In recent years, there has been a great deal of fuss about gender-neutral pronouns. Many claim that masculine and feminine pronouns in English mirror our social norms and are a manifestation of our culture’s binary conception of gender. They argue that, by using them, we bolster the power of the privileged and marginalize the most vulnerable. To resolve this, some have coined new genderless pronouns. The Victorian Government’s Inclusive Language Guide lists “zie” and “hir” as examples of these new terms. The most fundamental claim of those seeking such changes is that social norms can be manifested in grammatical mechanisms. A relatively brief overview of the history of gender in English and a comparison with similar systems in other languages reveals this not to be the case. While particular cultural practices and beliefs can manifest themselves in the use of certain words and phrases, the grammatical systems of human language neither reflect nor produce social norms.
How Languages Change
Grammar does not strictly refer to the rules which we apply when using commas and apostrophes in writing. It refers to the underlying rules and mechanisms that govern the form, arrangement, and pronunciation of every word in every utterance. We obey these rules to the letter, although we are often completely unaware of them. For instance, any English speaker intuitively understands the exact morphological and syntactical rules governing a complex verb phrase such as “I would not have been doing that.” And yet, that same speaker would likely be at a loss to describe exactly how they formed that sentence from its constituent words. The presence in English of three gender categories (the neuter being impersonal) is as much a grammatical system as any of the other adjacent systems, such as verbal morphology and syntax.
One of the fundamental drivers of language change is the random pronunciation changes that occur in each new generation of speakers. In many dialects of English, the three core vowels in mary-marry-merry are merging to become a single sound, rendering the words homophones. This process is most widespread in dialects of American English, while, in my own Australian English, the three vowels remain quite distinct. It is a small change that most would not notice, but little changes of that sort tend to build up over time: at first producing a slight accent, then a distinct dialect, and finally a fully-fledged language. That is how languages emerge from their predecessors: just as French, Spanish, and Italian developed from their common ancestor, Latin. Small, random mutations in individual and regional speech bring about language change over centuries, ultimately causing large shifts in grammatical structures which stem from very minor initial variations.
The other primary means of language change is straightforward convenience. If a particular change offers an advantage in everyday communication, it will be adopted. For example, English changed some of its pronouns quite dramatically when it adopted the words they/them/their. These words stem from Old Norse, the ancestor of the modern Scandinavian languages, which was spoken throughout medieval England, thanks to Danish settlement along the northeast coast. At the time, random pronunciation developments had caused Old English’s masculine and feminine words for “they” to become hī and hīe. This brought them unusually close both to one another and to the word for “he.” Because Norsemen struggled with these almost homophonous but critically distinct words, English interlocutors substituted the more distinct Norse equivalents. This proved so useful that the borrowed words became widespread in Middle English. This change was not the result of a political project. It was a bottom-up change whose appeal was entirely in the daily convenience it afforded its users at a fundamental level of communication.
The History of Gender in English
If we follow the history of gender in English, we can see that its emergence and persistence is the result of random and contingent change. We can trace the genealogy of English to roughly five thousand years ago. At that time, between the Dnieper and Ural rivers, in what is now Russia and Ukraine, a particular group of people spoke a particular language. That same group of people managed to both invent the wagon and domesticate the horse. With those innovations, they and their descendants spread across an area from Ireland to Bangladesh. They took their language with them and today most languages in Europe and Western Asia share a common descent from that initial language. We call it Proto-Indo-European (PIE).
In the earliest stages of PIE, nouns were sorted according to whether they represented an animate or inanimate concept. Nouns referring to living beings and moving objects were defined as animate. Those referring to still objects were defined as inanimate. These two categories—or genders—of nouns followed different grammatical rules. For example, they assumed different plural forms. This system is attested to in the ancient Hittite language, largely believed to be among the very first daughter languages to break away from PIE.
Through pronunciation changes, a subset of animate nouns began to take unique suffixes in certain cases. This subset expanded until it formed a separate class of nouns in its own right. This destabilized the animate/inanimate split. The animate classes spontaneously became the masculine and feminine, while the inanimate class became the neuter. It might be argued that this reflects some patriarchal conception of a gender binary among PIE speakers, but this was fundamentally a three-way split, which included a neuter gender alongside the masculine and feminine. It was not a binary system. All future Indo-European languages inherited this three-way gender system in their earliest forms. During the Old English period, each noun took one of three genders, as in modern German and Russian.
In Old English, the role of a noun in a sentence would be communicated through a complex system of suffixes. These suffixes could denote whether the noun was the subject, object, or indirect object. They could also transform the noun into something like an adjective. This system became unstable after the Norman Conquest of 1066, when the English-speaking peasantry rapidly absorbed an extraordinary number of French words from their new overlords. These new French words did not fit the grammatical paradigms by which Old English nouns changed their forms. As a result, the morphology of English nouns greatly simplified to accommodate the new additions. The role of a modern English noun is now communicated through syntax and prepositional phrases. The only real suffix is the plural marker. When these systems fell apart, it incidentally caused English nouns to lose their old gender distinctions. That certainly did not come about as a result of shifting gender norms under the rule of William the Conqueror.
English pronouns did not lose their equivalent morphological complexity for good reason. As English adopted no French pronouns, the pressures driving the simplification of English nouns simply did not apply. Modern English pronouns not only retain their old gender distinctions, but still also take subjective/objective/possessive forms as in he/him/his and who/whom/whose. The emergence of our gendered pronouns was therefore quite benign, and produced by random and contingent changes. At no junction did the development of our modern pronouns evince the reflection of social norms.
