He-she-it? Sheeit.

I’m going to look at a critical problem in English.

No, not the inconsistent rules for spelling words…

No, not the inconsistent rules for pronouncing words…

No, not he inconsistent rules for sentence structures…

No, not its failure to adopt of critical words from other languages like kummerspeck and pilkunnussija?  (And shut up with questions, you pochemuchka.)

No, I’m going to talk a different, critical problem in English.  See if you can suss it out in the following word problem example:

A scientist is working with a sample of the radioactive element unobtanium.  At noon, he notes that it weighs 10 N.  After 20 minutes he places it a second time on his scale, and finds its weight has dropped to 9 N.  What is the half-life of unobtainum?

Do you see the problem there?  No, not the ridiculously silly half-time of 131.6 N/min, you savant.  The English problem?

It’s the “he” and “his” that appears in the second and third sentences.

So what’s the problem?

Well, that little “he” establishes the gender of the scientist… for no apparent reason. The gender of the scientist is completely irrelevant to the problem at hand — hell, the actual scientist itself is utterly irrelevant to the problem — and yet by God we will establish that the scientist has a penis.  Thrice, even.

You might protest (correctly, in fact) that the “he” in the word problem was not being used to specifically designate the gender of the scientist, but was instead being used as a “generic” pronoun in place of the scientist as as a more friendly form of “it.”  Just re-read the word problem again using “it” instead of “he” and see how less personable it becomes.

A scientist is working with a sample of the radioactive element unobtanium.  At noon, it notes that it weighs 10 N.  After 20 minutes it places it a second time on its scale, and finds its weight has dropped to 9 N.  What is the half-life of unobtainum?

Notice how the word problem becomes a little less clear, a little more awkward, and a helluva lot more Silence of the Lambs creepy?

The pronoun “it” is typically used to refer to a thing (rather than a person) previously identified in the discourse.  Merriam-Webster notes that “it” is used as the subject of an impersonal verb, so “it” just doesn’t work as a generic pronoun for a “who.”

And that brings us to the problem: there are no good gender-neutral words that act as generic pronouns for a “who.”   English lacks epicene pronouns for people.

As the word problem above shows, “he” doesn’t work as a generic pronoun for a “who” either.  The most obvious reason is that the use of “he” as a generic pronoun is quite explicitly biased against women.  Using the male pronoun as the natural choice for a generic human pronoun suggests, however implicitly, that males are therefore the natural choice for the archetypal human.  It effectively denies the existence of half the human population in a puff of pronounery, and gives causal sexism a linguistic legitimacy.

And let’s face it: sexism is alive an well in the United States — just look at the fact that “wearing mom jeans” is considered a political insult or that the salaries of women with a 4.0 high school GPA are, on average, slightly less than the salaries of men with a 2.5 GPA.  If haven’t figured out that our culture has a tendency to minimize the roles and contributions of women, I have an 8-year-old you could educate you.

But more precisely, in most cases when “he” or “she” is used to indicate a person, the qualities of “personhood” implied are probably things like sentience or empathy or practical knowledge or carbon-based-biped-descended-from-a-protoape, not the location of said biped’s gentials.  That is, in the scientist example, the pronoun is supposed to convey a sentient causal agent with some expertise in inductive-based reasoning and experimentation and, possibly, a white lab coat, but it need not convey whether said agent’s gonads are tucked away in the pelvis or free-ballin’ below it. Pretty much the only sentence I can think of in which the actual gender of the subject is relevant is the sentence

He is a man

or

She is a woman

but in either case the gender of the subject is explicitly spelled out in the sentence, making the gender-encoding in the pronoun utterly unnecessary.

Hence, the lack of epicene pronouns this isn’t just a case of syntactic sexism as it is just plain English imprecision. Plus, if we don’t get a hold of a gender-nonspecific pronoun now, just think of how confusing it’ll be the next time Facebook adds another forty new gender settings.

So what should we use instead?

