How do you discuss a person you don’t know the name and gender of? English speakers use pronouns in the first, second, or third person to refer to individuals in place of their names. The first and second personal pronouns are not gendered – but then there is the third. The third person, singular “he,” “she,” and “it,” and plural “they,” is inherently gendered when discussing an individual. You are either a “he” or a “she,” with “it” being reserved for babies, animals, and objects. There seems to be a semantic gap for a third-person singular gender neutral pronoun, also known as an epicene pronoun – it simply does not exist in proper English. This gap is acknowledged by linguists, but it also affects another sect of society: the transgender community. What happens when a problem that has been discussed by linguistic experts for over a century is co-opted by non-linguists? Interesting and possible solutions. As common speakers of a language get involved, they create their own unique solutions to language problems, such as the epicene gap, and implement them into their use of the language.
Due to the recent media focus on transgender individuals, the epicene pronoun is being discussed more and more in this context. Within the transgender community, those transgender individuals who do not identify within the traditional gender binary are most affected by the epicene gap. These individuals within the spectrum of gender identities and who use terms such as “non-binary,” “genderqueer,” and “bigender” to label themselves (LGBT Resource Center; Anagnori), face an interesting conundrum regarding their pronouns. Since they do not perfectly fit into society’s boxes of “male” or “female,” they do not feel comfortable being referred to with the traditionally gendered “he” or “she” pronouns (Chak). As the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s LGBT Resource Center explains in its guide to gender pronouns, the third-person pronoun binary of “he” and “she” is incredibly limiting for an individual who does not succumb to the gender binary. Due to this discrepancy between available pronouns and some individuals’ genders, there is a need for a pronoun that is third-person singular, like “he” or “she,” but that does not have a connotation of gender with regards to the noun it is replacing (LGBT Resource Center)—that is, the epicene pronoun.
Currently filling the epicene gap for many nonbinary individuals is the use of a singular form of “they.” This epicene pronoun has the most social and grammatical weight (Chak), and experts in the field expect it to succeed (McCurdy). In “On the Goals, Principles, and Procedures for Prescriptive Grammar: Singular They,” Donald MacKay of UCLA notes that one suggested epicene pronoun, epicene “he,” has an inherent assumed gender to readers, male, while “they” is inherently gender-neutral. Therefore, he concludes, the use of “they” sounds more natural in gender-neutral contexts, because it has no associated gender. However, “they” is the one epicene pronoun that “annoys” (Chak) the most linguists and grammar fanatics in general. Because of its origin as a plural pronoun, there is an academic debate over whether “they” is grammatically proper (LGBT Resource Center), and whether there is reason for it to be absorbed into the category of third-person singular pronouns. The arguments against the use of “they” focus primarily on grammatical reasoning. Due to the lack of gender and the fluidity of subject, “they” can create ambiguity and vagueness in a sentence. When ambiguity of number is added into the mix by making “they” both a singular and plural pronoun (MacKay 358), this confusion further increases. Despite some flaws, “they” thrives in society; for its use “as a pronoun to refer to a known person” who does not fit into the gender binary, the American Dialect Society voted singular “they” as the 2015 Word of the Year. “They” already exists within the English language as a plural gender-neutral pronoun. Speakers already know it (ADS) and may even use it in a singular fashion without even recognizing what they’ve said. The most common natural use of “they” in a singular form is sentences where the speaker does not know the gender of the subject (Chak). This variation of “they” also has a history of use within fiction, particularly British literature. Famous authors such as Chaucer, Jane Austen, and Shakespeare (ADS) have used the singular form of “they” within their works, dating it back more than six hundred years (LGBT Resource Center).
While the use of singular “they” as the English epicene pronoun of choice has been propelled almost exclusively colloquially, the discussion of the epicene gap has been a hot topic for linguists (Baron). This discussion has focused more on referring to an individual of unknown gender, not an individual with a non-binary gender. Solution upon solution was proposed, from using epicene “he” (MacKay), or epicene “she” (Baron), to adopting “one” as a formal pronoun (LGBT Resource Center). However, no existing word in the English language, excluding “they,” passed the scrutiny of linguists or of society – epicene “he” and “she” were shot down due to the “sexist bias” (Baron 85) of linguists, and using “one,” as Baron notes through quoting a 1931 publication by G.L. Trager, is often “ridicule[d]” (86) by most English users due to its formality.
