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Gender-Neutral Pronouns: Is That Alien a He, She Or an It?
As a girl growing up in an era of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) episodes, I acutely recall how the original Star Trek, the theme song included the line, “where no man has gone before.” I was so relieved when TNG came out with that same line in the theme song, with an important change: “where no one has gone before.”
I was so glad that the 24th century was not defaulting to masculine pronouns.
But then my 7th grade English teacher said to “always” default to the masculine pronoun when making generalizations about people or when gender was unknown. She was a really great teacher. But when she said that…
…my mind fast forwarded back to the 24th century. How did all the humans come to address all the alien species they encountered? Did they use he, she or it? Did they come up with new words?
Historically, English has used he, him, or his to make statements that include both sexes:
A Klingon must always fight for his honor.
We all know there were female Klingons. Admittedly, they didn’t look that much different from the males, but well, to each his own, right?
What are all those pronouns that people are talking about, anyway?
He, him, his
She, her, hers
Where Man Has Gone...
More recently, however, people have caught on that it seems rather sexist to just default to those pesky male pronouns. How will we ever classify the aliens?
So, without thinking, people have begun to use they, them or their to leave out the element of gender:
Whoever commands the Enterprise had better have their act together.
This is just in case you’re taken over by hostile invasion. Watch out for the Borg!
Back in the 21st century, the use of they, them or there is probably what drove English teachers everywhere to Roswell, New Mexico to observe alien events. They begged for abduction. Or, maybe they resigned themselves to science to pave the way for the first warp drive. In any case, they couldn’t shake the shrill sound of a “singular they”. They is plural, you earthlings!
Before the 21st century, evidence persists that there were plenty of victims of alien abduction. As many times as people have tried to insert a gender-neutral pronoun into the English language, it always sounded reminiscent of some distant planet’s alien vernacular - proof of alien abduction, don't you think?
...To Where No ONE Has Gone
Did you know that pronouns currently exist that are gender-neutral in the English language? Spivak pronouns are among the most well-known. (See table - adapted from the Wikipedia page)
People have been trying, since the 1700's, to incorporate pronouns into the English language that leave out gender-biased pronouns. Unfortunately, they have never caught on. I would venture to guess that this is because we're talking about fundamental changes to the English language. How many people would go for that?
They might be more inclined if they were coerced by aliens....
Do You Think You Would Adopt a New Gender-Neutral Pronoun
If I were Commander Riker learning about the pronouns, er, aliens of Spivak, I’d have a dandy time figuring out which ones were more feminine. Remember when he encountered that androgynous species called the J’naii? Of course he fell for the co-pilot Soren, who secretly identified with the female gender. Soren got in trouble, too. It was taboo to identify with a gender. It was less evolved. They made sure that wouldn't happen again.
But, back to the point. If those Spivak pronouns had really caught on, you probably would have heard of them by now. I mean, we’re talking about changing some of the most basic words of the English language. Maybe the aliens really are infiltrating: slowly but surely.
It doesn’t seem that far-fetched that we’d adopt new words into the English language. Ten years ago, how many people knew about Google and used it as a verb?
Did you google that already?
But we’re not talking about the random adoption of some Orwellian word. I’m talking about pronouns, people. Think about how many times you use he and she in a day. Holy moly! Can you imagine substituting in E, em, or eirs every time you use a phrase where the gender is unknown?
Everyone must set eir phaser to stun.
I would be too stunned to react. To whom was this person talking to? Me? Him? Her? I know that’s the point, but my poor brain would toil trying to figure out what the speaker meant. Maybe I could get used to it, but I think alien invasion sounds more likely.
It’s troublesome, though, to use other pronouns:
Everyone must set his phaser to stun!
My! I thought we had gotten over this chauvinistic language!
Everyone, set your phasers to stun!
That’s a little better. Just get rid of the pronoun. Now, you are an “everyone.”
Everyone must set his or her phasers to stun!
By the time you eke out that sentence, you’ll probably become the next victim of a Borg assimilation. How many extra words can you insert into one phrase to assert the fact that you’re trying to be gender neutral?
If you use they, you run the risk of upsetting the Rulers of Planet Grammar. If you’ve even visited such a place, their bodies seem to be shaped like alpha-numeric characters.
Did you see that lady over there? Her head was on upside down! Her body rested on top of her head! Oh wait, that’s Miss Exclamation Point, alien extraordinaire.
So, what’s a person to do? Resign him/herself to the possibility of Grammarian takeover? I hear that planet has a remarkable police-state. They often confine citizens to Grammar school for remediation after citizens have committed some sort of grammar crime.
That planet is one strange place. The trees look like randomly placed accents; exclamation points and question marks happily bob along in the streets. The clouds, even, are made of billowing full stops. The buildings are all made of small capital I’s. This place could be heaven for humans who call themselves grammarians.
In any case, the Grammar Police have several suggestions to help keep their citizens in line on Planet Grammar. At least they have some rules and regulations. Perhaps we could learn something from them.
First, they suggest rewording your sentence to rid your statement of male preferences:
Instead of this: Visiting planet Vulcan will be a small step for man, and a giant leap for mankind.
Try this: Visiting planet Vulcan will be a small step for Captain Kirk, and a giant leap for all people.
If that doesn’t work, keep the police off your back by changing your sentence to the plural:
Instead of this: Every Vulcan must do a mind-meld before he dies.
Try this: Vulcans must do mind-melds before they die.
Or, you can offer up “optional pronouns” to appease the Grammar Rulers:
Instead of this: Every Star Fleet officer must earn his rank.
Try this: Every Star Fleet officer must earn his or her rank.
It’s cumbersome and you’ll lose some time getting the extra words out, but how much more time will you lose defending your honor against chauvinism? Think about that!
Perhaps by the 24th century, we really will have our gender pronouns worked out and we’ll have new words in the English language to combat this problem.
Or, perhaps we’ll just accept:
Everyone gets their synthehol fix in Ten Forward.
For now, I stay away from singular they as much as I can. But, maybe I’ll keep practicing the Klingon ritual of MajQa – a practice that induces visions. I envision perfect grammar, where everyone knows what to do. I have visions of grammatical harmony, where no grammar police exist and commoners are not compelled to commit grammar crimes.
© 2012 Cynthia Calhoun