NEW YORK – On college campuses and in the workplaces, in social media and in respect for non-binary people, gender-neutral pronouns are more than just a new wave of political correctness.
They are the focus of the debate that stretches back hundreds of years.
Beginning word coiners were usually more concerned with grammatical correctness on an enthusiastic commitment to integration in the avoidance of the generic “he” and singular “they” as a replacement, said professor Dennis Baron, who specializes in the history of the English language at the University of Illinois at urbana-Champaign-Urbana.
But as the women’s rights movement grew in the late 19th century, so did interest in “common-gender” pronouns. They were a hot topic then as they are now.
Feminist leaders argued, in the midst of an effort to “he” as a generic, that such a widening of gender range is automatically the women worthy of the vote. In 1884, the invented pronoun “it” was made known by the inventor, C. C. Converse, as a means of pronoun for all genders.
“Thon made a lot of news. It was discussed at the national level. But most of these words were a kind of flash in the pan words which was invented locally and go anywhere,” Baron said.
Converse ‘ s word is a blend of “that” and “one.” Among the reasons he called for the creation was to hide the gender in whole or when the gender was unknown, Baron said.
The battle for the neutral pronouns bred at other times.
In 1886, the Maryland Supreme Court decision found that “he” in a state statute covering the admission to the bar only relates to men, to the exclusion of women from the practice of law. In 1916, self-authorized experts stated that the use of “he” in reference to a particular section of the US Constitution prohibited women from serving in Congress. The argument does not hold, and Montana’s Jeanette Rankin became the first woman elected to the House, said the Baron, who tweets on language problems as @DrGrammar and has written a book, “Grammar and Gender.”
Before Rankin, in 1789, William H. Marshall recorded the existence of the singular “ou”, as in “Ou (ooh),” Baron said. It expressed, “he”, “she” or “it will.” There are references to “ou” as an indefinite pronoun as early as 1792, but not on a large scale to catch.
Both in the Oxford English Dictionary and Joseph Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary included the use of “a” for “he,” “she,” ” it,” “they” and even “I,” he said.
By 1808, invented pronouns flew, met by the grammar establishment with disdain. “It was like, get a life, don’ t quit your day job,” Baron joked.
Further back, in the 12th and 13th century, male and female pronouns developed to a point where, according to the oxford english dictionary, they were “almost or wholly indistinguishable in pronunciation,” in the beginning “he (hay), a degree (ministry of agriculture) and hit (hit). The H is slowly grew silent, making them neutral. The modern female “she” for the first time appears in the middle of the 12th century, apparently in part at least — to fight against the uncertainty about the sex, the Baron said.
Baron has collected more than 100 pronouns, invented or adapted, making the rounds today, and the list is growing.
“From what I can see of the fabricated pronouns are interesting, but they use is limited,” he said.
Among the existing words that already existed, the singular “they” is winning the popularity contest as a gender-neutral, Baron said. The American Dialect Society named it word of the year in 2015, but the word was first used as a neutral singular pronoun, as far back as the 17th century, to the great annoyance of some of the grammarians in a time when “ye, ye, your” began to fall out of the boat.
“One of the advantages is that there already is,” Baron said, “they.”
Under invented options: Ze/hir (Tyler ate hir food because they were hungry) — they are pronounced as “sea” and hir, “here.”
Similar early efforts at neutrality caused a dustup in 1912, reported the Chicago Tribune. Ella stephen king Young, who was the city of ‘s-schools-director and president of the National Education Association, claimed to have invented’ he ‘, him’ there are ‘there are’ there is. They made headlines when they were in a speech for school principals, earning the cries of the crowd.
Fred S. Pond, of Chicago are not happy with the idea that Young came up with the words, saying: ‘he stated “he-er-are-er, him-er, hisers and himerself” in a letter to the Mansfield, Ohio, News-Journal, published 21 March 1911, Baron said.
Young later admitted to the discussion of the words, with a Pond, before her speech, offers him a joint credit. Pond’s reasoning: The general “he” is inadequate, the singular “they” replaces an “error” for any other, and the construction “he or she” is awkward. He acknowledged that are a mix of male and female “sound strange and perhaps ridiculous”, but eventually it would “enable the speaker — who is he-there — is accurate and understandable.”
Other languages are also on the pronoun wars. They are Swedish. A gender-neutral pronoun was accepted in the Swedish Academy Dictionary about three years ago.
Many English speakers today have no idea that neutral pronouns were on the cultural radar of centuries ago, Baron said.
“The question is, however, we are in a blip or is this going to become stronger,” he said. “What works against the ever stronger is the lack of agreement on what pronoun. If everyone behind a pronoun, that gives it a chance.”
Marcelle Richards, 35, of Minneapolis is a non-binary person who uses “they” and “them”. Richards falls “under the trans-umbrella,” but is gender fluid.
“This is all very personal for people,” Richards said. “I haven’t been able to get everyone in my life on board. It is an energy thing for me. Which battles should I choose?”
Shane Henise, which creates campaigns in the media in connection with the trans community, GLAAD, LGBTQ watchdog organization, makes use of the pronouns “he” and “him.” The pronouns, he said, are especially important for non-binary people like Richards who do not identify strictly as a man or as a woman.
“We need to start with the normalize asking for pronouns, not only for non-binary trans people, but in everyday life,” Henise said. “Why not your pronouns in your signature in your e-mail? Another thing that we can do is to pronouns, as we have the introduction of people, so I would say, ” My name is Shane. I use he/him pronouns. How is it with you?'”