Thomas Jones: Hello, and welcome to the London Review of Books podcast. My name is Thomas Jones, and today I’m talking to Amia Srinivasan, who's written the piece in the current issue of the LRB about pronouns. It’s a review of a book by Dennis Baron called What’s Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She, an account of the search for what Baron, a professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois, calls the ‘missing word’, a third-person singular, gender-neutral pronoun. Amia’s piece covers the history of that search, which has been going on for longer than you might think – should I say than one might think – and the resurgence of the pronoun debates in the last twenty years. ‘English pronouns are in their nature political,’ Amia writes. ‘Their usage has historically been governed and is in some ways governed still by norms that are produced by hierarchies of power.’ Hello, Amia, and thank you for joining me.
Amia Srinivasan: Thanks, Tom.
TJ: One thing to say before we begin, or as we begin, is that there are two different though related questions here. One is about the pronouns we use to refer to a subject who could be either male or female. And the other is about finding a word or a set of words with which to reflect, as you put it, a gender identity that exists beyond or across the male-female binary. Is that the right distinction?
AS: Yeah. I think that is a really useful distinction when thinking about the supposed missing word. So maybe a little grammar lesson up top might be helpful just to get a firmer grip on what that distinction is, if you don't mind?
TJ: Of course, please.
AS: So I think most people today are acquainted with the notion of a non-binary pronoun, so a pronoun like ‘ze’ or ‘they’, which is used by people who feel themselves not to fit within the traditional conventional male-female dichotomy, and who want their pronouns, therefore, to reflect that fact about their gender identity. But there are also just many, many cases in English which just as a matter of grammar need a third-person singular pronoun that is also gender-neutral. So a common case is one involving what's called an indefinite noun, like the word ‘everyone’. So for example, how do you complete the sentence ‘everyone misplaces…keys’? Actually, Tom, how would you complete that sentence?
TJ: I would say ‘their’ keys. One of the interesting things about this is that it's very much an English problem, and we can come to this later, but in Italian for example you'd say ‘everyone misplaces the keys.’ There were posters all over Italy saying you must wear ‘the’ mask. But anyway, to go back to English, I would say ‘everyone misplaces their keys.’
AS: That's so interesting, ‘everyone misplaces the keys.’ I have a friend who also writes for the LRB who says that he would complete the sentence ‘everyone misplaces my keys!’ Anyway, I think most people would be pulled towards saying ‘everyone misplaces their keys’, but that's technically not grammatical because ‘everyone’ is singular and ‘they’ or ‘their’ is plural. But it's also important to note that ‘everyone’ is genderless, right? So it refers to people of all genders. So to grammatically complete that sentence, we need a singular third-person, gender neutral pronoun. Or think about another kind of case where we're referring to a noun of unknown gender. For example in the sentence ‘the anonymous witness said…had seen a gruesome act’. Again, we intuitively want to say ‘the anonymous witness said they had seen a gruesome act’, but that's technically speaking not grammatical. So in English our choices of third-person singular pronoun are simply ‘he’, ‘she’, ‘one’ and ‘it’. The problem with saying that ‘everyone misplaces his keys’ or ‘her keys’ is that it's also not grammatically correct, because ‘everyone’ is genderless. You can say ‘everyone misplaces one's keys’, but it's generally thought that that's really pompous, and so isn't an acceptable solution. And notice also that ‘one’ won't help us in the case of the anonymous witness sentence. So it would be very weird to say ‘the anonymous witness said one had seen a gruesome act.’ It would sound like the anonymous witness was like the queen! And then ‘everyone misplaces its keys’ is bad, obviously, because we generally think that ‘it’ should only be used for non-persons. And when ‘it’ is used for persons, that’s seen as a sign of contempt and disrespect. So we just have this quite simple grammatical problem, right? English needs a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, both to capture non-binary identities, but also simply to complete many ordinary English sentences.
TJ: Exactly. And I did think of a sentence in which we do use ‘it’. If you say ‘there's somebody at the door, who is it?’, there's something about that formulation ‘who is it?’ that somehow ‘it’ doesn't refer to the person. It somehow refers to the presence of the person at the door. I don't know why that seems to be an acceptable formulation, but ‘the baby hurt its hand’ is seen not to be.
