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Ze, Hir, Hirs; He, She, They: Which Pronoun Are You?

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Ancient Greek and Latin, the languages that I teach, both have nouns in three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. Neuter comes from the Latin words ne, “not,” and uter, “one of two” or “one or the other.” To be “neuter” in gender means that a word is “not one or the other,” i.e., not masculine or feminine; the neuter personal pronoun id is translated as “it.”

Ancient Greek and Latin’s use of the neuter gender suggest that other societies — ancient societies, at that — have conceived of another gender besides “male” and “female.” Indeed, classical mythology has more than a few figures who are both genders including the seer Tiresias (originally a man, he is turned into a woman by the goddess Hera and then back into a man) and Hermaphroditus, who comes to be after a nymph and a young man are, literally, fused together (the story is in Book 4 of the the Roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses). As the transgender movement and the new P.G.P.’s show, there are genders besides “male” and “female” that one can be.

 

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94 comments

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6:01AM PDT on May 7, 2013

Thank you for sharing.

10:20PM PDT on Apr 8, 2013

The kiswahili language, widely spoken in Tanzania and its neighbours, has no separate pronouns for male and female persons and animals, and generally distinguishes between animate and inanimate in verbs, nouns and adjectives. This is probably true for other african languages. Sadly, these languages have not prevented sexist and homophobic attitudes, so having gender-neutral pronouns in european languages might be a useful step but not a panacea.

I agree it would be good to eliminate the clumsy "s/he", "him/her" or "his/hers" and the ambiguous "they", "them" or "their" when referring to one person. And it would be a giant step for religion if God/god were referred to gender-neutrally!

Would Care2 please poll us on the gender-neutral personal pronouns we prefer?

8:02PM PST on Jan 26, 2013

One of the shortcomings of these types of proposals is their artificial complexity. I believe that the success of any gender-neutral pronoun system will be in its ease and efficiency of comprehension and communication. This is why my own proposal (one that I originally conceived back in high school) affords a reduction of existing morphemes rather the creation of entirely novel, and very obfuscated or esoteric morphemes. She and He can be reduced to "E". One letter, much like the first-person. It is concise and intelligible. Similarly the honorifics Mr. and Ms. can be reduced to "M."

--Randall

3:11PM PST on Dec 20, 2012

no he or she for identidy or biology? so mares and stallions are both "hen"?

3:30AM PDT on Apr 23, 2012

Here we go again. 5000 years ago our ancestors spoke a language that had no "he or she" only "animate" and "inanimate". People, animals, and Gods were "animate. Plants, rocks, and other non-sentient objects were "inanimate." Centuries later the "animate" was split into "male and female". 1500 years ago English started losing the "masculine and feminine" endings for most words. So I suppose we should not be surprised if we lose the last few holdouts.

I rather like the idea of the Swedish "hen" as an alternative for "he and she". How about "hem" as a substitute for "him and her" and "hes" for "his and hers"?

5:48PM PDT on Apr 21, 2012

Call me odd, but I grew up in Vermont so this is all a bit lost on me. I have a very open family so gender was never really an issue...

You are who you are and that's all there is to it. Never really mattered if you were gay, straight, a drag queen, transvesite, transexual or at some point in between. All I ever hoped for with humanity is that people are happy with who they are. If people really need a word in order to make that work for them, then I would be happy to oblige.

Languages evolve and with time English may well end up containing more neutral words. My only hope there is that we're not heading for Orwell's "New Speak" in our efforts to contort the language to be perfectly politically correct (which is impossible because someone will ALWAYS be offended).

11:11AM PDT on Apr 17, 2012

I'm genderqueer, and I don't care what pronouns people use for me. (It's almost always she/her, anyway, because I present as female. That's fine; I really don't expect strangers to know I'm genderqueer.) I probably won't adopt ze/hir for myself until it has widespread use, but I completely support people choosing their own pronouns. And I certainly support having "other" or write-in options in forms.

Also, I'm disappointed, although not surprised, at all the ciscentrism in the comments.

2:19PM PST on Feb 19, 2012

Personally, I love the honorific used by Dan Simmons in his Hyperion Cantos - simply "M." M. Smith, M. Brown, M. Obama, M. Clinton, etc.. Although not addressing the gender-specific pronoun issue, at least it would prevent those of us in retail & hospitality from being abused by militant "persons" if we accidentally use Mrs or Miss instead of Ms!

11:50AM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

What's wrong with this site tonight?

Basic biology:

Female genome: XX. Male genome: XY.

11:40AM PDT on Oct 13, 2011

Jacqui P. , your biology is rusty.

>> And Females can have a Y (from what I remember), but usually have more than 2 X's. Eg Klilnefelter's syndrome

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