Also Not Words – Our Weird Gendered Pronouns

Remember how I talked a bit about the oddness of our unword words, which included referential terms like pronouns? Gunna talk a bit more about them here specifically as pronouns become part of gender.

Something I tend to get frustrated by when we talk about pronouns, which are mostly ungendered is that I have to mention that six of them aren’t. Those six words are, conjugated, he/him/his and she/her/hers. Unlike every other word in this cluster of not-quite-words, things that convey almost no meaning, these do convey some meaning. They convey a tiny drop of meaning – specifically, they convey the gender of their antecedent. This is weird.

I’ve commented in the past that you don’t make tools for problems you don’t have. In our language, we therefore have this tool for a word that tells you basically nothing while it tells you something else’s gender. And these tools stand apart for the other tools like them. This is weird bullshit, too. The implication it gives me, as a modern speaker of English, certainly when I was younger, was that gender was easily observed and expected to be shared. Which now, as an adult, I think is weird.

English is this massive confused mess of inherited pieces. It has the tools of gendered language while it largely doesn’t use them. It shed so many of those trappings but we hang onto these six weird words that don’t even serve all our purposes. Pronouns are part of the structures of language we are both formally taught, and then, informally use. They are shorthand words, words we use more often than we use the things they reference – lookup points on a table, designed to be more easy and more convenient than proper names.

To my mind this means that the pronouns we have are stuck in this awkward middle space. They are specific enough that they now carry a meaning about the identity of the person in question, and identity that may not be true, and they are vague enough that if you have two people of probably-the-same gender in a conversation they become pretty useless. And then

Pronouns become part of gender.

Which is weird.

I think that’s part of why people latch onto pronouns so readily? Because pronouns are this symbol of it is expected that we can demand your gender of you. It’s strangely invasive and to people who are first moving outside of the binary structure, or even just to a different place within that binary’s assumed space, it can become part of the most basic level of respect. And with nonbinary people, nonbinary pronouns seem to be the wisest course. Except then we have the pronouns people use, and a smaller, extra, splintered subset of pronouns that don’t really do pronouns’ jobs. They’re specific pointers – in some cases, so specific that you probably are the only person you know who uses them (though of course, you may know of other people with them). Their use becomes a radical act, this request and demand – please respect this part of my identity. It’s as simple as getting someone’s name right.

Except, as not-words, pronouns are not really there to have meaning in and of themselves, they’re there to reference things. These extra pronoun become exceptions, become special cases that attune to only one person, and the work of pronouns, shorthand for other ideas, jerks to a stop.

Conjugating pronouns on the fly is something I’ve done all my life, but as you add to the vocabulary of pronouns it becomes challenging to use them properly. Remembering a specific set and context can be a tricky situation especially since mis-using a word can be seen as a colossal insult to a person’s identity. What I’ve found I wind up doing, when speaking aloud, is that either my speaking slows to a crawl and it’s kinda noticeable, or I just wind up using the person’s name more, and structuring my sentences to avoid pronouns entirely.

Now I want to underscore: If you have or favour these pronouns that is okay. I am not saying you are bad or wrong or should change. I am saying that using them is sometimes challenging and I would, linguistically, be happier if instead, we all used gender-free pronouns entirely to erode ideas of binarism.

But that’s a bit big and complicated. And the thing is, trying to force the use of exotic pronouns into the language is really challenging because language is a very democratic process which melts and evolves and churns and without a centralised body to enforce it (as say, France has), there’s no way to make changes like that in a sweeping, coherent fashion. And even if you did, you’d have lots of people ignoring it (as say, France does).

I want to make it clear I am not saying that people with nonstandard pronouns are wrong or bad or are a problem. I am instead considering how they linguistically are addressing a problem that a sensible language wouldn’t have.

In the mean time, don’t try and use this idea as an excuse to disrespect people’s pronouns. It’s as rude as if we all just started calling you Bruce. If your name isn’t Bruce, that is. I assume that there might be a Bruce that reads this, I guess?

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