Gender fluidity in the classroom

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Recent article on gender and language teaching:

How Language Classes Are Moving Past the Gender Binary

Languages that contain only “he” and “she” pronouns pose problems for communicating about gender identity. Here’s how some language teachers are helping.

By Molly Lipson, NYT     Sept. 1, 2021

Selections from the article:

Tal Janner-Klausner teaches Hebrew. There is nothing unusual about that, but the language presents a frustration that Mx. Janner-Klausner, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns in English, feels compelled to discuss with their students.

Hebrew, as well as French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and other languages, uses binary pronouns, which means that gender identities outside of he/she and male/female don’t exist in any formal capacity.

In Hebrew, even the word “they” is gendered. In French, “ils” refers to a group of men or a mixed-gender group, and “elles” refers to a group of all females. All nouns in gendered languages — including people — are categorized as either masculine or feminine, and any adjectives associated with these words must reflect that gender.

That presents a problem for students who are gender-nonconforming, and, of course, for the speakers of the language in general. Is it possible for learners of a gendered language to refer to themselves and others when their identities are not represented?

Despite some claims to the contrary, it is grammatically correct to use “they” and “them” in English to refer to the third-person singular. We do this when the person’s gender is unknown. On the road, for example, we might say of a driver: “That person just ran a stop sign. I don’t know what they think they’re doing.”

“They” has been used in this way for hundreds of years. It first appeared in the 1370s in “William and the Werewolf instead of using “he” to refer to “each man.” Shakespeare employed it frequently in much the same way: “There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me/ As if I were their well-acquainted friend,” he wrote in “The Comedy of Errors.” Jane Austen used it, too: “It had been a miserable party, each of the three believing themselves most miserable,” she wrote in “Mansfield Park.”

When male is the default

English is not unique in the singular use of “they/them,” but many Romance languages, along with Hindi, Arabic and Hebrew, use gender as the basis of their nouns.

One norm that can frustrate language learners and speakers is the dominance of the masculine form, which is used as the default or standard. For example, the masculine “todos,” meaning “everybody,” is used in Spanish to address a group of people regardless of their genders at events like conferences or in official speeches. And the presence of even one man in an otherwise female group tends to consign the gender to the masculine.

Louis Moffa, who is nonbinary and uses “he” and “they” pronouns, is a teaching fellow in the Department of Italian at Columbia University. Italian is a gendered language with no equivalent to the English singular usage of they/them.

Mx. Moffa believes that the first step to overcoming gender binaries in Italian is to openly discuss how they appear in the language. “Being able to teach the gendered nature of Italian grammar has given me the opportunity to be more fully seen and understood by my students, because gender can never remain implicit or unquestioned in our classroom,” he said.

In addition to breaking open Italian’s limits on human beings, Mx. Moffa highlights the “absurd” nature of assigning gender to inanimate objects. “Instead of calling it masculine and feminine, you can just pick other polarities: light and dark, full and empty, round and square. It doesn’t even really matter what it is,” he said.

Kris Knisely, an assistant professor of French at the University of Arizona, gets even more specific. At the start of the semester, he introduces students to a number of linguistic developments used by native French nonbinary speakers. For example, the forms of the plural “they” — “ils” and “elles” — are combined to create a new word: “iels.” Similarly, to refer to “them,” the masculine “eux” and the feminine “elles” become “elleux.”

If the article itself doesn't stretch your mind enough, a surprisingly wide variety of opinions are cogently expressed in the comments, including echoing some of the issues raised in the previous post.  Warmly recommended for Language Log readers who are interested in this topic.

 

Selected readings

 

[Thanks to Mark Metcalf]



57 Comments »

  1. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 7:13 am

    What about teaching those students who do not believe that gender is a social construct? When did language instruction become ideology-driven? Are we all prescriptivists now?

  2. LimeTangerine said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 8:10 am

    This is also important for those who don't with to advertise their gender. In French, for instance, a woman cannot tell someone her profession without also revealing that she's female. That leads to immediate bias (as demonstrated in several studies).

