English has long had trouble with gender and pronouns. The lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun has inspired many novel suggestions, none of which has ever been broadly adopted. When a pronoun is needed to refer to subjects of unspecified gender (e.g., “If a visitor wants information, ___ should enquire inside), or to indefinite pronouns (e.g., “Everyone should treat ___self to a good night’s sleep”), there is no solution that will satisfy everyone.
Plural pronouns (they, them, their, themselves) have been used for centuries to refer to singular antecedents, not only in informal speech but in classic literature. This raises the hackles of sticklers, though, who protest that it contravenes grammatical concord. The influence of Google+ should give singular they a boost, but Facebook ran into difficulty here. Themself – which centuries ago was used where we now use themselves – is occasionally resorted to, but it is a non-standard form.
Using masculine pronouns by default is now rightly considered to be chauvinist. There is much social value in rejecting sexist language. Combinations like s/he and he or she occasionally suffice, but they can be awkward and annoying. Other options include alternating between masculine and feminine terms; making the antecedent plural (“If visitors want information, they should enquire inside”); and using plural pronouns (“We should all treat ourselves to a good night’s sleep”).
The Egalia pre-school in Sweden has taken some unusual steps as part of a progressive approach to gender equality. Pronouns that are marked by gender, like han and hon – Swedish he and she – are avoided; the non-standard hen, which means she or he, is used instead. (Hen may have been inspired by the Finnish common-gender pronoun hän.) Lotta Rajalin, director of Egalia, says they use it
when a doctor, police, electrician or plumber or such is coming to the kindergarten … Then the children can imagine both a man or a woman. This widens their view.
Whether the Egalia school’s experimental MO is worth the trouble remains to be seen. Such attempts to engineer language might seem negligible or ill-advised, but they at least help raise awareness of bias and discrimination in language that could otherwise often go unnoticed. What do you think – will the strategy help counter gender stereotypes, or is it a pointless exercise in excessive political correctness?Email this Post