The Problem Of Pronouns

One of the more awkward social situations I have been involved in–and this is saying something given my general awkwardness as a human being [1]–was when I attended a meeting on privilege and the people organizing the event had everyone stand up and list their preferred personal pronouns.  Like many people, I grew up in an age where assigning pronouns was pretty easy and could be done at birth.  In fact, I still believe things to be that way even now in an age where some people post lists of dozens of personal pronouns that one can be called if one chooses (I am particularly fond of Jim/Jam of some of the lists I have seen) that it is particularly easy to tell the gender of pronouns because grammar follows biology.  Whatever you may feel about your identity, your identity in an objective sense is an easy one to determine.

That said, pronouns are problematic in several ways, and English is not always the best when it comes to dealing with such matters.  Some languages have gendered nouns, so that one is used to calling things by genders even though they do not tend to have genders–the romance languages are particularly good for this but certainly not alone in that tendency, as Hebrew and other languages have that phenomenon as well.  Among those languages that have genders, some have a neuter or indeterminate gender already added, and some languages have more complex “genders,” a matter which I will leave for those who are linguists of such odd languages.  In English, though, we lack a standard second person plural as few people are willing to adopt the yinz or y’all solution that is found in some regional dialects that I happen to be familiar with.  This is not only a problem in English but is increasingly becoming a problem in other languages as the second person plural is increasingly not spoken except in formal occasions like sermons where there is a a clear matter of wanting to speak to an audience as a whole that has been assembled in large part to hear what one has to say.

Among the most personally baffling matter of pronouns to me is the way that some people who consider themselves to be non-binary (again, this is a matter of feelings and not of objective fact regarding their identity) desire to be called they.  One reason this has baffled me is that we already have a perfectly good indeterminate term when it comes to the third-person singular, and that is it.  Now, I can understand why someone might not want to be called it, because it could be judged as referring to someone as being beneath human dignity.  That said, they is hardly a more elegant solution, although if one is saying that one is being inhabited by an unfriendly demonic spirit whose malevolence is at least somewhat responsible for one’s identity confusion, then using the pronoun of they would be an accurate statement of what someone was dealing with.  Perhaps that is an implication that is not considered by those who desire to be referred to.

Indeed, one can rest assured that if you think it necessary to inform other people of your preferred pronouns and it cannot be guessed obviously by one’s name, bearing, and appearance, then there are more serious problems that likely need to be addressed.  I can safely say personally that I have never felt comfortable or been impressed with the thinking and reasoning of someone who feels it necessary to post a preferred personal pronoun.  That does not mean that they are beneath human dignity–as human beings we all have areas that test the patience of others–but it does mean that they are people whose grasp of objective reality is less than profound and thus are likely to be lacking in wisdom and insight in a wide variety of areas.  I am not sure whether this is generally understood, or whether solipsism is so common that objective reality is viewed as something to actively resist rather than something which bounds and limits us in any way.

It should be noted, though, that it is not as if problems with pronouns are a new thing.  The English language, like other languages, once had multiple second person pronouns, including ye as well as you and thou.  Ye was used both as a second-person plural pronoun as well as a way of talking to a single superior, who was assumed to be plural at least in part because of his office (another way in which one can point to the presence of a malevolent spirit seeking domination over others).  Ye seemed to fall to the wayside in terms of usage once more egalitarian sentiment spread in the United States.  The case for thou, the polite second person singular form of ye, is also interesting, as it was a term that was originally meant to express intimacy or familiarity, but its nearly exclusive use by Quakers to refer to others led it to be viewed with increasing disdain by those who were hostile to Quakers.  And since pronouns have been a matter of conflict for language politics for centuries, we should not be surprised that it is so in our own conflict-ridden age.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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