A solution to the epicene gap did not exist in contemporary English vocabulary, so alternative solutions were developed by linguists and other academics. These are the constructed epicene pronouns, which were designed to offer gender neutral language in and outside of academia before transgender people were even part of the pronoun narrative. Proposed pronouns sought to either combine masculinity and femininity, such as “shem,” or to be completely epicene, such as “per” (Baron 86). Dennis E. Baron, a linguistics professor at the University of Illinois who recorded constructed epicene pronouns, subtitles his article on the epicene pronoun with “the word that failed,” because none of these pronouns ever saw heavy use in society.
Yet, out of the masses of pronouns Baron discussed, two actually snuck their way into the corner of the public eye – neither of which, interestingly, were coined by linguists. The first was “thon,” a portmanteau of “that one,” whose coinage dated back to the mid-to-late 1800s (Anagnori; Baron 86-87, 89-90). “Thon” managed to find its way into two separate dictionaries – the Standard Dictionary and Webster’s Second (Baron 87). This seemed like the answer to the pronoun question until “thon” faded back into obscurity, not returning with the publication of Webster’s Third (Baron 87). The other constructed epicene pronoun that found a little bit of spotlight still retains its recognition, however. Michael Spivak, a mathematics professor, used the pronoun “e” in his textbooks in order to make them gender-nonspecific (Thomas). Later, use of these pronouns in the online game LambdaMOO (Thomas), would give the Spivak pronouns more popular use on Internet games, science fiction, and transgender forums (McCurdy). Sue Thomas of Nottingham Trent University, who talks about her experiences with LambdaMOO in her article “Spivak,” states, “[Spivak pronouns] offered the chance to do some interesting experimentation” in terms of gender and identity online. Through the viral nature of the Internet, these pronouns became popular enough to be recognized alongside “he” and “she,” singular “they,” and other, newer pronouns, as seen on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s LGBT Resource Center page. The existence of the Spivak pronouns, and those that developed following them, allowed a number of individuals online to anonymously explore their gender identities without having to deal with society’s preconceptions of gender identity and expression (Thomas).
The Internet is a powerhouse for social and linguistic change; as groups of like-minded individuals coalesce, their attitudes and viewpoints culminate into one hivemind-esque creative engine. It is this same creative engine that sparked another phase of rapid-fire epicene pronoun production in the early 2010s, which I had the privilege to witness firsthand. I refer to these pronouns as “nounself pronouns” or more formally “neopronouns” (pronouns-archive), due to their origins and their relatively new existence. A majority of the individuals coining these pronouns, including myself, were young teenagers, ranging from about thirteen to seventeen, who had developed a strong transgender community through the Internet. These teens, through a mixture of wanting to discover their identity and wanting to jump onto the newest trend, suddenly coined dozens upon dozens of new epicene pronouns for their peers’ use. Similar in vein to Baron’s glossary of constructed epicene pronouns in “The Epicene Pronoun,” there are over eighty different neopronouns listed on pronouns-archive, a blog on Tumblr that posts submissions from users who have coined their own pronouns and archives them into a cohesive body. In contrast to pronouns made in the 20th century, neopronouns have their origins in common, everyday words that nonbinary or transgender individuals think work well with their or others’ sense of gender identity. These pronouns are “deliberately more fanciful” (McCulloch) and simultaneously seek to affirm one’s gender as being neither completely male or female, as well as to play with society’s preconceptions of gender and what can or cannot be defined as a pronoun (Anagnori). A pronoun, inherently, is simply a short word that can be used on behalf of, or pro, a normal noun (McCulloch). Saying “Elizabeth walked into glubs house, then glub turned on the TV and glub plopped down next to glubs partner” may sound foreign and strange to someone who has never used a pronoun like “glub” (pronouns-archive) before, but it is infinitely more convenient to a writer or speaker than saying “Elizabeth walked into Elizabeth’s house, then Elizabeth turned on the TV and Elizabeth plopped down next to Elizabeth’s partner.” Teenagers on Tumblr, however, are not linguists. A good chunk of these pronouns were ill-thought out and declined imperfectly, leaving gaps and missing pieces that cause their use to be unwieldy and inconvenient (Anagnori). Some of these pronouns, however, such as “vae” (pronouns-archive), which is pronounced and declined in the same vein as singular “they,” were adopted by a portion of nonbinary individuals as their pronoun of choice both online and off, demonstrating how something seemingly niche and restricted to a certain community can have rippling impacts.
