Honor killings and those misogynistic pronouns

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The misconception that language and culture march in lockstep fashion is so prevalent that pronouncements about grammar can often be used as a sort of Rorschach test to reveal how people really feel about a particular culture. I suspect it's more socially acceptable to vent indirectly about a culture by denouncing its grammar than it is to comment bluntly on the culture itself. Ergo, innocent grammar ends up shouldering the blame for the sins of its speakers.

Journalist Christie Blatchford indulged recently in a bit of linguistic finger-pointing while covering the trial of Mohammad Shafia, an Afghan-born Montreal resident. Shafia, together with his wife (Tooba Mohammad Yahya) and son (Hamed Shafia), has been charged with murdering his three daughters and first wife in an alleged "honor" killing. Blatchford reports the following from the testimony of a relative of the slain wife (Ms. Amir):

[The witness] also said in the last months of her life, Ms. Amir was unhappy, often calling to complain about her life, and that she told her she'd overheard a conversation among the parents and Hamed, during which Mr. Shafia threatened to kill Zainab, who in April of 2009 had run away to a women's shelter, and "the other one," which Ms. Amir took to mean her.

But because the Dari/Farsi languages have no separate male and female pronouns – essentially, everyone is referred to as male, it apparently being the only worthy sex – she can't be sure if it was Ms. Yahya who asked about "the other one" or Hamed.

This matter was settled only after the witness had nattered on over the protestations of the lawyers and judge, as she did many times.

Dari/Farsi are sufficiently imprecise languages, the witness's speaking speed so breakneck, and the interpreter so overwhelmed that several times, references to her maternal uncle were translated as "my maternal ankle."

Ms. Blatchford must be in the throes of that all-too-common maxim to "say about language that for which you have no evidence" in order to have been willing to commit to print the claim that Farsi and its dialectal variant Dari are "imprecise languages". Other than her observation about the ambiguity of pronouns, no supporting facts are forthcoming—surely, whatever caused the mistranslation of "uncle" as "ankle" has less to do with the inability of Dari or Farsi to linguistically differentiate between the two concepts than it does with the fact that the two words differ phonetically in English only by a measly vowel. (Honestly, whoever's in charge of English ought to look into that troublesome little speech trap.) Of course, if you believe that language is cut whole from the cloth of cultural practices, actual linguistic evidence is optional. It should only stand to reason that a community that permits brutality to its women and children should also be so primitive as to allow rampant ambiguity in its grammar.

I have to wonder though—if Dari/Farsi have only one pronoun for both genders (and, as it turns out, no grammatical gender marking at all), how do we know that this pronoun is masculine? I also have to wonder if Christie Blatchford has managed to live her entire life as a native English speaker and professional writer without ever having had the need to use an English pronoun to refer to either a group of females or a group of males—otherwise, she surely would have been troubled by the fact that the same pronoun is used for both genders. But no, in her article alone, there are numerous instances of they or their being used to refer to males only (Mr. Shafia and his son), females only (the murdered women), or the collection of siblings belonging to the testifying witness (genders not specified). Clearly, the gender politics of English pronouns has somehow bypassed her radar.

Naturally, in lieu of misogynistic pronouns, Farsi and Dari simply have a garden-variety pronominal system in which gender happens not to be linguistically expressed at all—much like the English pronominal system, in which we neglect to mark gender on any pronouns other than the third person singular. English, as it happens, is at least as sludgy a language as Farsi, failing to not only disambiguate pronouns by gender, but even by number in the case of the second person pronoun you, which we slatternly speakers of English use to address a party of one or one million alike. And to follow the thread of Ms. Blatchford's theory of pronominal gender oppression: we might have to conclude that while English acknowledges the equality of women when they're referred to as single individuals in the third person (he/she), the same respect is not accorded them when they're referred to in groups (they), or when directly addressed in conversation (you).

The Shafia trial is disturbing, and as it unfolds, there appears to be plenty of incriminating evidence suggesting systematic abuse of the four women prior to their deaths. If the accused are found guilty, they should naturally be held accountable. But that's no reason to convict the pronouns, or indeed, the entire Farsi and Dari languages along with them.


  1. Alexis said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    Estonian and Mandarin Chinese both only have one word for the third person singular! It's a conspiracy, I say!

  2. The Ridger said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 7:56 pm

    Languages which don't mark gender on pronouns (or at all) curiously don't seem to belong to egalitarian societies, despite the pronouncements of those who want to overhaul English's system. I see how this argument will now go: those languages all use HE all the time!

  3. JS Bangs said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 7:57 pm

    What's most striking is that I've also heard feminists complaining about the lack of a gender-neutral 3sg pronoun in English. In either case it seems that the grammar is just serving as a convenient whipping boy for a predetermined ideological point.

  4. Paul Drye said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

    I think a large part of the problem is — and I'm speaking as someone who lives in the area where she's most read and well-known — Ms. Blatchford is a poor journalist.

  5. SharonZ said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 8:59 pm

    Oh, surely, it's not just "feminists" complaining about the lack of a gender-neutral 3sg pronoun in English! In my line of writing (tech stuff) we deal with this all the time, and most of my male colleagues bemoan it, too. We, and our editors (say, at Macworld magazine), all just sometimes use "he" and sometimes "she" when referring to a user. We try to use both in the same article or chapter when feasible – when, say, there are two different scenarios being presented.
    Otherwise, there's the godawful "A user should put their computer to sleep…"

  6. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 9:08 pm


    I think the problem you're facing in your work environment is that you've all been trained to think that the use of "he" for neutral gender is impermissible on ideological grounds, and therefore you really don't have a gender-neutral pronoun at all. Without the ideological hang-up, "he" is perfectly serviceable as a pronoun that can refer to an individual of indeterminate gender.