  3. R. Fenwick said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 8:57 am

    @Benjamin Orsatti: What about teaching those students who do not believe that gender is a social construct?

    What about teaching those students who don't believe in racial equality? What about teaching those students who don't believe in religious tolerance? What about teaching those students who don't believe in redressing class imbalances?

    How about we leave "beliefs" about sex and gender to the biologists and the anthropologists, and leave the moral judgments out of the science?

    When did language instruction become ideology-driven?

    Language is an entirely social tool, and learning how to use language simply cannot be done without learning how to use it to interact respectfully with the various people one is going to be speaking with. We teach people how to use Japanese honorifics. We teach people the French tu-vous distinction. Why should this be any different?

  4. Brdo said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 9:01 am

    In order to understand this phenomenon it's necessary to understand what speakers of the various languages are being asked to do. The article refers to "Louis Moffa, who is nonbinary and uses “he” and “they” pronouns" The point is that Louis does not actually "use" these pronouns; in English Louis uses "I" and (presumably) expects to be addressed as "you." Louis expects other people to use the third person pronouns he prefers when they speak about Louis to each other. This (presumably) extends to people who Louis has never met and has no relationship with. Louis wants to control what other people say, and how they think; he wants them to use pronouns which are not the pronouns that they would normally use when speaking about him. In English, at least, no one ever imagined that another person had the right or authority to do this, which is why it seems so strange.

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 9:06 am

    Rhona: How about we leave "beliefs" about sex and gender to the biologists and the anthropologists, and leave the moral judgments out of the science?

    Sex is a fact; we do not have "beliefs" about it, we have knowledge. Gender, other than in the grammatical sense, is a social construct — there are no facts (other than the fact that some believe that their gender is different to their sex), only beliefs.

    And moral judgements have a crucial rôle in science — were it not for moral judgements, Stanford-style prison experiments, vivisection and so on would be the norm rather than the exception.

  6. stephen reeves said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 9:12 am

    No one uses their preferred third person pronoun, when talking about themselves , demanding others use it , is self centered and authoritarian, also how is someone to remember everyone’s preferred pronouns when they are not around , without their pronoun badges on display

  7. Philip Taylor said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 9:19 am

    Even the author of the article is inconsistent in his/her/<whatever>'s choice of pronoun — he/she/<whatever> writes :

    the language presents a frustration that Mx. Janner-Klausner [ ..] feels compelled to discuss with their students.

    but

    Mx. Moffa highlights the “absurd” nature of assigning gender to inanimate objects. “Instead of calling it masculine and feminine, you can just pick other polarities[…]” he said.

    Why does Mx Janner-Klausner get a "their" while Mx Moffa gets a "he" ?

  8. SK said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 9:22 am

    As French gets a mention – something I hadn't encountered until just yesterday is a distinctively feminine version of 'nous', namely 'noues', as seen here in the Twitter feed of Résistance Lesbienne: https://twitter.com/ResistanceLesbi/status/1437720390378434560

  9. Neil Kubler said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 10:29 am

    Chinese has a 3rd person singular pronoun tā which is unisex in that it means "he" or "she" (and, less commonly, "it"). It was traditionally written with the character 他, which has the "human being" radical at the left side. Due to the influence of European languages, language reformers in the late 19th and early 20th century repurposed the existing but rare character 她, which used to mean "older sister," to mean "she," so that now 他 means "he" and 她 (with "female" radical) means "she," though the spoken word is still tā (a proposed different pronunciation for 她 did not catch on). In blogs and informal writings on the Internet, when modern writers wish to avoid gender-specific pronouns, in the midst of their character writing they now sometimes will write Pinyin romanization TA, which brings us full circle to where things stood before!

  10. RfP said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 10:38 am

    @Philip Taylor: Sex is a fact

    Since this is Language Log and not Mis-Applied Elementary School Genetics Log, I will note only in passing that there are people with xy genes who can have children, as well as lots more extremely interesting and edifying information about this topic, most of which is casually oversimplified in day-to-day conversations—including, unfortunately by people who claim to be scientists. Science is wonderful! Including genetics!

