Despite Brexit, Windrush, terrifying Trump ties and the political landscape boasting the stability of cryptocurrency on a fork day, I (perhaps naïvely) still like to believe that the UK remains somewhat progressive. We tick some of the forward-thinking country boxes, don’t we? Diversity: partial-tick. Freedom of expression: partial-tick. Equality: partial-tick. In any case, what’s more progressive than Theresa May wearing a Frida Kahlo bracelet during the Tory party conference back in October 2017? More about that bracelet here and aquí!
‘What does all of this have to do with language?’ you say, whilst sipping Pimms without a straw on this uncharacteristically hot day. Well, for as long as I can remember, I’ve contemplated the extent to which language influences social norms and etiquette, and the extent to which the precise opposite occurs. Do we speak, behave, retaliate and influence others in certain ways as a result of the language that is available to us? Or is the language we use a reflection of our thoughts and beliefs? Do we use certain words and expressions because we actually want to, or simply because they exist? Can our languages keep up with our rapidly-changing social landscape? Do they have to? Or, is our social landscape determined by the very words we use? More importantly, why am I even asking this question? How is it at all relevant in modern society? Why am I not writing about one of the hot topics I mentioned in the first sentence of this post? Actually, I am. Whichever way you choose to answer the chicken-and-egg-style conundrum I just posed, it’s logical to say that if we want an open-minded, egalitarian society, then the language we use must empower us.
One Friday evening three liberal 19-year-olds incited a heated debated in an otherwise dull Advanced English class. We discussed whether or not it is it culturally acceptable for Spanish men to use feminine adjectival agreements if they so wish (saying ‘estoy contenta’ instead of ‘estoy contento, for example) and for Spanish women to adopt the masculine version of adjectives. My natural reaction was to endorse this creative use of language; surely each individual should choose how they wish to be identified. I also said that English is so much less problematic in this sense as it is a quasi-genderless language. If you feel happy, you say ‘I’m happy’ regardless of gender status. Research suggests that countries such as Spain, where gendered languages are spoken, evidence less gender equality than countries which adopt alternative grammatical gender systems.
I admitted that the biggest problem facing the English language is the fact that it’s spoken by so many people (English as a lingua franca, etc.) It is also undoubtedly troubled by the paradox of political correctness versus freedom of expression. For example, the infamous F word runs the gamut of linguistic versatility, but its use is frowned upon by many (hence my reluctance to write it explicitly in this post!) It’s simultaneously the best and the worst word that the English language has to offer. In fact, I challenge you to think of a more interesting word. You just have to listen to this audio sketch (the contents of which are often falsely attributed to Monty Python instead of the so-called ‘voice of Disneyland’ Jack Wagner) about the proper usage of the F word to be reminded of how versatile this word is and why native and non-native English speakers alike are blessed to have such nifty linguistic devices at their disposal. After the brief F-word digression, a few articles and tintos later, it suddenly dawned on me that the English language may need more than a little updating. It may, for all intents and purposes, be deemed almost grammatically genderless, but is it fit for purpose in current society? The very definition of gender has changed and continues to change. It is now accepted by a significant part of society that gender is a spectrum. Grammatical gender is not. To me, this suggests that we simply cannot wait around for the language we use to catch up with our beliefs. We must be proactive. First stop: pronouns.
I’d like you to think of a simple word, from any word category, in any language. Imagine that this word no longer exists. Try to produce a sentence using the idea of the word but omit the word itself. It’s difficult isn’t it? Take the word ‘kitchen’. Pretend that it doesn’t exist. Think of a sentence. ‘I went into the kitchen today and made a sandwich’. How can we express this without using the word kitchen? ‘I went into the cooking-room today’? ‘I went into the room with the fridge’? It’s quite difficult. It seems ridiculous that there is no word for kitchen, because it is obviously a word we need. It is a word that many people use every single day. To crank it up a notch, imagine that your name didn’t exist. Or, worse still, the pronoun ‘I’. How would you talk about yourself in normal conversation? How would you feel? Is it fair to say that you may experience some loss of identity? Thankfully, the word ‘I’ does exist. Your name exists. You exist. Now turn your attention to the non-binary community in particular. Should people really have to choose between being referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’? Will grammar pedants ever truly surmount the contention attached to employing ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun? The dichotomy of ‘he and she’ is exclusive and it’s no wonder that this remains a significant source of frustration in genderqueer communities. So, as politically correct as the English language may profess to be, it is clear that PROnouns are not yet PROequality.
If the English language can evolve (or be deliberately manipulated) to accommodate advances and relapses in technology and narcissism, respectively, why haven’t gender-neutral pronouns truly pervaded everyday language? The word selfie entered the dictionary in 2013 and so did the acronym FOMO (Fear of Missing Out.) Have you ever heard of ‘thon’? This article explains how it was actually a Merriam-Webster-endorsed gender-neutral pronoun in the 1930s. It was subsequently removed because the word just didn’t really take off. On a completely different Merriam-Webster note, Janelle Monae recently did a Kim Kardashian. In stark contrast to the latter breaking the internet with her rear end, Janelle Monae, advocate of the infamous vagina pants, came out as pansexual and sent the word right to the top of the Merriam-Webster search list. Now, that’s how to break the internet.