    [(js) Yes, and Sharon is not alone in facing a professional prohibition against the perfectly reasonable (if technical ambiguous) singular use of "they". The issue has been taken up many times on LL, including in this post, which articulates the writer's dilemma in choosing the appropriate pronoun.]

  7. Josh Treleaven said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 9:30 pm

    This is Blatchford's second foray into speculation on Dari/Farsi of which I am aware. At first I thought it was mainly her own mistake, but I'm getting the impression now that there is a common cultural attitude among the court reporters and translators involved in this case. Blatchford may have come to her own conclusions, but she is certainly also being bombarded with pop linguistic theories from all directions, including some weird ones from Iran itself. She just happened to pick one (false) theory that conveniently lines up with the (true, in my opinion) belief that Persian culture is misogynistic.

    [(js) Indeed, Blatchford is LL-worthy as an example not because of her unusual linguistic ignorance, but alas, because of her very typical lack of knowledge about the most basic facts about language. One can only dream about a world in which journalists (and other reasonably well-educated people) know enough about language to recognize that a statement claiming the imprecision of any language is likely to be pure hogwash.

    Your comment about earlier forays into linguistic commentary, though, inspired me to look through previous columns that Blatchford has written about this trial. And sure enough, we have the classic "no word for X in language Y" syndrome occurring as well:

    Early on in the interview, the inspector, trying to impress upon Mr. Shafia how seriously the police in Canada took murder, even the murder of girls, said, "This is a country that has law…. This is a country that has respect to everyone and life has value."

    And Mr. Shafia said, in his solemn way, that he knew that. Why, he added, "I have come to this country for its laws."

    There should be, but undoubtedly isn't, a Dari word for chutzpah.

    Which qualifies Ms. Blatchford for the free, 13-step Language Log Linguistic Rehabilitation Program, in case anyone wants to stage an intervention.]

  8. Martin J Ball said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    SharonZ: nothing wrong with singular "they/them/their" etc.
    Very useful, and Brits don't seem to have the hang-ups about it that I hear over here in the US. :)

  9. Carl Offner said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

    I've often been able to find some easy way to make written language gender-neutral. It does take some practice, to be sure, and is not *always* possible. But in SharonZ's case, one might use the dreaded passive "computers should be put to sleep", or (what I would generally prefer) "you should put your computer to sleep". Of course I don't have the context, so maybe neither of these are acceptable for what she is doing. But often things like this are.

    Many years ago, when I was a public school teacher and president of my local teachers union, I suggested after one contract had been agreed to that I would be willing to type up the final version using gender-neutral language. The School Committee lawyer agreed, and I have to admit that it gave me a certain amount of satisfaction to refer to the Superintendent (who absolutely hated teachers and was a piece of work in other ways as well) consistently as "s/he". (It was the position, after all, that was being mentioned, not the person.) The Assistant Superintendent subsequently told me that this was unacceptable because the Superintendent was "male". I responded that any attempt to change my text would lead to a prohibited labor practice charge. That ended the matter.

  10. Joe Rembetikoff said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

    Unless referring to something that can only be done once by one person, why not use plural they? "Users should put their computers to sleep." I'm all for using new pronouns or expanding old ones, but "they" is sloppy enough already. Does it bother anyone else that "they" can refer to inanimate objects? "They stood around the table. Who? The chairs." What we really need is a plural "it."

  11. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

    What do you suppose Ms. Blatchford would have written if the language in question had been Dyirbal?

  12. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 10:44 pm

    @Joe Rembetikoff: <its> and <it's> are already taken, but I suppose we could use it <its'> . . .

  13. Ben Bolker said,

    December 5, 2011 @ 11:13 pm

    Are the commenters on "singular they" new around here? (Years ago I tried to win a fight with a copy editor by quoting Language Log and was told I'd have to get better evidence than a blog … sigh …)

  14. Stuart said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 12:09 am

    "—if Dari/Farsi have only one pronoun for both genders… how do we know that this pronoun is masculine?"

    Almost all my Panjabi friends use "he" or "she" interchangably as their one English 3ps pronoun, including Panjabi kids born in NZ. They are all equally likely to say "she" where FL speakers would expect "he" as they are to follow the allegedly chauvinist alternate route.

  15. Janice Byer said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 12:24 am

    Born in '51, Ms. Blatchford remembers, of course, when men were men in English and so were the women and children. To be sure, not one's own women and children, only others's, but in a rush to project, distinctions tend to get forgotten.

  16. LDavidH said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 3:46 am

    "the fact that the two words differ phonetically in English only by a measly vowel. (Honestly, whoever's in charge of English ought to look into that troublesome little speech trap.) "

    Amen to that! As an ESL speaker in the UK, I constantly struggle with this – I can (just about) pronounce "uncle" and "ankle" differently, but can't always tell them apart when hearing a new word (it took me ages to "suss" out the word "suss"). Alas, my native English children cannot understand why this is so tricky for me…

  17. maidhc said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 4:31 am

    I only seem to encounter Christie Blatchford when she's covering some sensational murder trial, so I don't know if she ever writes on any other topic. But the paper that employs her is not renowned for its attention to mundane details.