    More on-topic, I read George Lakoff’s Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal About the Mind many, many years ago, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in thinking more deeply about how we discuss gender.

    For example, “the title of this book was inspired by the Australian aboriginal language Dyirbal, which has a category, balan, that actually includes women, fire, and dangerous things. It includes birds that are not dangerous, as well as exceptional animals, such as the platypus, bandicoot, and echidna.”

    Lakoff discusses Eleanor Rosch’s prototype theory, which is also instructive in this context, as well as the fact that there are species which—contrary to the folk theory about the meaning of that word—include sub-populations that cannot interbreed.

    He also discusses natural kinds and Linnaean taxonomy, responding quite thoughtfully to a discussion by Stephen Jay Gould (Yay Steve! Read more of his works, too!) about cladistic classification schemes.

    Science is fun.

    In the immortal words of that long-lost Two-Tone band, The Specials: “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.”

  11. RfP said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 10:53 am

    P.S. Lakoff’s book is available on kindle and as an Apple ebook—so don’t delay!

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 10:59 am

    RfP — When I wrote "sex is a fact", I did not intend to thereby imply tertium non datur. Sex is a (scientific) fact, but that fact does not imply that in humans (and other species), sex is necessarily bi-valued.

  13. RfP said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 11:01 am

    P.P.S xy chromosomes

  14. RfP said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 11:07 am

    @Philip:

    Perhaps, but our varied concepts of gender are also rooted in our conceptualization of the nature of sex.

    The way we think about and discuss these two things are not completely cut off from each other.

  15. RfP said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 11:14 am

    …and to speak more directly to your point ["Gender, other than in the grammatical sense, is a social construct — there are no facts (other than the fact that some believe that their gender is different to their sex), only beliefs."]

    It's not that simple!

    But to understand that requires rising above the quotidian discourse. Science can help.

  16. Benjamin Orsatti said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 11:27 am

    "Gender", in the sense of "maleness" or "femaleness" is at least partially determined by biology, and science does have quite a bit to say about that.

  17. cliff arroyo said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 11:41 am

    Why is this an issue for English speaking language students at all?

    Class time should be devoted to the language as it is used in native speaker environments.
    If there are forms that have some currency (like maybe elle(s) in Spanish) then cover those but as presented her (too cheap/lazy to look up the whole original article) seems like linguistic imperialism rather than foreign language teaching….

  18. David Marjanović said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 12:05 pm

    how is someone to remember everyone’s preferred pronouns when they are not around , without their pronoun badges on display

    You're supposed to… literally remember.

    20 years ago you probably knew all your friends' and business partners' phone numbers. That's a lot harder.

    Why does Mx Janner-Klausner get a "their" while Mx Moffa gets a "he" ?

    "Louis Moffa, who is nonbinary and uses “he” and “they” pronouns," is evidently fine with both "he" and "they", so the author chose "he" in this instance.

    I think this is a common choice – to the extent that anything here is common enough to do statistics with – among people who don't feel they have a gender identity at all and therefore don't care about their pronouns.

    In English, at least, no one ever imagined that another person had the right or authority to do this, which is why it seems so strange.

    Specifically in English, however, it has often been considered rude to refer to people by 3rd-person singular pronouns in their presence; examples and a discussion are here. That strikes me as similar.

  19. Batchman said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 12:56 pm

    As far as English, if we are going to use "they" and "them" to refer to individual persons, can we at least use "themself" in place of "themselves" when doing so?

  20. Y said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 1:07 pm

    Did that kind of controversy arise back when women were either Miss or Mrs., and the first Ms.'s showed up and insisted on that usage? Did it elicit much commentary? Did parents of students of Ms. so-and-so grumble?

