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


More and more high school and college-age students who are choosing to check “other” instead of “male” or “female” are seeking out the P.G.P.’s (preferred gender pronouns) that is best for their gender identities. They are thereby questioning the gender roles society has heretofore automatically assigned to them, based on whether they were born male or female. If “she,” “her,” “he,” his,” “him,” “they,” “their” and “them” do not seem suitable, a number of new ones that connate both genders — “ze,” “hir” and “hirs” — now exist.

Katy, an Ann Arbor, Michigan, high school junior interviewed by the New York Times, describes her excitement at discovering that Google+ has “other” as a gender option, besides “male” and “female”:

For those of us in the nonconforming gender community, it is great to see Google make the option more mainstream.

Katy was at a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, Questioning and Allies (LGBTQQA) meeting when she first learned about “other” as a gender option:

“You have to understand, this has nothing to do with your sexuality and everything to do with who you feel like inside,” Katy said, explaining that at the start of every LGBTQQA meeting, participants are first asked if they would like to share their P.G.P.’s. “Mine are ‘she,’ ‘her’ and ‘hers’ and sometimes ‘they,’ ‘them’ and ‘theirs.’ ”

Dr. Ritch C. Savin-Williams, director of the Cornell University Sex and Gender Lab and author of the book “The New Gay Teenager,” says that the gender nonconformity movement is about “rejecting the boxes adults try to put kids in by assuming their sexual identity labels their personal identity.” Other adjectives that young people are using to describe themselves are, says Dr. Savin-Williams, “bi-curious,” “heteroflexible,” “polyamorous” and“wiggly.”

Indeed, some countries, colleges and universities are adopting nongender language as a way to find a “neutral ground” between male and female. Australians can list their gender as male, female or indeterminate on their passports and the British Home Office is reportedly considering a third gender option for passports. Students at southern California’s Pomona College have voted to revise the student constitution so it contains only gender-neutral and language. Two years ago, the University of Michigan Student Assembly passed a resolution to eliminate gender-specific pronouns from the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities. More and more high school students are learning about the transgender movement; there are now 5,000 Gay-Straight Alliance Clubs registered with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

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.


Related Care2 Coverage

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Wal-Mart Adds Trans Employee Protections

Obama’s Accomplishments for LGBT Equality (INFOGRAPHIC)


Image used under the Creative Commons Attribution License with thanks to PhotoComiX


Duane B.
.4 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Tony Goodchild
Tony Goodchild4 years ago

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?

Randie S.
Randie S.5 years ago

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."


Colleen Prinssen
Colleen Prinssen5 years ago

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

Sunwyn R.
Sunwyn R.5 years ago

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"?

Christopher D.
Christopher D5 years ago

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).

Stefanie Roszkowski

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.

Bill F.
Bill F6 years ago

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!

Christina B.
Christina B6 years ago

What's wrong with this site tonight?

Basic biology:

Female genome: XX. Male genome: XY.

Christina B.
Christina B6 years ago

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