  18. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 5:17 am

    "the other one," which Ms. Amir took to mean her. … no separate male and female pronouns

    Illustrating wonderfully the unmarked "other" and "one". Shame on us English speakers for our imprecise language!

    I don't know what the situation is like in Canada, but here in central Europe (Austria) the imprecision of foreign-language-speaking witness statements in courts is almost all down to bad interpreting – due to
    a) inadequate language competence
    b) the lack of an agreed understanding of the interpreter's role
    b.i. in expanding / explaining / summarizing utterances from both the witness and the court
    b.ii. in producing language suitable for the bureaucratic conventions of the written court record – no audio recording, no subsequent correction of the stenographic record.
    b.iii. as to which parts of the hearing should be interpreted for the witness's understanding (generally only their own statement and questioning)
    b. iv. in respect of what would constitute a correct model of interpreter neutrality

    The few studies that have been done (e.g. by taping the sessions and then comparing what was actually said with what ended up in the record) have revealed very worrying incidences of misinterpretation and misunderstandings. A particular problem is that inconsistencies in the record regularly have the effect of undermining the reliability of the witness in the eyes of the court, although they are often artefacts of the interpreting situation.

    It gets really scary in the case of asylum hearings, in which due process is considerably shortened and the asylum seeker "changing their story" between successive police interviews often decides whether they get deported or not.

    These are some of the problems we should be worrying about, not some made-up nonsense about pronouns.

  19. Richard D. Morey said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 5:18 am

    "English, as it happens, is at least as sludgy a language as Farsi, failing to not only disambiguate pronouns by gender, but even by number in the case of the second person pronoun you, which we slatternly speakers of English use to address a party of one or one million alike."

    Hey, speak for your own dialect. Just because y'all haven't solved that problem, doesn't mean other dialects haven't!

  20. Pete said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 5:30 am

    The language of Saudi Arabia, Modern Standard Arabic, distinguishes between masculine and feminine in the third person singular as in English, but also, unlike English, in the third person plural and in the second persons singular and plural.

    So by this logic, MSA, and therefore Saudi society, accords women a higher status than English or its associated cultures.

  21. briggslaw said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 5:35 am

    How about the less godawful "A user should put the computer to sleep…"?

  22. Breffni said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 5:56 am

    Jonathan Gress-Wright:

    the problem you're facing in your work environment is that you've all been trained to think that the use of "he" for neutral gender is impermissible on ideological grounds […] Without the ideological hang-up, "he" is perfectly serviceable as a pronoun that can refer to an individual of indeterminate gender.

    Imperfectly serviceable at best: how about 'Whenever I meet my mother or father I give him a hug'? If you find that weird, as I do, then it suggests that 'he' is not a truly gender-neutral pronoun.

    The historical use of 'he' for indefinite referents presumably comes down to the fact that for most of the history of English, writers really did have mainly men in mind. Accepting that 'he' is gender-neutral absolves the usage of the taint of sexism, but it's an ideologically-informed convention you have to consciously buy into. I doubt it comes naturally to children, for example.

    So it seems at least as fair to say that you've been 'trained' to think that 'the use of "he" for neutral gender' is permissible, as that SharonZ has been trained to reject it.

  23. GeorgeW said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 6:49 am

    @Richard D. Morey: "Hey, speak for your own dialect. Just because y'all haven't solved that problem, doesn't mean other dialects haven't!"

    In my dialect, although generally plural, 'y'all' can be singular as well. This is often expressed in "y'all come back.'

    [(myl) See "Singular y'all: a 'devious Yankee rumor'?", 12/31/2009.]

  24. Observation said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 7:08 am

    The vernacular Chinese third person singular pronoun does differentiate between he and she, although it wasn't until it was affected by Western languages that this happened; in the past, they were not differentiated. (Actually, they are still pronounced the same now, but they are written differently.) In Classical Chinese, there are a huge number of pronouns, and not all of them refer to both genders.

  25. Zubon said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 8:12 am

    And then we have Japanese, with gender-neutral and -specific first person pronouns, although perhaps "gender-typical" is more accurate than "-specific." I have no idea how unusual that is. English does without first-person gender but has separate "me, myself, and I" for various grammatical uses.

    @GeorgeW: Hence the development of "all y'all," which is unambiguously plural. :)

  26. GeorgeW said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    Zubon: Actually, I think the singular 'y'all' is the the royal (or maybe patronizing) you.

  27. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 9:51 am

    At least if wikipedia is reliable, the other major language of Afghanistan (Pashto) does distinguish masc. from fem. in its third-person singular pronouns. So there's an easy natural experiment there to see if male-female dynamics among Dari-speakers differ from those among Pashto-speakers in ways that one could attribute (plausibly or otherwise) to differences in pronoun inventory. Although in my experience advocates of invented gender-neutral 3d person pronouns for English are rarely convinced by the argument that changing English pronoun practice to mirror that of Magyar should not be expected to produce more egalitarian social results than have traditionally existed among Magyar-speakers.

  28. Ben Hemmens said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 10:06 am

    In my home town of Dublin, Ireland we have both the second person singular yeh, the plural youse, often pronounced with two syllables for extra clarity: yew-ess, and one of indeterminate number, yiz (rhymes, interestingly, with the maritally indeterminate Ms.)