  21. Philip Taylor said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 1:32 pm

    Y —yes, to at least your first two questions. I have no insights into the third. To this day I avoid "Ms" in speech, primarily because I am one of those to whom John Wells refers in his final para.*, but I use "Ms" in writing when I am unaware of the marital status of the recipient. Incidentally, during the mid 80's I had a (bi-sexual) girlfriend whose preferred title was "Ms", and she took a publication of the same name, which I invariably referred to as /em es/, much to her annoyance.

    [*] Ms mɪz məz, məs — As a self-designation, mɪz seems to be preferred. Those who say məz, məs may use it in stressed as well as unstressed position. Some claim the word is unpronounceable.

  22. RfP said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 2:01 pm

    What we now refer to as “the n-word” used to be applied to a certain group of people both frequently and within virtually all registers.

    Is it appropriate to use this term in today’s world?

    Discuss.

  23. Twill said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 2:22 pm

    I appreciate that in these cases we are talking about what are apparently native inventions, but the attitude toward these grammatical categories that have recently been found to be unsavory strikes me as bizarre. I can't say I find T-V distinctions and honorific speech to be all that profitable, but that doesn't mean that I would feel entitled to criticize such categories as arbitrary and oppressive and teach students a completely novel set of conjugations in case they too feel that they should break free of this paradigm and talk to multiple people without vouvoyer'ing them. I'm struggling to see how that doesn't constitute linguistic imperialism.

  24. Luke said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 2:37 pm

    "What we now refer to as “the n-word” used to be applied to a certain group of people both frequently and within virtually all registers. Is it appropriate to use this term in today’s world? Discuss."
    The newish internet slang "fuck around and find out" comes to mind here.

  25. Seth said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 2:53 pm

    @Twill – I only know a little about this, and I'm sure someone around knows more, but I believe historically there were in fact major social disputes over calling such categories "arbitrary and oppressive", and similar linguistic fights. Ah, Google:

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/why-did-we-stop-using-thou

    "When this portion of our language began to shift there was a belief among many Quakers that the use of the singular you was inappropriate, on the grounds that it violated grammatical tenets, and enforced unwanted social distinctions. One of the founders of the Quakers, George Fox, felt strongly enough about this matter that he wrote an entire book on the subject (which was a bit longer than one might imagine it would be, taking up over 200 pages), published in 1660. The sentiments of this work were made quite clear in the title, which was “A Battle-Door for Teachers & Professors to Learn Singular & Plural; You to Many, and Thou to One: Singular One, Thou; Plural Many, You.”"

  26. Philip Taylor said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 2:55 pm

    RfP (in answer to your invitation to discuss). "Is it appropriate to use this term in today's world ?". Yes, if the use is in the context of discussion of language; no, if the use is in the context of describing, or referring to, a person or a group of people.

    In other words, it is absolutely fine to write (for example) « My late grandfather used the word 'nigger' as matter-of-factly as he used the words 'bread' and 'beer' — he meant nothing pejorative by it, and indeed on one occasion described a nurse who had been particularly helpful when he was in hospital as 'a lovely little nigger nurse' » (all the preceding is a true statement regarding my maternal grandfather). And it is totally unacceptable to say (for example) « He is a nigger », or « The niggers who live next door ». There are, I would argue, no words that we cannot use when they form the topic under discussion; but there are many that we should not use "in real life", words such as "coon", "faggot", "paki", "nigger", "wop", and "yid", to name just a few.

  27. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 3:02 pm

    stephen reeves: no one uses their preferred third person pronoun, when talking about themselves , demanding others use it , is self centered and authoritarian,

    Really? Has there ever been a time when you would be happy to be referred to as "she" or "they" by someone who knew you? (I'm assuming your pronoun preference from your name.)

    also how is someone to remember everyone’s preferred pronouns when they are not around , without their pronoun badges on display

    You've always had to do that. Twenty years ago, you always or almost always had to infer everybody's choice from their body shape, clothes, haircut, name, etc. Now many people tell you their choice, at least in some situations, and a few might surprise you or be different from what you're used to. But it's the same feat of memory.

