So you hear queer people bitching about pronouns sometimes. That's cool, not really my gig - I don't care. A pronoun is so small it doesn't really factor into how I see the world, which is why I have no objection to the pronouns used for me since birth. No problem at all. But I want to address those gender neutral pronouns (GNPs) and some of the linguistic problems with them, and why I believe they will never catch on*. I should note that I do believe that one day we will have a third set of pronouns to serve as an umbrella term for queer folks, or better yet readjust our current understanding of our pronoun system to better reflect the spectrum rather than binary, and then our language would hardly have to change at all, but I'm getting ahead of myself.
*I should also note, I am doing this from a descriptive point of view, not a prescriptive one. Meaning that I don't care about what your "correct" grammar is. I am talking about how people actually talk. You'll see what I mean later.
There are four sets of pronouns I want to cover today. The first one: they
I will use each one of these in a sentence so you can see how they play out.
What are they doing?
What did you do to them?
Their foot itches.
Let go of that cookie, it's theirs.
They really care about themself/themselves (that one is tough, but irrelevant)
So, what's the problem here? I have several identifiable problems with this set, so let's identify them.
1) 'they' is already a word in our english language, and while changing the meaning of a word is challenging but not impossible, the meaning it already has would either go away or generate a new word for itself, and then we'd be right back where we started.
1b) additionally, this word already stands in as a gender neutral pronoun, insofar as it stands for when the correct pronoun to use is unclear. For example, in the sentence "someone robbed a bank this morning, but they have yet to be caught." This is an example of the "singular they" that is in common (and reasonable) usage.
2) the use of this preexisting word is problematic in another way as well. It brings up the is/are problem. Because 'they' is a commonly used plural pronoun, our brains automatically adjust our language to think in plurals when using this word (they have, not they has). If this set of pronouns were to be introduced, we would run across one of two kinds of problems. On one hand, all 'they' would stay plural and even as a singular pronoun would remain plural. This introduces a form of ambiguity. In the above sentence about the robber, it is clear from the first sentence that we are talking about a single person of unknown identity, so the use of they is just a placeholder, known to substitute for just one person. But lets say you and hanging out with your friends, who just happen to be all the genderqueer people you know (for me, this is known as "an average time out"). You are talking with your friend, and you point to the group and say "what do they want?" or "what are they doing?" Your friend does not know if you are talking about one person, or the group. However, this problem could be avoided by separating singular and plural constructions, which would then sound like this.
"Someone robbed a bank last night, but they hasn't been caught"
"Look at those ruffians, they are such lowlifes"
"Well would you look at that, they is jumping up and down!"
With this construction, we can tell the difference between our singular they and our plural they. If we were going to use this form of GNPs, this is how I would do it because I do not like ambiguity. Does it sound strange? Absolutely. Is 'sounding strange' the only thing wrong with this construction? I think so.
Alright, I'm gonna let that one go for now, we'll come back to it.
This one is really easy to show why it is a terrible idea, so I'll do it now.
I am going to give you a sample sentence, then I am going to rewrite it in IPA
the way it is written, then I am going to write it in IPA the way it is actually said, and then I am going to translate that into what the writing would be for it. You'll see what I mean.
Sample "What is xe doing?"
IPA written /wʌt ɪs zi duiŋ/
IPA spoken /wʌɾɪziduiŋ/
Written form of IPA spoken "What is he doing?"
The reason for this (if you don't believe me, read the sample sentence at a normal speed, maybe put a sentence or two before it to get in the speaking mindset) is assimilation and the fact that english is not spoken how it is written. We ignore many of the spaces in our speech (as do nearly all languages I've heard) and so our words get smooshed together. Now, the first word (what) ends in a voiceless stop, and it is followed by a vowel. It turns from a /t/ into a tap (that little funny looking r thing: ɾ) in this case. The same thing happens in the word 'butter' - say it quickly and you'll notice your /t/ is not the same /t/ as it 'table.' Now here is the interesting part. The word preceding the pronoun is 'is' which ends with a voiceless fricative. The following word begins with a voiced fricative with the same place of articulation (/s/ and /z/ are the same sound, one voiced one not). In english, two adjacent consonants cannot disagree on voicing. In order to get out the /s/ and the /z/ separately, you have to work really hard, and you will usually glide over it all as a /z/. This is due to assimilation. Now I want you to read the sentence "what is he doing?" very quickly, and you will notice that your /s/ still turns into a /z/ sound. I actually have no explanation for why this happens, all I know is that it does.
My problem with these pronouns is that in the subject sense at least (and I'd be willing to say that subject case is the most important) it is indistinguishable in many cases from masculine pronouns. The rest of them will work - xem, xyr, xyrs, xemself - but if you can't put together the words 'is' and 'xe' without clarifying, you will have a lot of problems.
