Controversy is still swirling around trans, non-binary, and other "gender creative" people's occasional insistence on being referred to with pronouns of their choice. I have been thinking about this lately, and while some people are very upset that others are asking for specific pronouns the speaker may disagree with ("But you're a he, not a she!") I've come to the conclusion that the gender creatives are really not being all that creative at all.
As far as I can tell, the vast majority of people who are requesting "special" pronouns are doing one of two things:
- Asking to be referred to with the pronouns appropriate to the gender they identify as (whether it's immediately apparent to others or not). That is, hypothetically, someone born female asking to be referred to in the third person with he, him, his, himself. No other changes to the pronominal system.
- Asking to be referred to with a gender neutral third person pronoun, usually either they (which has a long history of use for gender neutral, but nonspecific, third person), or some variation on Xe, Ze, or something else pronounced with a voiced coronal sibilant. (/z/). No other changes to the pronominal system.
The thing is, the languages of the world do a lot of really interesting things with pronouns, and these so-called gender creatives are clearly not being creative enough. It's almost as though they're not playing with language at all, but are actually trying to conform to the rules of English while insisting others respect their gender identity.
Here are some things they could be doing, and places where I think they're really dropping the ball:
- Gendering pronouns other than the third person. Arabic has gendered second person singular and plural pronouns. Instead of just "you" referring to anyone you're talking with, Modern Standard Arabic has anti, anta, antum, antunna, for "you (male)", "you (female)", "you men," and "you women" respectively.
- Proximal and Distal third person pronouns. Algonkian languages tend to differentiate between, say, 'he (who is nearby)' and 'he (who is far from us),' which can then send social signals -- if I talk about you in front of you, but use the him (distal) form, I'm pretty rudely implying that this is an A/B conversation (and you can C your way out).
- More case marking. English really only has nominative/oblique/possessive pronouns. Other languages do a lot more. I'd love to be able to say that I identify as male, but my pronouns are he/him/his/hig/hif/hird for nominative, oblique, possessive, ablative (motion towards me), instrumental (using me to do something or doing something accompanied by me), and locative (doing something where I am). Russian and Latin have us beat by like 3 cases, and Hungarian is blowing us out of the water.
- Marking tense on the pronoun. Wolof, for instance, marks differences in tense not on the verb, but on the pronoun. This allows meeting the gender...uncreative?... half way: "You can use the pronoun for males when referring to me only if it's got past tense morphology on it."
So yes, at your request I will call you ze/zim/zis, but know that I'm silently judging you for your cliché, unimaginative pronouns, and wishing you'd give me a real challenge. It's almost like this isn't about language at all, but just about asking for me to respect your life choices and identity.
©Taylor Jones 2016
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