Gender-neutral pronouns

Because we use language to help organise our thoughts and develop our sense of ourselves as individuals, it is easy to forget that language is not something inherent within us, but rather that it is a tool. Sometimes, the tools are not quite up to the job and some changes are required. Gender is one of those areas in which the traditional ideas of gender in language are not meeting everybody’s needs.

Pronouns are such a fundamental part of our everyday conversations, the personal pronouns arguable most of all, that the absence of an official gender-neutral pronoun in our dictionaries is a real problem for a great many people. The word epicene is sometimes used, meaning a word that only has one form for all genders, i.e. firefighter, as opposed to a term like fireman.

Historical gender-neutral pronouns

However, a gender-neutral pronoun is not something that has only be in demand in recent times. There is evidence of a historical gender-neutral pronoun in the English language as far back as the fourteenth century when John of Treviso used a as a pronoun in place of he, she, it, they and even I. In 1789, one William Marshall noted a dialect version of the third person, ou, which could be used instead of he, she or it, which he traced back to that same a pronoun.

There are stories of middle-school children in Baltimore nowadays using yo as a gender-neutral pronoun: for example, yo put his feet on the desk. However, it seems as though there is no regular version of the possessive adjective, as here his is used.

Solutions we employ today

Another aspect of tools is that many people do not use them in the way the instruction manual directs. For example, everyday speech in English has already come up with some solutions, albeit non-standard and/or imperfect.

Using the male pronoun only is generally frowned upon today, and he or she, while probably the most grammatically accurate attempt, is very unwieldy. Some authors will alternate he and she in order to try and strike some balance.

In theory, one could be used. However, one is an indefinite pronoun, not a personal pronoun, which means even though it does agree with the third-person in terms of verbs, etc., it cannot replace I, he, etc. For example, every child should be allowed to take one’s art home with them does not work at all; the sentence can only begin with one.

It cannot be used for adult humans whose gender is unknown, as the convention is it sounds too inhuman. Babies can be assigned it as a pronoun (a baby will pick up so many habits from its parents), presumably because they are not yet able to communicate themselves, but adults cannot (a parent will do everything it can for its baby).

In some ways, the solution is already being passed between us: what is known as the singular they. An English speaker might find themselves using it without even noticing. (See what I did there?) Many find this option irritating as it retains the plural verb endings, but then this did nothing to prevent the march of you across the second-person conjugations, knocking aside ye, thou and thee into the gutter of history while keeping its plural endings.

Attempts to invent new versions

The human mind, though, is a restless thing, and many other solutions have been suggested.

In 1884, one Charles Converse coined the term thon, a condensed that one, which did appear in some dictionaries early in the twentieth century, but was never widely adopted.

Other versions have been adopted from science-fiction novels, with the epicene pronoun per coming from Marge Piercey’s Woman on the Edge of Time in 1976. There are a few variants of the Spivak set, based on the pronoun they but with the th- removed and made grammatically singular. The ze pronoun is taken from the German for you plural, Sie.

Examples of some more common non-traditional gender-neutral pronouns

singular they they said he told them it was theirs they blamed themselves
Spivak ey said he told em it was heirs ey blamed eirself
ze ze said he told zir It was zeirs ze blamed zirself