Number three: ze
Now, you may notice the subject form is 'ze' which is different from 'xe' is writing, but they are both pronounced the same way /zi/ (unless you are trying to tell me that 'xe' is pronounced /xi/ which is a velar fricative. Say "chutzbah' with that really cool sounding hebrew h sound and you'll see what /xi/ sounds like - and that would just be silly, because that sound doesn't appear in our language ever). If they are pronounced the same way (since we are talking about how language is spoken, not how it is written) the same argument that I put up before works again.
I should make note, however, that the rest of them (hir, etc.) are really good. I can find no reason not to use them. Because they end in rhotics rather than nasals (r as supposed to n/m) they are easily differentiable from the other pronouns. I also cannot think of any sentences with ambiguity in them as a result. Also, none of these pronouns are already words.
The word 'hear' you pronounce /hiɹ/
The word 'ear' you would pronounce /iːɹ/
And the word 'hir' you would pronounce /iɹ/
There doesn't seem to be much difference between 'ear' and 'hir' but also notice that one is a body part noun, and one is a pronoun. If you can think of any structures that would use these words in the same way interchangeably, then you win and there is a reason not to use these pronouns.
Number four: the Fonz
Sorry, I had to make a Fonzie joke when I saw the 'EY!'
I would need some clarification on pronunciation (does eir sound like 'air' or 'eyer'? By the way, I was very pleased to find out that there is in fact a word for "one who eyes") but this is also a tricky one. So I will take it step by step
Ey (/eʲ/): I love this one. The vowel is different from any other subject pronoun (/hi/, /ʃi/) and is not already a word in our language other than the expletive used by the Fonz, and I don't think we are in danger of getting those mixed up.
Em: This is terrible, it sounds just like a commonly spoken version of "them" (don't believe me, say "what did you do to them?" in normal speech - it will come out "what did you do to'em" most of the time) and so we'd be better off using the singular they (first set) which is a bad idea in itself.
Eir (air): In case you forgot what a possessive adjective is, since I did, I'll remind you with a sample: don't move that one, eir leg is broken. You might notice that this is the same as the use of the singular they again, but merely removing the 'th-' from the beginning (and for this reason, I suspect the creators of this set intended it to be pronounced 'air'). However, in this case, because nobody shortens "their" as they do with "them" this one is not under the same problem. But then again, if you are going to use 'eir', you might as well not invent a new word and just stick with 'their.'
Eir (eyer): First of all, it would be the only two syllable pronoun of its class, which is a disadvantage, because the point of a pronoun is to shorten things, and a two syllable pronoun seems silly.
Eirs: it's the same as eir, just go read that.
Emself: shortening of "themself" so just go read the object argument.
So, if I were king of language, I have a clear set of pronouns. They are not put into clean, predictable sets like these are, but english has never been clean and predictable. If it were, it would be spanish. English is insane - we do all sorts of things that make absolutely no sense, but we get by with little to no communication error.
Sure, I might say "the kangaroo is ready to eat" and some people think about feeding a 'roo and some people think about dinnertime, but generally we can figure out what's going on.
I have no problem with irregularity, as long as I can say it easily and people will understand my meaning.
So here is my constructed list of gender neutral pronouns as stolen from this list.
Poss Adj: Hir
Poss Prn: Hirs
AS LONG AS THE H IS SILENT! This will never work if the 'h' is not silent. That gets really hard to say really quickly. Plus, just as with 'he' in the sentence 'what is he doing?' the h disappears very quickly in speech, so I'm not that worried.
Now, we just need a gender neutral colloquialism.
Here are some sentences to get you going
"Hey, what's goin on man?"
"Woah, dude! Look at that!"
You get the picture. In each one of these situations, the person speaking could have been a man or a woman speaking to a man or a woman (though the second one I wrote with a male speaking in mine... kind of a surfer). But still, my point remains. In my speech, I use dude, man, and guys as gender neutral words. I refer to a large group as guys, and dude and man are just words to signify that I am talking to the person I am with.
Also, the words 'woman,' 'lady,' and 'girl' do not work in this case. If you say woman when you are talking to that same woman (not when you say "hey, look at that woman), you are risking getting a slap. You can never start a sentence with "hey, woman" and get away with it. A similar problem stands for lady. I dunno about you guys, but it seems incredibly patronizing to me (also, a higher class term, hardly one I want to turn into a colloquialism). Girl presents yet another similar problem, because it is a juvenile term for woman, and no woman would ever get away with saying "hey, what's going on boy" to a man. That wouldn't fly, so I wouldn't expect or wish "hey, what's goin on girl" to fly either. Now that I write that, I realize we as a culture say that all the time, but we also say "quit being a pussy" - just cuz we say it doesn't make it ok.
There are no acceptable female or neutral equivalents for this part of speech. Hey people - any ideas?