I’ve been familiar with gender-neutral pronouns in English for some time now. The most popular one – which has now gone mainstream and become recognized in dictionaries – is singular they. It was the American Dialect Society’s word of the year in 2015. “They” is not the only gender-neutral pronoun in usage in English, but it’s the one that has gained popular acceptance and I’m glad that one finally caught on.
Of course, before singular they attained mainstream acceptance (and even after), there was lots of arguing about whether the language should be allowed to change in this way. Not everyone was on board. Some people are still not on board. I suppose this should be expected – most people are not familiar with the feeling of having their experience negated by the use of pronouns in popular use, and many people find it difficult to imagine and empathise with such an experience.
So, we’ve had all of this disagreement about allowing English to evolve in this particular way – having a pronoun that can refer to a human being that isn’t specifically male or female. Users of French – a language with grammatical gender – have much more to argue about. French users, not surprisingly, have been arguing about the problem of not being able to speak/write about humans in a non-gendered way for a while now. Last week, the argument got some press in Montreal in response to a brochure being distributed by a group of students at UQAM (Université de Québec à Montréal).
It turns out that, over the past few months, the group of students have been distributing a brochure entitled “Petit guide des enjeux LGBTQIA+ à l’Université” (A short guide to LGBTQIA+ issues at the university) to multiple professors. The guide informs readers, among other things, about the possible ways of changing the way that they speak and write in order to de-gender their interactions with students. Because masculine/feminine gender is such an integral part of the French language, this requires quite a bit of re-working. Fortunately, interested people have been doing the work of figuring out a way of adding a neutral gender form to French. The thinking and planning stage is mostly done – now we just have to convince people to apply it. From what I can tell, lots of cisgender people in the media and elsewhere find the suggestions to be absurd and unusable. But there also seems to be instances of real conversation.
I was somewhat pleased, for example, with a moment at the end of a conversation on 98.5fm. One of the hosts (I think it’s Mario Dumont but I’m not sure) suggests that he at least understands part of the dilemma. To paraphrase (and translate, as the conversation is in French), he says that he can see that, when a French speaker no longer identifies with a gender, they are faced with a dilemma of no longer knowing how to speak – how to describe their own reality – in French. He seems to reject all of the options suggested for how to get around this problem, but there’s a moment there where he seems to acknowledge the importance of having the language to accurately describe lived experience. What he said, though it didn’t go nearly as far, reminded me of Judith Butler, who pointed out 19 years ago that, “Discourse becomes oppressive when it requires that the speaking subject, in order to speak, participate in the very terms of that oppression—that is, take for granted the speaking subject’s own impossibility or unintelligibility” (1999, p. 147).
I’m interested in what the rest of you think about this. Should we, language users, go on using our languages as usual, despite criticisms that some people are excluded? Should we be waiting for these types of changes to gain popular acceptance before jumping on board? Should we be using new forms despite complaints? What other options do we have?
Butler, J. (1999). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the subversion of identity. New York: Routledge Classics.