Gwen Keraval
New Roads in Language

What’s wrong with the following sentences?

When a politician abuses his power, that’s no surprise.

Will everyone please hand in their test now?

She’s a Latina from Brooklyn.

The first sentence assumes that all politicians are male, an obvious error in our era, but one that went unchecked for far too long. A grammarian might point out that the masculine he, him, and his are — or were — default pronouns in English, meant to stand in for all of mankind, a fairer term for which would be humanity. One way around this problem is to pluralize: “When politicians abuse their power, that’s no surprise.”

But maybe half a plural is better than none, an idea that leads to the second sentence, which mixes the singular everyone with the plural their. Here, pluralizing to “Will all people please hand in their tests now?” sounds a little awkward. If we redefine their as applying to any number or gender, that might work.

Now what about “She’s a Latina from Brooklyn”? This sentence seems sensitive to female-male distinctions in a way that the name Princeton Alumni Weekly, for example, does not. But what if you’re transgender and wrestling with identity issues, or simply don’t buy into the male-female binary?

This kind of issue is exactly what led to the formerly named Princeton Latino/a Association to come out with a statement in late 2015, reading in part:

“Out of a desire to be both inclusive and supportive of all members of our community, we have adopted the use of the ‘X’ to replace the gender binary ‘a’ for women and ‘o’ for men typically used in Spanish. This encourages all of us to think of gender as part of a continuum in which some of us do not fit the societally established normative understanding of gender.” That means: latinx — pronounced “lateen-ex” — for everyone.

As Brian Herrera, assistant professor of theater at the Lewis Center for the Arts at Princeton, notes: “The ‘a/o’ or ‘o/a’ has become normative in scholarly and activist circles, but with wide variation of application. Other variants have emerged — perhaps, most notably, ‘latin@’ — that have sought to disrupt the gender binary of ‘a/o,’ but none has been so emphatic nor as efficient (or as quickly adopted) as latinx.”

Why now, and what’s changed?

Though a few languages across the globe have no inherently gender-specific pronouns (the Native American Quechuan, for instance), English is like most other languages in its masculine bias. Males may not think too much about sentences like “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ... ,” but it’s understandable that females may bristle at the exclusion. Even in the academy, which analyzes such distinctions, college departments still offer courses like “Masterworks of British Literature” and provide “fellowships” for deserving scholars who are not necessarily fellows. Only recently has Princeton changed the masters presiding over the residential colleges to “heads,” in an attempt to distance itself from “master” as the owner of a slave plantation. This move led John V. Fleming *63, professor of English and comparative literature emeritus at Princeton, to defend the venerable usage of “master,” writing in a blog post, “We do our students no service by turning the lexicon of the English language into a political Rorschach test.”

Yet it’s a cliché among linguists that language is an ever-changing phenomenon, not a static construct. If enough people misspell or change the pronunciation of a word, compared to “accepted” usage, then the new form gains currency. As change happens, it’s also understandable why some don’t like the new coinage: It goes against what they know and are comfortable with, it sounds funny, etc. But this reaction describes a lot of humanity’s attitude toward change in general, not just to language. To argue against change: The history of neologisms is riddled with well-meant but clunky attempts, like “waitron,” later changed to “server,” then back to “waiter” as an all-inclusive term, the way “actress” has changed to “actor” for both sexes. Or consider “significant other,” which many now use only with an arch inflection and prefer to call “partner.” But “police officer” sounds better than “policeman,” and even if “flight attendant” doesn’t trip off the tongue, “stewardess” sounds downright archaic. The jury is still out with regard to “chairperson”: It certainly corrects the male bias behind “chairman,” but it adds a syllable. The term “chair” may be an admirable solution, but to some it sounds like a piece of furnitur

Words are not just a matter of linguistics, but also are part of a social program. They reflect psychology and art — a whole culture and its history.

Bear in mind that, though a few languages have built-in gender-neutral pronouns, others even have male and female gender nouns, as in French, with le and la as male and female identifiers, as well as masculine and feminine endings. Yet the principles of gender are not so clearly demarcated along male and female lines, but instead along ancient animate and inanimate principles that have little to do with sex. Consider la barbe, the beard, in French, with its female modifier. And in German, which has three categories, the word for “girl” (Mädchen) is neuter.