Clearly “it” is out.  We could try some fusion thing like “he-or-she” or “s/he,” but not only is that unforgivably clunky — just reconsider our word problem again

A scientist is working with a sample of the radioactive element unobtanium.  At noon, he-or-she notes that it weighs 10 N.  After 20 minutes he-or-she places it a second time on his-or-her scale, and finds its weight has dropped to 9 N.  What is the half-life of unobtainum?

— there’s the potentially thorny gender issue of which goes first, the “he” or “she”?

Now, the English pronoun “they” is already gender nonspecific, but it is a plural pronoun, and so it messes up the verb conjugations and makes the number of subjects ambiguous at best:

A scientist is working with a sample of the radioactive element unobtanium.  At noon, they note that it weighs 10 N.  After 20 minutes they place it a second time on their scale, and finds its weight has dropped to 9 N.  What is the half-life of unobtainum?

We could change the conjugations to be singular…

A scientist is working with a sample of the radioactive element unobtanium.  At noon, they notes that it weighs 10 N.  After 20 minutes they places it a second time on their scale, and finds its weight has dropped to 9 N.  What is the half-life of unobtainum?

…but not only does that destroy our language’s ability to have distinct singular and plural pronouns, it makes us sound a bit too much like a certain mentally unhinged mutant hobbit.

No, what we need is a new pronoun to signify a “who” without recourse to gender, a so-called gender-neutral pronoun.  While “shklee/shlim/shkler” appears to be the preferred nomenclature of sentient parallel-universes, I think we can find choice that is (1) easier to remember and pronounce for the inhabitants of Universe Gamma (or at least, its English speaking ones) and (2) less evocative of tentacle hentai.

Fortunately, there already appears to be a good choice: the so-called Spivak pronouns, named after mathematician Michael Spivak, who neither invented them nor used them.  (I guess it’s one more example we can add to Stigler’s Law.)

Essentially, Spivak used a variation of a set of pronouns developed by Christine Elverson in 1975, whose construction is simplicity itself: to make a single, gender-neutral pronoun, simply take the (already-in-use) plural gender-specific pronoun and drop the “th” at the front of it.  That is, Elverson proposed using the object / object / possessive pronoun set

ey / em / eir

as replacements for

he / him / his

and

she / her / her.

Five years later,  psychologist Donald MacKay experimented with

E / E / Es

as one of three epicene pronoun sets designed to reduce gender miscomprehension in textbook paragraphs.  Spivak took the bulk of Elverson’s pronouns, but replaced “ey” with MacKay’s simpler “E” (as a nice counterpoint to “I”) and worked with

E / Em / Eir

in his 1983 LaTeX guide The Joy of TeX. These pronouns jumped the world of geeky type-setting to geeky text settings in 1991, when LambdaMOO added them as gender settings for its players, but eliminated the extra capitalization; that is, they used

e / em / eir.

These were originally included as a novelty to test the code’s ability to handle pronouns, but were retained when they found that they had become popular with the MOO’s players.

With the Spivak pronouns, the word problem becomes

A scientist is working with a sample of the radioactive element unobtanium.  At noon, e notes that it weighs 10 N.  After 20 minutes e places it a second time on eir scale, and finds its weight has dropped to 9 N.  What is the half-life of unobtainum?

The Spivak pronouns two big advantages going for them.  First, they’re relatively easy to use: “e” works as a simple replacement for “he” or “she,” and every other Spivak pronoun essentially comes from the construction plural minus “th”.

Second, at first blush the Spivak pronouns “e” and “em” sound a lot like “he” and “him,” albeit rather Cockneyfied.  Advocates of gender equality might argue that this still allows subtle sexism to persist in the pronouns, and they’re right.  I, however, maintain that that’s a good thing: those knuckle-draggers who would otherwise balk at “equality-promoting pronouns” don’t actually hear the difference.  Since they think they hear what they want to hear, hopefully they’ll shut the hell up.  (This is a similar strategy to my X-Mas suggestion a few year back.)

So there you have it: a set of pronouns that allow the speaker of English to communicate what e means precisely, without appending unnecessary gender connotations to eir words.  And if somebody has a problem with it, e can shut eir trap and get with the 21st century.

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