AS: That's really interesting. ‘Who is it?’ I feel like – and I don't know if this is grammatically speaking right – it has something in common with ‘it is raining’, where the ‘it’ doesn't really refer to anything, just kind of a state. So ‘who is it?’, you know, who is the state of knocking and producing the state of knocking the door, or something like that!
TJ: But in a sense, in the old days, as it were…
AS: …to be historically precise!
TJ: Exactly! Partly because the question is when these things will happen is itself quite interesting, that there was the generic ‘he’, but it would have been three hundred years ago, they'd have said ‘everyone loses his keys’ and would have thought that was normal. Is that when grammar started to be formalised?
AS: So English grammar started to be written in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. What's known as the universal or generic ‘he’ has a very long history. Some people still use it. Some people still insist on using it. (I know a couple of people personally, but I won't name names.) And that is a feature of what happened in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, which is that the very first English grammars were written, which attempted to codify and instruct students in proper English usage. Before that the English word ‘grammar’ always basically referred to Latin grammar, and so these new English grammars were modelled on Latin grammars. And in fact, some of them were actually even written in Latin, just to make things really difficult. And in particular, these English grammars were modelled on William Lily's Latin grammar, which was taught by a 1540 royal decree in every English school for three hundred years. So in his Latin grammar Lily explained that in phrases like ‘rex et regina beati’, the blessed king and queen, the adjective ‘beati’ is plural, because it has to agree in number with ‘rex et regina’, king and queen, but also masculine, agreeing in gender with ‘rex’, the king, because as Lily said, ‘the masculine gender is more worthy than the feminine, and the feminine more worthy than the neuter.’ And so this came to be known as Lily's worthiness doctrine. And so what happened is that English grammarians simply transposed this worthiness doctrine to the question of how to achieve appropriate agreement between personal pronouns and indefinites in English. And so the first to do so was a woman named Anne Fisher who published a very widely used textbook on English grammar in 1745. And she explained in her grammar that the pronoun ‘he’ should be used to refer to nouns of indefinite gender, indefinites like ‘everyone’, so that we have ‘everyone misplaces his keys.’ And the idea here is that ‘he’ both works as a gender pronoun, as in ‘the boy loves his dog’, but also as a generic universal pronoun, one that just encompasses all of humanity.
TJ: In the way that ‘man’ was used as a generic noun to refer to all people.
AS: Exactly. And this of course fits with a very traditional patriarchal worldview, according to which men are in some sense the universal standard. And then women become this special, generally lesser, deviation from that universal standard.
TJ: But that was challenged in the 19th century? Or before that?
AS: It came to be very vociferously challenged in the 19th century, in the US and in the UK. Although the challenge was really interesting. So what women suffragists started doing in the 19th century was arguing that if ‘he’ was really supposed to be generic and universal, then laws on voting, for example, which invariably used the pronoun ‘he’ and the word ‘man’, also should enfranchise women. But perhaps also unsurprisingly men on the whole were unconvinced by this argument, and they insisted that ‘he’ was indeed generic except in the cases where interpreting it as a generic would empower and enfranchise women.
TJ: They were nakedly hypocritical about it, weren’t they, because if it was an act designating a crime, then it applied to women, but if it was an act about voting, then it didn't. And they didn't have any reasons for that beyond ‘we don't want women to vote. So therefore we say it doesn't apply.’
AS: Right. It was just totally nakedly cynical. So if a law imposed burdens on citizens, burdens like taxation or punishment for criminal activity, then the ‘he’ was always understood generically to include both women and men. But whenever a law was conferring benefits, most obviously in the case of voting, it was construed as only applying to men.
And this is despite the fact that in 1850 parliament passed what's called the Act of Interpretation, which said that for the purposes of the law the word ‘he’ was a generic encompassing both women and men. But nonetheless when the 1867 Reform Act extended the franchise beyond property-owning men, courts and legislators insisted that the words ‘man’ and ‘he’ in the act did not refer to women, only referred to certain men.
TJ: So the question of this gender-neutral pronoun has been Political with a capital P, in every sense political, for as long as it's been a question, really.