As for English, for decades egalitarian-minded people have been trying to address some of the inequalities, coming up with “Ms.” to solve the awkward problem of whether to use “Miss” or “Mrs.” for a woman of indeterminate marital status, when “Mr.” covered both bachelors and married men. “Master” wasn’t really an equivalent to “Miss,” since it was used for young men. The latest term in this series is “Mx.,” to avoid assigning a sex altogether, spotted in a New York TimesMetro article in December 2015 — though another way to avoid such distinctions would be to avoid titles altogether. And though “sex” refers to biology and “gender” to cultural roles, for many people, the two have merged.

The fight for fair usage is not just an individual struggle. Institutions have heeded the call, including the American Bar Association, which advocates using gender-neutral language in all its policies and procedures. The sixth edition of The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, which came out in 2009, advocates language that is “accurate, clear, and free from bias.” To that end, “using man to refer to all human beings is simply not as accurate as the phrase men and women.” The manual goes on to suggest, “Avoid labeling people when possible.”

What’s the issue, really? Anyone can hear the problem in sentences such as “Anyone in his first trimester understands the bodily changes that accompany pregnancy.” A late 20th-century remedy still with us is “he or she,” “his or hers,” “s/he,” and so on, but they have the awkwardness of added syllables and often destroy the rhythm of a sentence. They also may have a fussy, corrective air. In Richard Russo’s novel Straight Man, published in 1997, a pedantic professor in the English faculty, always correcting others, is nicknamed “Orshee.” Other attempts at a solution include “hir,” a mash-up of “him” and “her,” pronounced “here,” and now the name of a play by Taylor Mac, featuring a transgender character. You may also encounter “ze” for “he or she,” “mer” for “him or her,” and others. The website Pronoun Island (http://pronoun.is/) has a long list.

Erin McKean is the former editor-in-chief of United States dictionaries for Oxford University Press, and more recently one of the founders of Wordnik.com, the largest repository of English vocabulary and usage on the planet, and she has this to say on the topic: “I’m lucky in that I have a very high annoyance threshold for words and phrases — and also lucky that I don’t have to spend much time correcting people who misgender me. (I spend more time correcting people who assume my first name is ‘Eric.’) What does annoy me are huffy reactions to these terms by people whose lives are largely unaffected by these issues.”

In fact, two different directions are evident here. One is to give equal time to he and she, to accord females the same notice as males. The other is to dissolve a sexual binary that seems invidious to those of indeterminate gender, and perhaps less and less relevant to how we treat sexual identity in the 21st century. Yet a recent New York magazine article about college students grappling with the various permutations of sex and gender shows how complicated some of the terminology can get. As one student quoted in the article stated, “I say that I’m an agender demi-girl with connection to the female binary gender.” Translation: someone who identifies with being female biologically, not too strongly, yet does feel somewhat feminine in the cultural sense.

Clearly, transgender and other categories changed the needs of the language. Words are not just a matter of linguistics, but also are part of a social program. They reflect psychology and art — a whole culture and its history. The crux of the issue may be this: Binaries and either/or thinking are great tools, but they’re also reductionist, considering the diversity of people in our world. What should one call a man who made the transition to a woman? Why should one have to choose? Joy Ladin *00, a professor of English at Stern College of Yeshiva University, as well as a transgender poet with five published volumes, has written about her experience in poetry books like Transmigration and a memoir called Through the Door of Life: A Jewish Journey between Genders. Transgender, she notes, is “some kind of complicated relation to gender that can’t be summed up as male or female,” adding, “I don’t think there’s any beautiful way to put it.” On the other hand, as a biological woman at this point, she wants to be called “she”: “I’m not happy when people eliminate binary gender definitions.” On the third hand, to be sensitive to others, “I try to eliminate gender terms as much as possible.”

Perhaps this represents a move toward a solution: not a series of categories, not “one size fits all,” but an honest attempt to anticipate others’ needs and accommodate them. Such a course of action is, in fact, one definition of civilized manners. But that’s sometimes easier done than said. 

David Galef ’81 — fiction writer, critic, poet, translator, and essayist — is a professor of English at Montclair State University in New Jersey.