Culture and Language
While grammatical features do not reflect social norms, they are not able to produce them either. For instance, while English has partially retained the gender system of PIE, some of its Indo-European cousins, such as Bengali and Farsi, have almost entirely shed themselves of it. It is quite clear that the grammatical innovations of both Bengali and Farsi do not reflect and have not produced social changes in their respective societies. Despite their genderless languages, Bangladesh ranked 72 and Iran 139 out of 140 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. Hindered not at all by its fully intact, three-way, Indo-European gender system, Iceland ranked in first place. It is clear that, in both cases, the use of gender in their languages neither reflects social norms, nor produces them.
A hypothetically genderless variant of English would therefore likely have no bearing on the actual norms and culture of its speakers. After all, English is spoken in vastly divergent cultural contexts. It is in daily use throughout Europe and in former British colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. In no instance is its grammar a barrier to cultural expression, nor does that grammar shift to accommodate different social norms.
Of course, social norms can be expressed in some aspects of language in creative ways. Take Japan’s system of honorifics. Japanese speakers attach many different suffixes to names, in order to reflect the social standing of the speaker in relation to the interlocutor. Often, the speakers will innovate new forms, in a distinctly Japanese manner of word play. This is, however, not a grammatical system. It is essentially word-coining, an area in which culture can manifest itself in language. Actual grammatical systems, through which fundamental relations and information are communicated, such as Japanese verbal moods, tenses, and nominal morphology, are not flexible in this way.
Another example is the Russian word for comrade, “товарищ.” Following Lenin’s seizure of power, the word rapidly replaced essentially all other forms of address as a manifestation of the new political order. One might say that the frequent use of “mate” in Australian English is a similar expression of Australia’s egalitarian aspirations. These are both manifestations of cultural and social norms which, in the Russian case, were imposed from above. However, they are no more grammatical than the Japanese honorifics. If social norms really were reflected in the actual grammar of the language, one might have expected to see the spontaneous eradication of irregular verbs in Russian as an expression of the new commitment to equality.
A good example of grammar’s reluctance to change in the face of social and political change is Lithuanian. Lithuanian is generally regarded as the Indo-European language nearest to the ancestral PIE language of five millennia ago. Famously, many of its words bear a striking resemblance to their equivalents in ancient Indo-European languages. For instance, the word for teeth in modern Lithuanian is “dantis.” In Latin it was “dentes.” In Sanskrit it was “dantas.” This conservation of ancient pronunciations and features contrasts with the enormous political, social, and religious upheavals in Lithuania over the past millennium. From the often violent Christianization of the country, through the partitioning of Poland, and both the Nazi and Soviet occupations, Lithuania has seen its share of social, cultural, and political change. Yet this is not reflected in the grammar of the language.
One final example of pronoun change in English seems to contradict the argument that social norms do not manifest in grammar: the loss of “thou” and its derived forms. What English actually lost were the formal/informal categories by which second person pronouns were distinguished. At first, the informal “thou” was used to address friends and family, as in modern French or Russian, though, over time, it was increasingly used either for small children or those whom the speaker wished to insult and diminish—not friends and peers. It became so informal that it was received as impolite. The formal/informal distinction then collapsed and the formal pronoun “you” came to be used in every case.
This is certainly not due to a shift in social norms. What would those norms be? That it is wrong to condescend to people whom you hate and wish to diminish? That it is wrong to address babies differently from other people? In shifting from a broadly informal meaning to something specifically diminutive, the informal category became less and less useful, until its potential applications were so few that it was of almost no use at all. It should come as no surprise that the system then became unstable and collapsed. The loss of the informal category was primarily a result of convenience, not social norms.
To claim that gender distinctions in English pronouns manifest social norms and attitudes regarding gender, one must make the general claim that grammar can reflect social norms. This simply is not the case. Our masculine and feminine categories are not a manifestation of patriarchal and exclusionary gender norms. They are an accident of history, arising from entirely benign ordinary linguistic processes. Since transgender and intersex people make up less than 0.5% of the population, novel genderless pronouns simply do not provide enough convenience to be widely adopted in a spontaneous, bottom-up process. In any case, contrived words such “zie” and “hir” are essentially obsolete. There is a long history of using “they” as a genderless personal pronoun in the singular. The way to increased gender equality and greater acceptance of transgender and intersex people does not lie with top-down grammatical innovations. It lies in a principled discussion, in which ideas are assessed on their own merits—whether expressed in English, Bengali, Farsi, or Icelandic.
However, using ‘they’ as a singular can easily cause confusion and it is used primarily for a third person singular when the antecedent is an unknown singular hypothetical person, and this is only accepted in informal spoken language. In formal academic language, we are expected to rephrase to avoid confusion or lack of coherence. The introduction of an acceptable singular neuter does seem to be a better solution to dealing with a small exception of non-bianary people. Trans and intersex people typically have a preferred gender association.
Re language change due to convenience.
I’ve heard that “let” (from letten?) used to mean “obstruct” but this is the opposite of its other meaning so the obstruct meaning died out and only survives in the case of the tennis let. Is this true?
I’ve also heard the alternative explanation that it’s short for French “filet” which means net.