    The sex-marked youngwan/youngfl'a, oulwan/oulfl'a, and specifying versions yer wan / yer man ensure that problems of the type described can hardly ever arise. All the evidence is, however, that this admirable level of unambiguity is less than completely effective at preventing honour killings (known locally as "gangland-style" since the official cessation(s) of "paramilitary" activities).

  29. Harri said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    In Finnish we hardly mark gender at all (and, of course, we are famous for not being that egalitarian). In 3sg pronouns it is only "hän" (he or she) and "se" (it). To be sure, in the everyday colloquial language we only use "se" for just about anybody/anything and reserve the he-she pronoun for our cats and dogs and other pets.

  30. Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 10:36 am

    George/Zubon: For me as a native Alabamian, "y'all" is exclusively plural, although I think a lot of times people misperceive it as singular context depending. If I mentally include someone in a group, then even if the rest of the group isn't there, I'll use "y'all". If I refer to them and only them, then it's "you". Oftentimes this perceived-singular use is found at stores, where I consider the employee/cashier/etc part of the collective group.

    So you might here in the conversation "So, do y'all [the store and employees] have any muscadines today? Oh okay, are you [and only you] sure?"

    All (of) y'all functions like all of us, compare:

    We're going to buy a new car. (1 car to be purchased)
    All of us are going to buy a new car. (2+ cars to be purchased)

    Y'all're going to buy a new car. (1 car to be purchased)
    All y'all're going to buy a new car. (2+ cars to be purchased)

    GeorgeW, where are you from? "Y'all come back now" for me is universally used with groups of people or a representative of a group of people. We'd use a simple imperative in the Deep South for a singular you: "Come (on) back now".

    [(myl) For some discussion, see "Singular y'all: a 'devious Yankee rumor'?", 12/31/2009.]

  31. Adam said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    @Ben Bolker:

    …was told I'd have to get better evidence than a blog

    I bet I can find at least as many blogs opposing "singular they" as supporting it.

  32. GeorgeW said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 11:05 am

    @Matthew Stephen Stuckwisch: I am from Florida (I know, we have all that damn Yankee influence here). But, I lived in Jawja for several years.

    I have been told (as an individual) by store clerks, waiters and the like, 'y'all come back.'

  33. Dan T. said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 11:13 am

    Earlier stages of English had the singular/plural 2nd person distinction in "Thou" / "You", but that got muddied up by the plural form being used as a "respectful" form of address (like "vous" in French) and eventually taking over altogether. Spanish went a different route with "Usted" / "Ustedes" preserving the singular/plural distinction in "respectful you". As noted in some of the above discussion of "y'all" and other current-day English-dialect second-person pronouns, this part of the pronoun system seems subject to a great degree of muddying-up due to the shifting tides of cultural needs for distinctions such as polite vs. familiar.

  34. John O'Toole said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 11:15 am

    For Carl Offner above, and his awful superintendent: pity you didn't use the gender-and-animate-being-neutral "s/h it" third person singular that was proposed back in the day.

  35. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 11:30 am

    Another advantage of Swedish (the language of honor and heroes) is that "person, human being," människa is unambiguously feminine gender.

  36. jb said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 11:51 am

    I would assume that Ms. Blatchford's claim that the 3sg pronoun is by default male comes from the fact that since she does not speak Dari/Farsi, her actual source isn't the witness or the language, but the court interpreter's speech/transcripts. If we looked at court transcripts, we'd probably see the interpreter using "he" as an ad-hoc neutral 3sg pronoun, even in some circumstances which might demand "she" in English. Ms. Blatchford seems to be getting near to a valid point, that the act of interpreting can be ambiguous and imperfect, especially in the hectic courtroom situation she describes, but then she misses the point by trying to blame the grammar of Dari/Farsi.

  37. Faldone said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 11:59 am

    "person, human being," människa is unambiguously feminine gender.

    Back in the day, when gender meant something in Englisc, "woman", (wifmann) was masculine. Not that it didn't take the feminine definite article sometimes.

  38. Dan Hemmens said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 12:24 pm

    So it seems at least as fair to say that you've been 'trained' to think that 'the use of "he" for neutral gender' is permissible, as that SharonZ has been trained to reject it.

    I was about to make a similar observation. Gender-neutral "he" only makes sense when you're tacitly ignoring the possibility that the pronoun could refer to a woman (I believe LL's classic example is "was it your brother or your sister who could hold his breath for ten minutes?").

    If "he" was gender neutral, it would be natural to use it to refer to people regardless of gender, and it isn't.

    I think Mr Gress-Wright is making the all-too-common mistake of assuming that their beliefs are the default, while other people's beliefs are a perverse and consciously adopted ideology.

  39. Chandra said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 12:36 pm

    @Dan Lufkin – As it is is in most of the Romance languages as well (la personne, la persona, etc.).

    @Harri: "In Finnish we hardly mark gender at all (and, of course, we are famous for not being that egalitarian)." – Were you being sarcastic here? I don't know much about Finland, mind you, but I would have guessed it to be considered relatively egalitarian like the other Nordic countries are seen to be.