AS: Absolutely. So people who complain today, and I imagine we'll get onto this later about the politicising of pronouns, don't realise that they're actually in a very long tradition. Men in the 19th century complained that women were ‘politicising’ pronouns. But in fact what these women were doing, and their male allies who were also pushing for women's suffrage, what they were doing was pointing out that the way that pronouns work in English, and this is also true in many other languages, is itself political. It encodes and sustains and is a symptom of certain practices of gender domination.
And these pronouns are not only political as they relate to gender, right? So in the 19th century in the US, for example, enslaved black women and men in certain American laws were referred to with the pronoun ‘it’ because they were thought of as property. So the shift from using the word ‘it’ to refer to enslaved black people to recognising both their gender and humanity and therefore using the pronouns ‘he’ or ‘she’ was not politicising pronouns, but recognising the very, very deeply suspect politics that were already encoded in standard pronoun usage.
TJ: The question of other languages is a really interesting one. This particular form of the pronoun problem is very much an English one – in the same way that the possessive pronouns in a lot of other Indo-European languages agree with the possessed object, not the possessor. So in the way that in English we say ‘his book’ or ‘her book’, in Italian or in French or in Spanish, the ‘his’ or ‘her’ would always be masculine. It would always be ‘suo libro’ or ‘son livre’. And you talk as well about the way that the word ‘one’ is so difficult in English, whereas ‘on’ in French is a normal way of speaking.
AS: Right, ‘on’ is perfectly normal. It doesn't have that same tone of pomposity, but French and German and other thoroughly gendered languages have their own kind of gender problems.
TJ: They do, yeah. The other thing about Italian which is just so grotesque about the worthiness doctrine, is that if you have a hundred women and one man in a group, they are collectively masculine plural! It’s the same in French.
AS: Exactly. I remember learning that rule at 10 or whatever in French, and just being horrified. And one thing that's interesting, of course, is that when you read about grammatical gender from grammarians, they’ll always tell you, look, there is no connection whatsoever between these kinds of grammatical rules and how a culture deals with the question of actual social gender. And one thinks to oneself, no connection?
TJ: Yeah, I remember that. It was pure gaslighting, wasn’t it!
AS: It’s obviously the case that you can't read the state of gender relations in a particular culture off its language. That's a preposterous idea. But at least as a matter of genealogy and history, it would be extraordinary if that rule in Italian and French wasn't explained by the view that one drop of man just makes the whole collective of man, right? When all of your nouns are gendered masculine or feminine as they are in French, or masculine, feminine or neuter as in the case of German, words like ‘student’ are gendered. So this produces systematic problems, but interestingly, both French and German have gender-neutral, singular third-person pronouns that at least do some of the work that we've been been talking about, ‘on’ in the case of French and ‘man’ in the case of German. So in a sense, English is less gendered than French and German. Old English used to be like German in that all of its nouns were masculine, feminine or neuter, but that feature was lost in the transition to middle English. But there are of course vestiges of grammatical gender in English, so the third-person singular pronoun, ‘his’ or ‘her’, but also in distinctions like ‘horse’ and ‘mare’ and ‘actor’ and ‘actress’. And if you're a monoglot native English speaker, that just seems completely normal to you. It's in fact hard for you to imagine what it would be like to have a third-person singular pronoun that wasn't gendered. But there are many, many languages that don't have a gendered third-person pronoun. So languages like Malay, Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, Armenian, Bengali, Persian, Swahili, Ojibwe, Turkish, all of these languages use the same word for ‘he’ and ‘she’, and sometimes for ‘it’ as well.
TJ: And there were attempts to reproduce that in English, right? You come up with this extraordinary list of neologisms. It's one a year for sixty years and none of them has caught on.
