings: it’s used to refer to objects, to animals, to things, but never to people. A number of other Germanic languages have a similar concept, such as German’s two verbs for eating: “essen” and “fressen;” the former is used for people and the latter for animals, after all we learn to eat in a civilised manner. I doubt one could teach a cat or a dog to eat with a knife and fork.
Historically speaking, “they” may be the best organic option for a gender neutral third person English pronoun. It’s one that has been used for generations already, and one that already exists in the language. Having lacked a gender-neutral singular pronoun for humans for a millennium and a half it makes sense that English speakers would develop this extension of the purpose of the third-person plural, just as the same Anglophones have done with “you,” eliminating the difference between formal and informal, and extending its usage from solely the singular to the plural as well.
All that said, how one wants to be referred to is an extremely personal matter, one should expect to be called by a name or pronoun that one is comfortable with in all circumstances. That said, language is inherently a communal thing, something that exists so that different people can understand each other and interact. Without a common understanding of what each other is saying, we begin to lose that common currency which has brought us together down the generations. A third person pronoun is a word that is intended to be used by others to refer to another person, and considering we don’t have gendered versions of our first person pronoun “I,” the issue of how well others will recognise or understand the pronoun in question ought to be thoroughly considered.
English is a collection of near-different languages that share common spelling and grammar. I’ve had conversations with other English speakers from other countries whose dialects were so different from mine that we had an easier time communicating through another language. Even within a country like the United States or the United Kingdom the varieties of English are different enough to limit a speaker of one dialect’s ability to understand someone speaking a different dialect from the same country. English plays as loose with its pronunciation as it is strict on its spelling. Even though English’s two main spelling variants: American and Commonwealth (UK, Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand, etc.) do have their evident differences, an American can still travel to London or Delhi and look at a sign written in English or read a book published in that country and understand what’s written there. If we move toward a fully phonetic spelling system, we’ll lose the biggest thing that keeps our dialects connected as one common language.