  28. Seth said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 3:18 pm

    @Philip Taylor – What you write is not descriptively correct. The use-mention distinction has socially been being removed there over the last several years. One law professor recently came close to literally living the Monty Python "He Said Jehovah!" skit over use-mention when teaching about US First Amendment law and a relevant historic court case.

  29. Geoffrey Dawson said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 4:32 pm

    @philip taylor
    I think you mean 'it *ought to be* absolutely fine [to use any word in a 'mention' context]
    Whether it is absolutely fine is a matter of social convention.

  30. M Lin said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 5:19 pm

    Thank you for your comment, @Jerry Friedman. What is being asked of us is not new at all. It's generally understood that the subject of the speech may have some investment in how they are spoken of. Try calling someone self-centered and authoritarian if they complain that you are calling them a donkey !@$#er. Racial slurs have already been brought up as another example of when the subject of speech often has more authority on what is ok to say than the user. Or, for something more close to the topic, doctors rarely need to call themselves such in speech, but it's understood that referring to them as doctor when they are a doctor is generally the polite thing to do, and intentionally refusing to use their title is also understood to be a deliberately disrespectful move. Do you scoff and declare your freedoms when someone says, "Please call me Bob?" Calling a man a woman or a woman a man is a go-to insult for certain types, and we all recognize it as such, until that man or woman turns out to be trans.

    To show a concrete example of how this debate about gendered language sometimes plays out, I was in a situation once where someone decided to start calling me Miss M every single time they referred to me. They did not attach a title to any other person, just me. We were in our mid 20s in a casual setting, so this was irregular behavior. I had known this person for years and they had never done this, but suddenly it was constant. Why? Probably because I had revealed to people (again, that I had known for years) that I was miserable as a woman and was hoping someday to transition to male. Would it be "authoritarian" of me to tell this person to cut it out? It is, after all, a free country, and they can tell me how little they think of me all they want. I never asked anyone to change the way they spoke to me, to use a new name, new pronouns, or anything, and yet someone was perfectly capable of changing the way they addressed me all their own, albeit for the reason opposite of what people here are complaining about.

    It's perfectly fair to talk about some of the mechanical difficulties of neutering strongly gendered language, but some comments here seems to be under the impression that language has always been this perfectly neutral thing and then some silly people came in trying to make it political. That's not how it works. People adjust their language due to an infinite number of factors on a regular basis. Sometimes the change reflects a mentality you agree with, sometimes it doesn't. But that doesn't make the first neutral and the second coercive.

  31. Doug said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 5:48 pm

    At times like this, I envy speakers of languages like Finnish and Hungarian, who never have to worry about gender in their pronouns.

  32. Carl said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 6:24 pm

    It’s sort of a mistake to associate grammatical gender too closely with social gender. In certain languages, nouns come in a handful of classes and by convention, use of the classes often overlap with social genders, but not always and never entirely—for example, girl is neuter in German. And the assigning of social genders to objects like desks and chairs is a well known source of humor to language learners. I think it’s better for most people just to think of them as A group nouns, B group nouns, etc and then have as a rule “people who are masculine are usually referred to by A group nouns” than too get too hung up on the metaphysics of chromosomes and whatnot.

  33. Twill said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 11:59 pm

    @Seth Indeed there were (maybe major is overstated, but people definitely grumbled about it. As an aside, you would think Fox et al. might appreciate that if you vouvoyer everyone, you vouvoyer no-one). Even today you will occasionally run across somebody who laments this "corruption" in our tongue, mostly from those who worship Shakespeare or the KJV. The difference as far as I see it is that Fox and the Quakers were members of that speech community and sought to alter usage in that capacity. That is different from a teacher and their students altering the language they are learning to fit their notions of propriety. If thou camest across a student from a neo-Quaker mission who insistently bade thee in imperfect English to address them in the second person singular, thou wouldst be bewildered and possible a bit miffed.

  34. Martin said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 2:37 am

    @Twill I'm not sure that your implicit claim that non-binary people who want to use non-binary pronouns are not part of their relevant speech community really stands up to scrutiny.