  40. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 12:45 pm

    Dan Hemmens, how do you gain such privileged insight into the internal psychological processes of English-speakers whose idiolects include some degree of usage of generic he in some sorts of syntactic/semantic contexts? How can you possibly know that they're "tacitly ignoring" something? (And why should their patterns of pronoun usage need to "make sense" by some external rationalistic criterion in the first place?) If "guy" and "dude" can be used to refer to unambiguously female humans, which we know (in some varieties of English, in some contexts) they can, why should it be impossible in principle for "he" to refer to someone who might or might not be female? (The fact that it apparently doesn't work for most native speakers in example sentences when the unspecified person can only be one of two identifiable individuals, one of whom is specifically known to be male and the other of whom is specifically known to be female, simply means that a narrower or more nuanced formulation of how "generic he" might be used in some varieties of English needs to be formulated, not that no such formulation is possible.)

  41. seriously said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 1:16 pm

    "even by number in the case of the second person pronoun you, which we slatternly speakers of English use to address a party of one or one million alike."

    Mr. Morey has attempted to solve this problem with the southern "y'all," but other posters have pointed out that this locution can sometimes be singular. Fortunately, in Western Pennsylvania, we've solved that problem, as yinz* would know if you rooted for the Stillers.

    *or its variant "yunz"

  42. Laura said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 1:23 pm

    Slightly tangential: anyone else surprised to see 'nattered on' in the extract? For me, that's super-informal and would not be included in the text of any news article (though it could be in an opinion column). It's also quite impolite, which is another reason why I was surprised to see it. It's the kind of usage I see in papers such as the Times, which sometimes used imaginative phrases that aren't necessarily quite appropriate in a (British) newspaper. Is it normal for Canada/this paper/this journalist?

    [(js) I was struck by "nattering" as well—less by its informality and more by the sharp attitude it conveys toward its subject. To put the piece in some journalistic context, the article was not written as a typical bit of news reporting, but as a first-person column. The language, value-laden as it is, is actually quite typical of Blatchford's style; she consciously avoids a detached, objective journalistic approach, which may strike some readers as inappropriate in the context of coverage of a high-profile trial. It may be more than you ever wanted to know about journalistic practice or Blatchford (who is a highly-celebrated Canadian journalist), but in case you're interested, you can find a critical analysis of her columns here.]

  43. Ellen K. said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 1:38 pm

    @J. W. Brewer

    The thing is, with "he", there is not context where it can only be gender neutral. That is different than with "guy(s)" where in some contexts, it's always gender neutral ("you guys"). (Even when used to refer to all males, it still doesn't denote maleness.) That's just not parallal to "he", so it's not relevant to he.

    Personally, I think using "he", but never "she", for an unknown person of unknown gender is gender-biased.

  44. Ellen K. said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 1:41 pm

    P.S. I think there are register issues with pronoun usage. That is, how we uses different pronouns varies with the register we are speaking or writing in.

  45. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 1:59 pm


    Where I lived in Northern Ghana, the indigenous languages distinguish only human/non-human and this is carried over into the local versions of both Hausa (which in its homeland is like Arabic, with masculine/feminine not only in 3rd but also 2nd person sg pronouns) and English. What used to catch me out was that in English for many speakers "he" and "she" are pretty much in free variation – I coped easily enough with "he" for a woman but often got confused by "she" for a man, which I suppose says something not about N Ghanaian English, but markedness in my own language.

    I knew Punjabi had grammatical gender and was surprised by what you said about the English of Punjabi speakers – alerted by that I have just discovered from Wikipedia that Punjabi *pronouns* don't distinguish gender, which must be unusual.

  46. Pi Madison said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 2:04 pm

    I think it's telling that Ms. Blatchford assumes that a) an ambiguously gendered pronoun must have a gender and b) that it is mostly likely male.

    Also, as another native Alabamian, I would argue that y'all is akin to the 2nd person plural in French and Spanish, which is used primarily to denote 2+ people but can be used as a respectful, singular term. Therefore, if a friend asked "what can I do for y'all" it would seem incorrect, but if a server used the same phrase it would seem natural. America and the South in particular being an informal place, the second usage would be fairly uncommon.

  47. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 2:11 pm

    I am skeptical that the number of native English speakers for whom vocative "you guys" carries a definite suggestion of maleness is as low as zero.

  48. Xmun said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 2:39 pm

    Why are we all discussing the pronouns and only the pronouns? My wife and I remember with pleasure the question we were asked by a handsome, barefoot, bare-chested, lavalava-clad waiter in Samoa: "Do youse want some buns?" He meant: "Would you like some bread rolls?" At least he got the determiner right.

  49. Harri said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    I was trying to be a bit sarcastic. I couldn't resist, the whole discussion of pronouns vs egalitarian society seems so absurd. But I know such arguments are widespread, so maybe I shouldn't try to be funny. But what I said about Finnish pronouns is true. It's a common mistake of Finns speaking foreign languages (me too, sometimes, when I'm not paying attention) to say e.g. "he" (in English) when referring to their wife. But the Finnish colloquial use does not interfere so much that we would say "it" referring to a human being.

  50. LDavidH said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 3:10 pm

    @Chandra: the Swedish "människa" is not "person" but "human being", the equivalent of "l'homme" / "l'uomo" / "el hombre", which are all masculine. The Norwegian equivalent, "menneske", is neuter!

  51. LDavidH said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 3:30 pm

    To illustrate: in the Swedish Bible, when God creates man (i.e. mankind), he makes _her_ male and female.

  52. Alex said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 4:13 pm

    Interesting. When a language distinguishes two genders it can be claimed to be making sexist distinctions — especially, you know, those misogynistic systems in which the addition of one male to an army of females entails the "male" gender be used. And when a language does not distinguish two genders it is sexist by using one for default over the other!