AS: Right. Baron's book contains this absolutely wonderful appendix at the back of gender-neutral and non-binary pronouns, which begins in 1841 when an American doctor named Francis Brewster proposed the pronouns ‘e’, just written as a single letter ‘e’, ‘s’ and’m’ as stand-ins or equivalents for ‘he’, ‘him’, ‘his’ or ‘she’, ‘her’, ‘hers’. But this was just the beginning of this really intense and creative moment in English’s history, which lasted from the mid 19th century to the early 20th. And what's interesting about Baron's book is it just shows that this kind of search for the missing word wasn't anything like a niche concern. You just had doctors, teachers, lawyers, artists, journalists, musicians, all trying to come up with new words, vying and competing over ownership over invented pronouns and all debating the merits of different proposals, in magazines, over dinner tables and so on. And so finding a new pronoun in this period is generally seen in the UK, but also especially I think the US as a matter of great public urgency. And so, as you say, Baron's appendix lists around two hundred new genderless pronouns, half of which were coined before 1930. And this includes things like ‘thon’, ‘hiser’, ‘hesh’, ‘ze’, ‘hier’, ‘ta’, ‘lu’, and my personal favorite, ‘ita’, which is a combination of ‘it’ and ‘a’.
TJ: And we don't use any of them now, which is in many ways a great shame, I suppose because of the way in which language acquisition is such a complicated process.
AS: Yeah, so it's interesting because of course languages are these highly mobile things, right? They're organic products. They grow, they change, they shift sometimes because of deliberate interventions, very often because of just changing patterns of usage, changing values, changing material structures, obviously cross-pollination with other languages and so on. So some of these new pronouns, as it were, were used, even made their way into dictionaries, like ‘thon’, or into writing. So Ursula Le Guin, for example, in her feminist science fiction sometimes would use pronouns like ‘e’. And also some of these gender-neutral pronouns have been repurposed basically since the 1970s for use as non-binary pronouns, and ‘ze’ is a very clear case of this. But on the whole, of course, you're right. So none of these pronouns has been taken up in a widespread way such that most English speakers would recognise them and what they mean, and Dennis Baron thinks that this is because these pronouns, he says, tend to look strange on the page and their pronunciation isn't totally clear always. And most importantly, because they have to be explained.
TJ: And of course there is the obvious and much-used alternative in the form of the singular ‘they’. After the LRB published Mary Wellesley's piece on anchorites last year, we got a very angry letter from someone complaining it was ‘badly marred by howler grammatical errors’, because Mary had used ‘they’ as a singular pronoun. So I took great pleasure in writing back to him and saying that ‘they’ had been used as a singular form since the 14th century. So if he wanted to talk about medieval grammar, we could do that.
AS: Right. And it was perfectly in keeping with the topic of Mary's piece as well!
TJ: Exactly. Anchorites…
AS: Yeah. So in this piece I've written, I use the singular ‘they’ 16 times and I just don't think a normal reader would notice. It has been used, as you say, since the 14th century, it's probably been used since before then. The 14th century, 1375 specifically, is just the first recorded use in written texts cited by the OED, in this romance William and the Werewolf, in a line that's translated from the middle English as ‘each man hurried till they drew near where William and his darling were lying together’. But ‘they’ has also been used in a singular form clearly in the early modern period. In the 19th century one newspaper declared that at least two men out of three and four women out of five use ‘they’ already, with sublime contempt for the rule! You see it in Dickens. You see it in lots of writers. And I think even increasingly grammarians are just acceding to the inevitability of the singular ‘they’. Jordan Peterson is very against it, however.
TJ: And of course the anger of the LRB’s correspondent must be connected to Jordan Peterson and that conservative backlash. Because there's no reason to be angry about it. Jordan Peterson – I hope we can call him disingenuous without being sued – but to claim that his right to free speech would be infringed by having to refer to his students by their preferred pronouns, and this idea of insisting that what's wrong with ‘he’ and ‘she’ is politically charged, and trying to create this new anger about the use of the word ‘they’, is a deliberate reactionary political project, isn’t it?