    Using someone's preferred pronouns is a matter of politeness. No-one is 'bidding' you to do it. However as with all matters of politeness it's better to do it if you possibly can. I am old enough to find referring to a specific singular person as 'they' difficult, but I do it anyway to the best of my ability.

  35. RPd said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 3:20 am

    This is a very interesting topic.

    * French pronouns such as 'ielles' are what we might call "neopronouns", recent coinages. So to be asked to them is more akin to an English speaker being asked to use a neopronoun such as "xie" rather than being asked to use an existing pronoun such as "they". Of course, it is not clear how any existing French pronoun could be reused. Many here will be aware that "on" (3rd p. sng indef., "one") is inappropriate because it is often used to mean "we".

    * The challenge in French goes well beyond pronouns and the third person. If I were addressing a nonbinary Frenchperson and referring to their height, would I say "tu es grand" or "tu es grande"? In writing you can write "tu es grand.e" or whatever, but in speech the two words are pronounced differently.

    * It is incumbent on educators to make clear to students, in the case of innovative forms, that these are not (yet?) widely accepted.

    * We often see the verb "use" misused (or, to be less prescriptive, used in an innovative but perhaps misleading way). As Brdo rightly says, when someone says "X uses 'they'", they don't mean that X uses they (everyone, all English speakers use "they", just as we all use "I", "you", etc) – they mean that X expects other people to use "they" (when referring to X).

    * While singular "they" is longstanding, I can't deny there's a voice in the back of my mind that wonders whether it could become confusing if it becomes widespread when referring to particular individuals. Perhaps a new plural "they" should be innovated – "they-all" to accompany "you-all"?

    * Another thing I wonder is, will singular "they" always have both meanings (unknown gender and non-gender-identifying) or could the new one overtake the old? In other words, if I say "has anyone lost their hat?" might that someday be reinterpreted as implying that I know that the person who lost their hat was nonbinary. What about in a case where I might (or might not) know the person's identity: "I read that someone had killed their parents yesterday" – I might be using "their" because I don't know the gender; equally, I might have read about them in a newspaper article and know who are they, and so people might interpret me as implying that I know the culprit to be nonbinary. If so, would we then ened a new pronoun for traditional, unknown-gender "they"?

  36. RPd said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 3:29 am

    While it's obviously a mistake to associate grammatical gender too closely with other forms of gender, I also don't think it's correct when people say that the genders might as well be named "dark" and "light" or whatever.

    I mean the fact is that there are a vast array of nouns referring to males that are (in French, German, Spanish, Italian etc) masculine and a vast array referring to females that are feminine. This isn't to deny that there are famous exceptions ("Mädchen" due to the suffix).

    Additionally, we all know that all male (or male-identifying?) people in French are referred to as "il" and all female people as "elle". If you use the noun "la personne" (always feminine) perhaps you might go on to say "elle". But the overall pattern of usage is clear enough that it's a long way from arbitrary to call these genders M and F.

    That said, there'd be a case for calling the French genders nonfeminine and feminine – on the grounds that mixed groups use the nonfeminine, and on the grounds that the nonfeminine is the default/unmarked form while the feminine is the suffixed form in most cases). Perhaps this shift in how we view things would address some of the concerns.

  37. John Swindle said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 3:53 am

    @Twill: "you would think Fox et al. might appreciate that if you vouvoyer everyone, you vouvoyer no-one". But is that what was happening? There were still those in Fox's England who addressed their fellows as "thou" and their superiors as (otherwise plural) "you." I haven't read the tome, but I think that was the ungrammaticality that Fox objected to. The continued use of "thou" and "thee" (and later just "thee") by later Quakers as the language changed around them is another matter.

  38. David Marjanović said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 3:57 am

    Themself is found by Google 19.5 million times.

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 4:58 am

    Seth, Geoffrey — "The use-mention distinction has socially been being removed there over the last several years", "I think you mean 'it *ought to be* absolutely fine [to use any word in a 'mention' context]. Whether it is absolutely fine is a matter of social convention".