    Personally I am more inclined to be bothered by languages which make a male-female distinction. It does seem, to me, perhaps a bit troubling that cross-culturally it is always (to my knowledge; correct me if I'm wrong) the masculine gender which is the default, and the feminine which is more marked, in languages which make a clear opposition between the two. What does this say about people, in general, if not a culture in particular? Perhaps that people are sexist? I don't think that's a huge stretch, because just as I can't think of a culture in which feminine is the default, I can't think of any culture which is free from sexism and misogyny. But I guess that line of thinking is headed towards evolutionary psychology which is to say, well, unverifiable.

  53. blahedo said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 6:14 pm

    @JWBrewer "why should it be impossible in principle for "he" to refer to someone who might or might not be female?"

    I don't think *anyone* here has argued that a language cannot *in principle* use "he" or its equivalent gender-neutrally; just that English doesn't.

    "…a narrower or more nuanced formulation of how "generic he" might be used in some varieties of English needs to be formulated, not that no such formulation is possible."

    Perhaps, but I think at that point the burden is on the generic-he-defenders to come up with the tighter formulation that they claim ought to work—and even then, that leaves the difficulty of how the problem question ("Was it your brother or your sister…") needs to be rephrased since the generic-he just doesn't work there (while singular-they does).

  54. Robin said,

    December 6, 2011 @ 7:37 pm

    Surely one puts one's computer to sleep!
    Though it does sound a little Victorian – steampunk anyone?

  55. Kenny said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 1:55 am

    Didn't JWBrewer give the formulation? Maybe it was only implied, but I would say the formulation is that "he" is "genderless" in any situation in which it refers to a nonspecific (i.e. unknown) person or a set of unkown? The sister and the brother in the example are presupposed to exist and be mine, so we cannot consider the breath-holder to be entirely nonspecific. In other words, being presented with an example in which "she" must apply causes interference because saying "she" would be far more informative or acknowledging of the context.

    Actually, for me the question "Was it your brother or your sister that could hold his breath for ten minutes ?" causes no problem. It's only when you ask me to examine it that I see an issue. If you ask directly, "Can your brother or your sister hold his breath for ten minutes?", it seems a bit off, though the more I read it the more comfortable I am with it (but of course I'm a poisoned sample at this point). I think the cleft construction's relative clause introduces an air of nonspecificity that helps gloss over the potential conflict. However, I don't think this type of example is truly enlightening, and I agree that it doesn't serve as proof that "he" cannot be generic. What it does prove is that there is no objectively satisfactory way to resolve nonpredicate disjunction and that gender systems (and really all information marked on nouns through mutually exclusive markers) are a defective but usually useful grammatical tool/structure.

    It all goes back to the fundamental problem of deciding whether an "or" subject is singular or plural. Take the statement "Either my sisters or my brother wants to go swimming.". Neither of the nouns is the subject, but we have to assign number information in order to use a verb or speak in any way. The nouns have conflicting number, and there is no objective reason to choose one over the other. It is tradition, laziness, an attempt to ignore the cognitive dissonance, or who knows what to let the second noun control the verb agreement. This is one of the very few situations in which it is more important that the question be settled than that the question be right (mostly because there is no "right").

    On a final note, shouldn't supporters of "singular" "they" have to show an example in which "they" can trigger singular markers instead of agreeing after the fact with pronouns that have traditionally been singular (each, either, everyone, etc.) but some of which are now widely used as plural? In a scenario in which an unscrupulous drunken doctor needs to hide "their" drunkenness for work, doesn't the number inconsistency in the question "What does the doctor do when they arrive at the hospital?" cause problems for the "singular" "they" crowd? I think this shows that "they" is not singular. The inconsistent number agreement marking in this example seems to me to be evidence that the acceptability of "they" is a brain hiccup. The doctor could be a male or a female, and since those who do not have/accept generic "he" cannot use a pronoun without being logically unsound, their brains hop over the problem by opting for a pronoun that agrees with the number of theoretical solutions rather than the actual solution.

    I acknowledge that the cognitive hypothesis might not be testable. I certainly do not have the training, knowledge, or equipment to test it. ;)

  56. LDavidH said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 2:51 am

    FWIW: In Albanian, the feminine is used when there is no real referent, as in "It (lit. she) is possible (fem. sing.) that…", "This (fem. sg.) is what…", etc. In most langagues wihout a neuter pronoun, these constructions would use the masculine form (as far as I know).

  57. robert said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 3:38 am

    Kenny, 'You' is now used as a singular pronoun, but has not inherited the verb inflections of 'thou'. We say 'You are', not '*You art'. Singular 'they' is following the same path, so the apparent lack of number agreement isn't a problem; rather, English is moving towards only marking verbs for number in the first person or the special case of the third when gender is marked (which is ceasing to be the default.)

  58. RP said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 4:59 am

    Robert, you're right, but even though singular "they" has been in use for many centuries, we don't use the word "themself". To me this is symptomatic of how singular "they" has never been fully accepted (that is, by prescriptivists and those under their influence), because all of us distinguish between "yourself" sg and "yourselves" pl.

    Interestingly, if you look at the history (in the OED), the word "themself" was originally used as a plural, and so was "yourself", but both forms fell out of use (or out of plural use, in the case of "yourself") in the 16th century or so.

