She, he and thon?

Date
Jul
18
20160718

She, he and thon?

Our language is a reflection of the society with live in and changes with it. Lately, there have been increasing calls by the LBGTQ community for a gender-neutral personal pronoun in English. This is not new; there were moves in this respect already in the 1850’s, however, back then they were based on reasons of style and grammar rather than driven by a segment of society. There are signs that the necessity for an English gender-neutral pronoun is gaining ground. Some US universities, recognising that not everyone is gender-binary, have begun asking new students for their preferred gender pronoun (PGP), whereas other institutions hand out cards with multiple choices of pronouns and their declensions. And the choices abound! Some argue that the language already has a perfectly good gender-neutral pronoun in the singular they; others abhor this, despite its use by literary giants such as Chaucer and Shakespeare. Other options include ey, hu, per, sie, e, zhe and thon, which neatly highlights the English problem – how do you reach consensus on what word to use? 

Probably the most well-known example of a gender-neutral pronoun being introduced can be found in Swedish. The issue was raised back in the 1960’s, when the word hen was suggested as a replacement for han (he) and hon (she). Despite Sweden being a leader in legislating for gender equality, hen never caught on and it was not until the 1990’s that it resurfaced again and in 2010, it was accepted and recognised as a gender-neutral option and is now slowly gaining ground in the written media and official texts. More controversially, some pre-schools have also started using hen in spoken Swedish, and in some places traditional children’s songs are being rewritten to challenge the defaulting to the masculine.

Whilst it is almost impossible to legislate for linguistic change, the Swedish example shows us that a top-down approach is possible, at least in a language (almost) limited by national borders. As the official language in many countries and the world’s lingua franca with no Academy or other body to impose a decision, the English language almost certainly has to simply wait and see which option gains traction in society over time.