    I find it interesting that you both describe this putative proscription of the use of certain words in terms of "socially" and "social convention". "Social conventions", if I may focus on the latter, arise through group consensus. But group consensus is, by definition, accord within a group, so unless that group subsumes the whole of humanity then it is not a universal convention at all, but merely one that is respected by a particular group. And if one is not a member of that group, then one cannot be required to conform to that group's beliefs.

  40. KeithB said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 8:03 am

    Kind of off-topic, but I just heard on NPR today that the man trying to replace Angela Merkel has put up signs saying he would make a good chancellor, with chancellor being in the feminine form to say he would be a good lady-chancellor replacement.

  41. RPd said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 8:12 am

    @KeithB:
    The slogan is "Er kann Kanzlerin". It doesn't translate very easily into English. As you say, Kanzlerin is the feminine form ("-in" is the feminine suffix).
    It's partly a tribute to her popularity and perceived success, I think, as well as a pitch to the "continuity" vote. She's also been Chancellor almost 16 years, so many younger voters will be too young to remember a male chancellor!

  42. Terry K. said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 9:54 am

    @RPD
    "I read that someone had killed their parents yesterday" – I might be using "their" because I don't know the gender; equally, I might have read about them in a newspaper article and know who are they, and so people might interpret me as implying that I know the culprit to be nonbinary.

    In that example, it's also possible that you know their gender, know them to be a person referred to as "he" or "she", but you are nonetheless using "they" because you are speaking about them anonymously. That is, speaking about them as if they were an unknown person.

    And, I don't mean to imply I know your idiolect. But it would possible for me and I think this "as if it were an unspecific person" usage is a pretty normal option.

  43. Alexander Pruss said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 10:37 am

    I think the usage of "they" for singular referents or as singular variables by young people (and not only young people) is a bit more complex than "unknown gender" suggests, even with gender identity issues bracketed. At least around here, in central Texas, young people (including socially, religiously and politically conservative young people) will often use "they" when referring to people in contexts where gender is irrelevant. I myself find this a handy usage, de-emphasizing gender when it's irrelevant. Thus, I would say "I saw someone on a skateboard looking at their phone" and "I had a student give me 10 of their papers in the last week of class", even when I feel confident as to the actual gender of the persons. This is particularly useful, as in the student paper case, where one wants to maintain confidentiality.

    "Unknown gender" is also not the right description when "they" is a variable bound by a universal quantifier. In "Everyone who rides a skateboard is in danger of breaking their bones", it's not so much that the gender is unknown, as that the universal claim applies across genders.

    If I wanted to describe the singular use of "they" in two words, I think I would say "unindicated gender". One reason why gender may be unindicated is because it's unknown to the speaker. But there are other possible reasons, such as that gender is irrelevant or the speaker wishes it to be unknown to the listener. I am not a linguist: the linguists here may have a better description of the phenomenon.

    One wrinkle: I don't think one would use "they" together with a name even when gender is irrelevant to the communication, assuming gender identity wasn't an issue. Thus "I saw a woman on their skateboard" sounds very odd (it suggests a co-owner of the skateboard). In general, I think that if both the speaker and the listener knew who was talked about and what their gender was, a more specific pronoun would be used.

  44. Alexander Browne said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 11:48 am

    As Geoffrey Pullum wrote almost 16 years ago (http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002742.html):

    The use of they is, to put it informally, a reminder that the pronoun is not referring to any one person.

    He was writing about this example:

    Any girl who is interested must simply be born female and between the ages of 18 and 45. They must have an IQ above 130 and they must be honest.

  45. Philip Taylor said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 12:25 pm

    A strangely unconvincing example : "Any girl […] must […] be between the ages of 18 and 45". Would not a female of such age generally be termed a woman rather than a girl ?

  46. Haamu said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 1:31 pm

    A strangely unconvincing example

    A strangely perplexing statement. Of what are you not convinced, and why is that worth mentioning?

  47. Julian said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 1:32 pm

    Overheard in coffee shop:
    'I need to get a present for an 8-year-old girl. A book, perhaps?'
    'Are they a reader?'

