History of gender-neutral pronouns
November 29, 2020
Pronouns have been in use for centuries as a way of referring to individuals and groups of people in an abbreviated way. Within the former societal understanding of gender as a binary, singular pronouns he/him and she/her were generally seen as male and female pronouns, whereas plural pronouns were typically denoted a group. The meaning of gender-neutral pronouns, including they, has shifted to both a plural for a group and gender-neutral pronoun for an individual just last year when Merriam-Webster added it to the dictionary, recognizing this as a common use. In addition, other pronouns have been adopted for use as gender-neutral pronouns.
Pronouns have often been at the center of cases of gender discrimination and transphobia, when an individual’s identity is disrespected and devalued through misgendering with the use of inaccurate pronouns.
Sophomore Bev O’Malley uses they/them pronouns but has bumped into some issues with how others use their pronouns.
“My mom was really supportive about it, and remembers most of the time to use the correct pronouns,” O’Malley said. “My dad and stepmom were confused… they still didn’t understand why I wanted to use those pronouns and refuse to use them.”
A BBC News article analyzed controversy over how the pronoun they should be used, with some maintaining that the pronoun can only be plural while others argue that the use of a singular they is not new. There are many instances of they being used as singular and gender-neutral in literature. The article cites the 1386 novel The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer and Shakespeare’s 1599 play Hamlet as examples of literary works using singular they.
I struggled with my identity for years now, debating between girl, boy, enby, or anything in between. Now that I’ve solidified it and even found a flag that matches, I’m a lot happier with myself.”
— Bri Rucker
Linguist Emma Moore said that existing pronouns adapted to be gender-neutral have tended to be more widely adopted than new gender non-binary pronouns, as those pronouns have already been accepted as part of language.
Sophomore Morgan Riley acknowledged that for the older members of their family, adjusting to they/them pronouns is a learning curve.
“It’s not ignorance on their part; it’s like having the apps on your Home Screen arranged a certain way for fifteen years and then having them moved around,” Riley said. “They’re still the same apps, but it’s different, and muscle memory makes it difficult to get used to.”
A Swedish study demonstrated the effect that language can have on cultural norms, in this case, the effect that pronouns can have on an understanding of gender. Swedish employs the gendered pronouns ‘hon’ and ‘han,’ equivalent to ‘she’ and ‘he’ in English. In 2014, the gender-neutral pronoun ‘hen’ was officially added to the Swedish language. years later in the study, almost 2,000 native Swedish speakers were asked to identify a gender-neutral cartoon, and the majority of them identified it as ‘hen,’ as opposed to using a gendered pronoun.
Many adults today grew up without genderless pronouns in their day to day vocabulary. They have become more used and understood with younger generations. Social media and a more interconnected world have allowed young people easy access to information on they/them pronouns.
Commenting on the Swedish study, Efrén Pérez, a political psychologist at UCLA, said “Most people don’t have ready-made attitudes on most things we think are important. If your language nudges you in some direction, it should have some nontrivial effect on your opinion,” he said. “You could boil it down to, how does the language you speak affect how you see the world?”
9th grader Bri Rucker began identifying with she/they pronouns earlier this year. “I struggled with my identity for years now, debating between girl, boy, enby, or anything in between. Now that I’ve solidified it and even found a flag that matches, I’m a lot happier with myself.”
Riley explained their journey to they/them pronouns and how some push back on this.
“I’m neurodivergent, autistic to be exact, and I have trouble picking up on social cues. Since gender is, in this day in age, mostly a social construct, I never fully picked up on it,” Riley said. “I can see it now, but it’s harder to just shove myself into it after years of not understanding. Some people have said it’s just taking the easy way out—if it’s hard to understand, why try when you don’t have to? For me it feels different.
While I truly did not understand what gender was then, I do understand now, I just choose not to associate myself with a social construct I feel like I don’t belong in.”
Rucker notices that people often refer to them with she/her pronouns.
“Something difficult about also going by they/them is that people usually stick with she/her because they’re more comfortable with it, and of course, I am too, but it’d be nice to have some variety,” Rucker said.
While for some Riley’s pronouns may be hard to understand, they don’t want to try and fit themselves into a box just for the sake of others.
“But whether my gender (or lack thereof, I don’t identify as having one) is my lack of understanding of social things or my brain telling me I’m just not a woman or a man, I am the way I am. And while that could change, I would rather live life expecting things to stay the same than try to suppress my feelings to make others happy,” they said.
With long-held uses of pronouns in the gender binary, for some there are still some unknowns and questions. O’Malley expressed a wish they have for what more people knew about they/them pronouns.
“People can identify with a specific gender and still use they/them,” they said.
Riley wishes that the use of they/them pronouns was more normalized.
“I wish more people knew about it, but I also don’t want to make it something big you teach people about. You don’t have to make a whole lesson out of she/her and he/him pronouns. I wish it was just as normal to be they/them,” they said.
Rucker also expressed that they feel people can wrongly categorize they/them pronouns.
“It’s not really a third gender, it’s more like transcending gender to a god-like state,” Rucker said.
As Moore explained with they/them pronouns, people use the language they are familiar with, as they/them pronouns enter into the mainstream perhaps there will be a realization of Riley’s wishes.
“All in all, I just wish that people realized I don’t really think about my pronouns all that much and it’s not a defining part of my personality that makes me who I am,” Riley said.