  59. Breffni said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 6:09 am

    J. W. Brewer and Kenny: I wouldn't get hung up on the particular 'brother or sister'-type examples. They highlight the problem particularly well, but it goes beyond that. Take these:

    1. If a mother has a concern, he should talk to the teacher.
    2. If a nurse has a concern, he should talk to the ward manager.
    3. If your mother or father has a concern, he should talk to me.
    4. If a parent has a concern, he should talk to the teacher.
    5. If someone has a concern, he should talk to his local representative.
    6. If a taxi driver has a concern, he should talk to his union rep.
    7. If a man has a concern, he should talk to his doctor.

    For me, these are ordered from 'unacceptable' through 'double-take' to 'totally unexceptionable', and that reaction seems easy enough to account for: I instinctively expect 'he' to refer to a male. In the case of indefinite referents, the more empirically likely it is that 'he' is a male, the easier it goes down, while the more salient it is that 'he' might very well turn out to be female, the harder it is to accommodate. What the likelihoods and saliences are will vary from person to person (the oddness ends for me at the taxi driver). So here's my attempt at a generalisation: '"He" creates a default expectation of a male referent. When used of indefinite referents, its use may be accommodated to a degree inversely proportional to the salience of the likelihood that a candidate referent may be female.'

    But I could say the same thing of 'she'. So the simpler generalisation is '"he" is masculine, "she" is feminine.'

    Whether or not anyone agrees with my judgements about those sentences, I'd be very surprised if anyone really feels 'he' to be ungendered in the way that I/you/we/they clearly and universally are.

  60. Bob Violence said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 7:13 am

    The vernacular Chinese third person singular pronoun does differentiate between he and she, although it wasn't until it was affected by Western languages that this happened; in the past, they were not differentiated. (Actually, they are still pronounced the same now, but they are written differently.)

    Which raises interesting questions as to the relationship between written and spoken language (to what extent can it be said that Chinese has gendered pronouns?). I do notice the fact they make a distinction in writing doesn't seem to help much with languages that make it in speech — Mandarin-speaking ESL users frequently say "he" for "she" and sometimes vice-versa, even after years of study.

    Also interesting to note, as a historical curiosity, that Liu Bannong (who is credited with popularizing the use of the feminine pronoun in writing) suggested it should also be given a distinct pronunciation (tuo), which didn't catch on.

  61. Mark Etherton said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 7:24 am

    @ J. W. Brewer

    I share your scepticism, not least because for me (50+yo middle class BrE speaker) both ' guy' and 'you guys' are primarily male.

  62. Brett said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 9:50 am

    @RP: To me, the use of "themself" for a singular referent of unknown sex is completely unremarkable. I know I use it (if not especially frequently), and it has never provoked comment.

    I do see that my spell-checker doesn't like it, however.

  63. JJM said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 10:12 am

    I noted that a few commentators here took the opportunity to have a go at Christie Blatchford.

    For the record, Blatchford is an very good investigative journalist. If she were not covering this trial, Canadians would have to rely on the usual thin gruel from the CBC and CTV B-teams of cub reporters and high school coop-programme students.

    However, what Blatchford is not is a language science expert. So she draws on the same ill-informed notions, nostrums and prejudices about language (particularly one she doesn't speak) as other folks routinely do.

  64. Ellen K. said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    @Kenny: "They" is traditionaly both plural and indefinite singular. There is plenty of evidence that the indefinite singular usage of "they" is not new, not newish. Do a search of language log. And no, the fact that it takes the same verb form as when it's a plural does not make it any less singular.

    @RP: Some of us do use "themself". :)

  65. Kenny said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 3:04 pm

    The "you" example is interesting and certainly dismisses my point. Thanks. I've always had vague notions that "thou" was singular and "ye" or whatever was plural (from "All ye who enter here"), but I didn't know where singular "you" came from. My university only had 2 linguistics courses and nothing historical.

    Breffni, thanks for the examples. #1 is especially informative, since it technically makes my formulation garbage. I should have said "he" can be genderless wherever the gender information is unspecific. Your formulation is interesting and handles #1 well since there is no reason to use ungendered pronouns in that circumstance. I think the salience issue comes up because even if you posit generic "he", nongeneric is always a possible reading, so I'm perfectly willing to acknowledge that that's an issue. I'll also admit that it's possible I was trained to accept "he" this way, though I don't think it's all that different from being trained to accept "they", since everyone is technically trained to speak his native language. Again I think any type of "or" example (#3) is pushing too many factors to be informative.

    As someone who grew up hearing singular they, I am surprised to be told that "themself" exists. Though I'll believe you use it and have seen it, I'm skeptical about how widespread it is (I glanced through the "they" archive and saw that Facebook had been using it). How do you use it? For me and I'm pretty sure all the they-ers I know, all the "b" versions of the examples below are unacceptable (also chrome is telling me not to do it). For me and I suspect a large number of others, 1a is unacceptable, 2a is much better and basically acceptable, and 3a is the best.

    1a. The runner tripped and hurt themselves.
    1b. The runner tripped and hurt themself.
    2a. Someone tripped and hurt themselves.
    2b. Someone tripped and hurt themself.
    3a. When the runner turned the corner, they tripped and hurt themselves.
    3b. When the runner turned the corner, they tripped and hurt themself.