  48. Chas Belov said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 3:34 pm

    For those who are saying that it is authoritarian for someone to expect others to use a particular pronoun when referring to that someone.

    Are you saying that you therefore are not concerned whether someone refers to you as "he" or "she" and that someone can use whatever pronoun they like to refer to you?

    If not, then are you not being equally authoritarian?

    I've had people correct me because I misgendered their dog or cat.

  49. Luke said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 4:26 pm

    @Chas

    I would mind, but I wouldn't continue speaking to a person who's being rude on purpose. That's the difference between a libertarian and an authoritarian. The former understands the concept of freedom of association, the latter will force you to use their desired pronouns (through legislation in some countries).

  50. Vanya said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 4:32 pm

    Would not a female of such age generally be termed a woman rather than a girl ?

    Depends where and when. In New York in 2021, almost certainly. But apparently not in 2003. I think we Gen Xers were the last males to generalize the word "girl" to mean any woman who we find young enough to be sexually attractive – and even in the 1980s that usage was regularly (and correctly) called out as sexist. Nonetheless, I am sure that there is still a shockingly large cohort of Americans, men and women, who still use girl in that sense, including a recent ex-President and current Supreme Court Justices.

  51. Jake said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 6:25 pm

    > how is someone to remember everyone’s preferred pronouns when they are not around

    How am I supposed to remember everyone's names when they are not around? How am I supposed to remember that someone exists when they are not in sight? The worst part is when they put their hands over their eyes and just disappear right in front of me, I find these expectations completely unreasonable.

  52. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 7:11 pm

    Luke: So your position is that demanding that people use one's preferred pronouns may or may not be authoritarian, depending on whether the demand is backed by force?

    Vanya: Since I started teaching at community colleges in New Mexico in the mid '90s, I'm not sure I've ever heard any of my students refer to a female in her twenties as a woman.

  53. Mark said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 10:42 pm

    Re grammatical gender: @Carl @RPd or others: Why does grammatical gender exist at all? This is a serious question from a non-linguist.

  54. Universal Rundle said,

    September 17, 2021 @ 8:59 am

    Sooner or later these discussions tend to bring up French third-person pronouns and German "Mädchen" – but what about second-person pronouns in Spanish and Portuguese? They strike me as great examples of how mutable pronouns are over time (like English dropping our "thou" forms) – and how completely cultures can naturalize idiosyncratic grammatical combinations (which seems relevant to things like our current "themself"/"themselves" question).

    "Usted"/"ustedes" are formal second-person pronouns in Spanish, and "você"/"vocês" are used by default instead of "tu"/"vós" in spoken Brazilian Portuguese – all these second-person pronouns conjugate with third-person verbs, without native speakers breaking a sweat or even finding it remarkable (they happen to take the third person because they all descend from honorific titles meaning "Your Mercy," like English would do with "Your Majesty is too kind").

    Pronouns evolve in surprising, arbitrary ways – I'm personally fine with singular/indeterminate "themselves," and won't be surprised if it becomes unremarkable, standard English as well.

  55. Robert Coren said,

    September 17, 2021 @ 10:02 am

    @Universal Rundle: all these second-person pronouns conjugate with third-person verbs

    Similarly for German "Sie" (polite second-person, identical to third-person plural except for capitalization). German-speakers also used to use (capitalized) third-person singular forms for second-person when speaking to social inferiors (and maybe some "equals"?) without wishing to be so imperious as to use "du".

  56. Universal Rundle said,

    September 17, 2021 @ 10:33 am

    @Robert Coren: Exactly! The more people know how many languages have changed how their pronoun use over time, in how many different ways, the less they might see an English trend as some kind of aberration. I'd love to know more about changes in non-European languages, too.

    @Neil Kubler: Like this note about 他/她/TA in Chinese – thanks. (https://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=8937 adds 它, 牠 and even 祂)

  57. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    September 17, 2021 @ 5:45 pm

    And then there are things like Slavic: pro-drop but gender marked in verb inflection.

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