Communal and social interactions created and popularized singular “they,” Spivak pronouns, and neopronouns, not a linguist with a doctorate. At the end of the day, language is something that is inherently of the people – the only way that one person can order another to change their language is through the power of government and bureaucracy (McCurdy), which rarely happens. Despite what we are told is “right” or “wrong” by authority figures, people continue to speak how they do and our languages continue to evolve in complex and interesting ways. What linguists tried and failed to do themselves, the people accomplished without even recognizing – proving that language is not a top-down system (McCurdy), but rather a grassroots campaign that linguists attempt to describe ex post facto.
Works Cited American Dialect Society. “2015 Word of the Year is Singular ‘They,’” 2016, http://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they. Anagnori.“A Non-binary Person’s Guide to Invented Pronouns,” Tumblr, 2014, http://anagnori.tumblr.com/post/75752291700/a-non-binary-persons-guide-to-invented-pronouns. Baron, Dennis E. “The Epicene Pronoun: The Word that Failed.” American Speech, vol. 56, no. 2, 1981, pp. 83-97, http://www.jstor.org/stable/455007 Chak, Avinash. “Beyond ‘He’ and ‘She’: The Rise of Non-binary http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34901704. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center. “Gender pronouns,”
University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, 2016, https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/support/gender-pronouns/ MacKay, Donald G. “On the Goals, Principles, and Procedures for Prescriptive Grammar: Singular They.”Language in Society, vol. 9, 1980, pp. 349-367, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.702.7938&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
McCulloch, Gretchen. “A Linguist on the Story of Gendered Pronouns.” The Toast, 2 June 2014, http://the-toast.net/2014/06/02/a-linguist-gendered-pronouns/. McCurdy, Christen. “Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns Actually Doomed?” Pacific Standard, 8 Oct. 2013,https://psmag.com/social-justice/gender-neutral-pronouns-actually-doomed-67600. pronouns-archive. “Find Specific Pronouns!” 2016, http://pronouns-archive.tumblr.com/tags. Thomas, Sue. Spivak.” The Barcelona Review, no. 35, 2003, http://barcelonareview.com/35/e_st.htm.
American Dialect Society. “2015 Word of the Year is Singular ‘They,’” 2016, http://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they.
Anagnori.“A Non-binary Person’s Guide to Invented Pronouns,” Tumblr, 2014, http://anagnori.tumblr.com/post/75752291700/a-non-binary-persons-guide-to-invented-pronouns.
Baron, Dennis E. “The Epicene Pronoun: The Word that Failed.” American Speech, vol. 56, no. 2, 1981, pp. 83-97, http://www.jstor.org/stable/455007
Chak, Avinash. “Beyond ‘He’ and ‘She’: The Rise of Non-binary http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-34901704.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center. “Gender pronouns,” University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, 2016, https://uwm.edu/lgbtrc/support/gender-pronouns/
MacKay, Donald G. “On the Goals, Principles, and Procedures for Prescriptive Grammar: Singular They.”Language in Society, vol. 9, 1980, pp. 349-367, http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.702.7938&rep=rep1&type=pdf.
McCulloch, Gretchen. “A Linguist on the Story of Gendered Pronouns.” The Toast, 2 June 2014, http://the-toast.net/2014/06/02/a-linguist-gendered-pronouns/.
McCurdy, Christen. “Are Gender-Neutral Pronouns Actually Doomed?” Pacific Standard, 8 Oct. 2013,https://psmag.com/social-justice/gender-neutral-pronouns-actually-doomed-67600.
pronouns-archive. “Find Specific Pronouns!” 2016, http://pronouns-archive.tumblr.com/tags.
Thomas, Sue. Spivak.” The Barcelona Review, no. 35, 2003, http://barcelonareview.com/35/e_st.htm.