I’m not going to claim to know everything about gender-neutral pronouns, but the timeless cocktail of light bedtime reading and common sense (sorry, no agua de Valencia this time) leads me to believe that it’s a matter of personal choice. I may be wrong, but I feel like there is a distinct lack of information available about the different pronouns available. Sassafras Lowery’s article right here covers all the salient points. She reminds us that ‘they’ does exist and that there are also many alternatives. Ey, Xe and Ze are just a few examples of some subject pronouns in current use. Everyone, binary or non-binary, has their own pronouns and they are most certainly not interchangeable. Just because it takes a little more effort to write ‘she’ than it does ‘he’, doesn’t mean that we should refer to everyone who chooses to use ‘she’ as ‘he’. Just because someone uses a set of pronouns with which we might not be completely au fait, doesn’t mean that we should ignore them. I, for one would be outraged if, in true Handmaid’s Tale style, I were told to use someone else’s name (Offred or Ofglen, for example). I imagine that most of you reading this would feel the same. Pronouns are exactly that, an extension of our name and our identity. We’re taught from a young age (or at least we should be) that a noun is a naming word. Pronouns are simply replacements of these naming words, ‘pro’ meaning ‘in place of’ or ‘on behalf’. Getting someone’s name wrong is quite a serious social faux pas, sitting somewhere in between mistaking someone for being pregnant and checking Twitter between courses. Surely pronoun-related equivocation should also grace the ‘Top Ten Surefire Ways to Insult Others’ list.
‘Queering language is a work in progress’ writes Lowery, stating that language is constantly evolving, as are identities. She is ‘equally committed to normalizing the presence of non-binary characters as […] to non-binary language in literature’. There is definitely a strong argument for normalising language; it will contribute the normalisation of liberal attitudes and help to stamp out bigotry. She acknowledges that people may feel overwhelmed by the array of pronouns out there and alludes to the fact that there is lots of potential awkwardness. Do we just need to prepare for a smidgen of awkwardness and simply get over ourselves?
Did you know that English used to be a gendered language with gendered nouns and everything? There are still small reminders of this in modern English. We refer to ships, countries and languages as feminine using ‘her’, ‘she’, ‘motherland’ and ‘mother tongue’, to give a but a few examples. Ever since an old English teacher told my less- than-desirable and more-into-Kevin-Phillips-than-philology class that the word ‘norange’ was a former version of ‘orange’, I was hooked and did nothing but concentrate in those lessons. My own AskJeeves and Encarta research implied that juncture loss of the French ‘une orange’ was the cause of this change; it was likely misheard as ‘norange’ because of the beautiful French liaison rule. The question dando vueltas in my head subsequently was then how it changed exactly. It has nothing to do with gender, but the fundamental idea is the same. If language can change to accommodate pronunciation, surely it can change to accommodate people and their identity. The Vikings’ invasion of Northern England in the 1000s complicated language-gender matters; Old English and Old Norse both traditionally used gendered nouns, but their genders of choice did not always harmonise with one another. Consequently, they just eliminated as many traces of gendered nouns as possible and this helped to pull down the communication barrier. This happened in the North of England first and took a long time to filter down to the South. This could be an example to follow.
The Inuit word iktsuarpok, ‘the act of repeatedly going outside to keep checking if anyone is coming’, lies somewhere been impatience and anticipation. Now, seeing as though the places in which Inuit is spoken aren’t densely-populated, perhaps we can say that this word exists because loneliness is more prevalent in less-populated areas. Similarly, the Malay word pisanzapra means ‘the time needed to eat a banana’. It would be reasonable to assume that this word exists because bananas, being the country’s second most popular fruit, are a big deal there; the banana industry is ripe for the picking! These examples have been taken from one of my favourite books, Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World. It features words that exist in certain languages, and therefore certain cultures, likely because of necessity. This would suggest that the words we use are a reflection of our thoughts and behaviours. Are our thoughts and behaviours so bigoted that we can’t use people’s correct pronouns? I’d like to think not.
Do we really need to worry about all of this? Well, I’m a self-diagnosed over-empathiser. Seemingly trivial things get to me sometimes. And I often obsess over details. I can’t help it; it’s the way I’m programmed. Having once been referred to as ‘one of the girls of the team’ in a business context whilst my male counterparts were referred to as ‘Mr X and Mr Y’, I don’t think it’s unfair to demand language equality. This type of so-called passive discrimination is so deeply embedded in language and society that it often goes unnoticed. Quite often no offence whatsoever is intended. And let’s not go into whether causing and taking offence is acceptable or not; I don’t think Ricky Gervais’ Twitter account can take much more of a bashing and I don’t have the cojones to tweet him myself in any case. Ironic, huh? The most recent wave of political correctness has been deemed by some as completely exaggerated and unnecessary. One of those people is Donald Trump. I say no more. On that note, I’m off to write about Latinx and Mx.
Did you guess the song? Scroll slowly for clues.
Her name is Héloïse Letissier.
She turned, or perhaps TILTED, French language music on its head a few years ago.
Her pseudonym is Christine and the Queens!
Christine and the Queens – iT