    I didn't mean to suggest that "they" usage in this context is new. As these examples are intended to show, I just think the usage is not grammatically singular (though we all know it refers to 1 person) and indicates that the tensions in the number and gender system are causing the system to break down. Also, since there's a historical process that allows number agreement to be glossed over and rendered moot (as with semantically singular "you"), what's stops the creation of generic "he" or generic "she" by glossing over gender? What makes 1a unacceptable? Sorry if I'm beating a dead horse here. I haven't read the entire archive and its comments, so maybe my question is already answered.

  66. Joyce Melton said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 3:24 pm

    I grew up speaking an Ozark dialect, mostly in California. While staying in Texas in my twenties, the use of singular y'all as a polite form of address struck me as notable. When some shop clerk greeted me with, "K'n Ah he'p y'all?" I looked around to see who came in with me. I got used to it but it never stopped being funny to me.

    At the same time, I would not have hesitated to ask the shop clerk, "Do y'all have these slacks in black?" Then if her friend had shown up and they both had prepared to leave, I might have asked, "Are y'uns going on break?" And when I left, I would have said, "Thank you," no matter how many clerks were there at the time.

  67. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 4:27 pm

    The status of generic he in English has changed rather dramatically over the last several decades from being prescriptively encouraged/enforced to being, in some circles, prescriptively disparaged. I expect this has resulted in a situation (possibly transitional) in which it is used to differing extents in differing varieties of English, so that the meaning of "he" (or at least its outer boundaries) can vary by class/region/dialect/etc. This is not inherently any more problematic than the wide range of supplemental second-person pronouns mentioned above, but it may mean that introspective statements about the acceptability or not of particular examples (or what particular sentences do or don't mean) may be true statements about a particular variety of English that is not universal.

    But the more interesting point, I think, is where this thread started with the Dari example. It seems that if a particular culture is viewed as treating its women badly and its language has grammatical feature X (somehow related to gender), someone may come up with a plausible-sounding just so story about how X either reflects or perhaps even helps cause (in some pop-Whorfian way) the bad treatment of women. But if an equally oppressive culture had a language that _lacked_ feature X, some other plausible-sounding just so story might just as well be created that explained how the lack of X reflected or helped cause the same social problem. Let me give an English example other than generic he: the use of "she" to refer to certain sorts of inanimate objects ranging from ships to (in some varieties) tractor engines. ("She won't start; maybe it's the carburetor?") It's easy enough to tell a just so story about how this reflects certain patriarchal presuppositions – these objects may be personified because they are emotionally significant and viewed with a certain affection, but they are also inherently subordinated to their (stereotypically male) owners/masters. Easy, right? But imagine an alternative world in which English was the same except that "he" rather than "she" was the pronoun used to refer to this sort of special inanimate object (with "it" still being used for other less special inanimate objects). It would, I think, be fairly easy to craft a just so story explaining that opposite phenomenon as equally strong evidence of patriarchal presuppositions. Which suggests, to me, that we should be skeptical of all such just so stories, especially when they have not been tested cross-linguistically (in the sense of finding other languages with or without something parallel to the feature in question and seeing if there's any non-random relationship between the presence or absence of the grammatical feature and the status of women).

    [(js) Precisely. Thanks for elaborating. A similar point to yours was expanded upon in the Language & Culture blog at The Economist, in responding to the current post.]

  68. David Eddyshaw said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 5:33 pm


    The Amazonian language Jarawara has grammatical gender, masculine/feminine, with inanimates unpredictable for gender, like French or Arabic; but masculine is the marked gender, feminine the default, and all pronouns, regardless of the sex of the referent, take feminine agreement (all this from R M W Dixon's "The Jarawara Language of Southern Amazonia.")

    So the thing is possible. I wouldn't imagine it says anything at all about the status of Jarawara women.

  69. Breffni said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 5:35 pm

    J. W. Brewer:

    introspective statements about the acceptability or not of particular examples (or what particular sentences do or don't mean) may be true statements about a particular variety of English that is not universal.

    Maybe. But I'd be more inclined to believe in the existence of a truly 'generic-he' variety of English if either (a) anyone claimed to find sentences like my examples 1-4 unproblematic, or (b) such a speaker was able to formulate a rule for the use of generic 'he' without alluding to the salience of females among potential referents.

    The situation with 'he' seems to me much like supposedly generic 'a man' ('When a man is tired of London…'): long accepted, doubtless defended as generic, now pretty well obsolete. Would anyone claim it was ever really ungendered?

    Kenny: I think part of the answer may be that indefinite pronouns introduce variables, whereas generic NPs like 'the runner' introduce a definite referent, and singular 'they' works better with the former. I don't find your 1a categorically unacceptable, though. I'm sure there's plenty about this in the LL back catalogue.

  70. michael farris said,

    December 7, 2011 @ 6:48 pm

    Here late, but I'll just mention that I use "singular" they a lot but even if the antecedent is clearly singular the reflexive is still themselves. I tried out themself (and I might use it in writing) but in speech 'themselves' always wins.

  71. RP said,

    December 8, 2011 @ 4:04 am

    I should have known better than to make such a categorical statement about "themself", although I think what I meant was that I didn't think it was accepted as being standard English, rather than that no one ever used it. At the time I made my comment I had only checked the OED Online, where I couldn't find any reference to "themself" except as a long-since obsolete form. However, "themself" has an entry at http://oxforddictionaries.com/definition/themself . But the entry states that the word is not yet widely accepted as standard English.

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