I am not a linguist, nor an expert on gender. I’m just trying to muddle my way through this confusing world the same as anyone else.
The English language is adaptable. We’ll happily bodge words together to make new ones, verb our nouns, and grammar-flex to the point of breaking. It’s a fun language!
English is (mostly) genderless. The French have le chat and la table – because cats are boys and tables are girls, apparently. In Portuguese, the boys are “os meninos” but the girls are “as meninas“.
Humans have pronouns (for example: he, she, they are common – but many others are available). For lots of people, it’s reasonably obvious from context what their pronouns are. Calling someone by the wrong pronoun can be a bit offensive. The offence ranges from a minor social faux-pas all the way up to harassment.
Imagine that instead of being referred to by your correct pronoun, someone called you “it”. That’s not very nice, and rather dehumanising.
English society has become a lot less formal over time. It used to be the case that you would be introduced to someone by their title. “This is Mr Smith, the bank manager.” Nowadays it is “Hey! I’m Dave, the bank manager”. Whether the casualisation on social intercourse is a good thing is a subject for another blog post.
The advantage of the old way was that you often (but not always) got to know someone’s pronouns from their title. Mr = he/him, Mrs = she/her.
But titles aren’t always useful.
Sometimes, they “leak” personal information. Mrs vs Miss – tells someone if you’re married or not. Hence the push by second wave feminism to use the term “Ms” to denote female, without revealing social status.
A gender-neutral version is “Mx“. Which is widely accepted by UK institutions and doesn’t “leak” gender. I often use Mx when I don’t think an organisation needs to know my gender or marital status – but I still use he/him as pronouns.
Some other formal titles don’t convey gender. English doesn’t have Doctor / Doctoress, for example. Some gendered terms are obscure to most people – Editor / Editrix.
(The German language gets round this by addressing female doctors as “Frau Doktor“.)
So even if we returned to a more formal way of speaking to people, it wouldn’t necessarily get us to use the right pronouns.
Given that we want to avoid being rude, and understanding that misgendering someone can be a source of distress, what stops us introducing people with their pronouns?
I think part of the problem is that pronouns can feel awkward. There’s no simple way to introduce someone and their pronouns in spoken English. It’s easy to say “This is Ms Smith” – but I can’t think of a convenient way to say out loud “This is Jane (she/her)”. I suppose I could say “This is Jane, she uses female pronouns” – but it doesn’t trip off the tongue.
Similarly, when I say “I’m Terence. He/Him.” it doesn’t feel very natural. That’s not a great argument against doing something. And I dare say it will get more common in time.
Not everyone feels comfortable declaring their pronouns. For some, it feels unnecessary (ah! to have such privilege) and for others it starts a conversation they may not want to have. Some people are flexible about how others addresses them.
Language changes are difficult. As we grow older, we lose neuroplasticity. It can be hard to accept that the word “gay” no longer means “carefree”, or that “wicked” isn’t the epitome of cool.
This isn’t to excuse people for failing to adapt – but I think it helps explain why it is hard for them to change.
In text, I wondered about using Emoji as a signifier.
Do you consider it acceptable to use Unicode symbols as identifiers of preferred pronouns? Saw it in someone's bio and wasn't quite sure what to make of it.
I guess the symbols are slightly obscure. Does that matter? 🤔
— Terence Eden (@edent) May 8, 2019
But the general consensus was that they didn’t correlate strongly enough, and are somewhat obscure.
I’m happy putting “he/him” in my Twitter bio – and anywhere else that needs it. But the grumpy old codger in me wishes there was a more elegant way to do it.
I don’t have a conclusion to this blog post. The world moves on, and it’s up to us to keep pace with it. Sometimes it takes a while to catch up. I hope I’m doing the right thing, and I trust my friends to gently nudge me if I’m not.