Thursday, 19 December 2013

Gender Neutral Pronouns.

            For a long time I have had a fascination with the English language. My girlfriend is Brazilian and taught herself English in just a couple of years, yet her mastery is better than that of many native English speakers I regularly encounter. I know university lecturers that have no concept of how to use an apostrophe, which is just embarrassing. My girlfriend will often come up with a well chosen phrase that is not “correct” English but has me scratching my head as to why we do not use that particular phrase.

            If anything, my interest in language has deepened and diversified during the last year. I came across the SaypYu project for a more easily learnt phonetic system which has made me appreciate just how many English words are not spelt as they are pronounced. I also came across Ogden’s Basic English system which has many interesting ideas.

           Some languages, such as French, assign a gender to nouns, to the frustration and bafflement of the English-speaking student. English is thankfully devoid of most noun genders so it is perhaps surprising that the English language lacks a gender-neutral pronoun for singular individuals. To some people this is a big political issue reprehensive of all sorts of things. There is, however a real need for a workable pronoun that can refer to an individual when the gender is unknown, indeterminate or not relevant. US Field Manuals, for example,  find it necessary to begin with a statement that “Unless this publication states otherwise, masculine nouns and pronouns do not refer exclusively to men.”

            As one might expect, many invented pronouns have been proposed over the years. This article gives a good account of the practicability of some of these.

            Ze/Hir and derivatives apparently see some use in the homosexual and transgender communities. That will probably mean it is highly unlikely to find much favour with institutions such as the military who are also in need of a useful gender-neutral term. On a practical note “hir” would seem to be pronounced “hɘr”, which is the same pronounciation as “her” so the distinction is graphic rather than also being phonetic.

            The best candidate seems to be Ne/Nir. The variations are listed as Ne/Nem/Nir/Nirs/Nemself. This seems an unnecessary number of variations and I always favour simplification over unnecessary complication. The Feminine Singular pronoun makes do with She/Her/Hers/Herself so I propose a similar format be followed for Ne.

            “Ne” would actually be pronounced “ni” in the same way that “he” and “she” are infact pronounced “hi” and “shi”. The last thing that English needs is more non-phonetic words. Use of the spelling “Ni” will help distinguish it from other pronouns. Implementing these ideas we have the gender-neutral singular pronoun of :-


            This is used grammatically in exactly the same way that one would use She/Her/Hers/Herself.

            Another potentially useful but seldom used innovation is “Mx.” as a gender-neutral honorific for when you do not know if someone is a Mr, Mrs, Miss or Ms. I suspect that this is more useful for correspondence than everyday speech.

            If in future blogs you come across “ni” or “nir” do not be frightened. It is just an example of language evolving in a practical direction. Feel free to use it yourself and spread the word(s)!