AS: To be fair to Peterson – and I'm only doing this because I also don't want to be sued – what he does claim is that it's one thing to use the singular ‘they’ to complement definites, so to say things like ‘everyone misplaces their keys’. But he thinks it's another thing entirely to use ‘they’ to refer to some particular person, to say for example, ‘Mary misplaced their keys’. So he's happy, Peterson, with the former, but not the latter. So he’s OK with ‘they’ as a genderless or rather a gender-neutral pronoun, but he's not happy with it as a non-binary pronoun. And he claims that its use as a non-binary pronoun is very new. But that itself is false. So for example, early modern medical textbooks were using ‘they’ to refer to intersex people. Virginia Woolf uses ‘they’ to refer to Orlando. So these are cases of non-binary uses of ‘they’ which really do predate what Peterson thinks of as a very recent phenomenon. But Peterson is right that there is something ideological at work in the use of ‘they’ as a non- binary pronoun. When we ask people to use ‘they’ for non-binary people, we are asking them to participate in an ideology that recognises – and I don't mean ideology in a pejorative sense, I just mean as a worldview – that gender is not exhausted by male and female. But what I think Peterson doesn't recognise, or he's not willing to admit – I think he tacitly does know perfectly well – is that insisting that we only use ‘he’ or ‘she’ is itself to participate in an ideology. It's the reigning ideology that says that gender is exhausted by male and female, and is reducible simply to human biology. So these things are unavoidably political. We're always making choices either knowingly or unknowingly about what kind of social and political structures to be supporting when we're making choices about what sort of language to use.
TJ: Then that brings us to the problem of third-person pronouns at all. As you come towards the end of your piece you come up with this idea that maybe the problem isn't just which pronoun to use and do we need new ones, but using them at all. And that referring to people by the third-person pronoun in their presence is in itself dehumanising or objectifying or reductive, like that thing my mother would say, who's she, the cat's mother?
AS: Right. And that's been a really common response to the piece, because one of the things I say is that as a university teacher I tend to just use people's names. So I'm either addressing them as ‘you’, or if I'm talking about them in the third person I will say ‘What do you think of Mary's question?’ or something like that. Because saying ‘he’ or ‘she’ to me just feels a bit rude, I think because as a child, my mother would always be horrified if I referred to her as ‘she’ in front of her, quite rightly. And it's interesting that there's a kind of tacit recognition that when we use third-person pronouns, whether they're gender-neutral or not, there's a sense in which we're objectifying the person. I don't mean necessarily sexually objectifying them, I just mean treating them as this thing to be categorised and analysed. It's interesting because the story I tell in the piece is about slipping up with pronouns with my students, and they used the ‘they’ pronoun and I used a gendered pronoun. But I used it in their report at the end of term, when what I was doing was precisely this act of weighing them up, analysing them, treating them like a thing to be judged. It just was never an issue in the tutorials themselves when I was always addressing them in this kind of second-person way, where I wasn't engaged in a mode of evaluation, but a different kind of relation entirely. And I do think the second-person form of address, ‘you’, is different in that way, it speaks of a different kind of relation to the other person, an engaged relation. And you might also think a relation that implicitly recognises the way in which the other person can't be simply or totally contained by the categories that we use.
TJ: So I think the answer is just abolish the third person altogether!
AS: Well, you think that's funny, but there's a long philosophical tradition that basically argues for precisely that at a kind of metaphysical and ethical level. So in Martin Buber’s I and You that’s basically the thought, that we should be treating other persons – not just other persons, you might think we should be treating the whole world this way – not as an object to be studied or evaluated, but as something that needs to be communed with in a recognition of its kind of infinity, the way in which these things stand outside categories and names.
TJ: That question of naming, it's like when I'm Tom and when I'm Thomas. I get weirdly annoyed!
AS: I was surprised that you introduced yourself as Thomas, actually, because you're very Tom to me.
TJ: Yeah, somehow in writing, there's a thing, I don’t know… like I'm Tom on lots of company user name stuff, and I've changed them all! I feel that there's some difference between a spoken name and an official written down name. That's my incredibly low-level experience of that feeling that I've been misnamed. And if I feel like that about the difference between Thomas and Tom, which is about as privileged a name as there is, really... and the idea of the way when people's sense of being misnamed is treated so casually by other people, as you say in your piece, you can't imagine that.
AS: Yeah. I think that's such a good point. But it is interesting the way in which many people who aren't trans, aren’t non-binary, nonetheless do have experiences of misnaming that don't rise to the level of, but in just a small way approximate, that feeling of what it must be like to just have the world get your name wrong in some kind of profound way, and the extraordinary dissonance that that creates. And I think those experiences are really worth meditating on, because when we're thinking about what reasons we have for using the pronouns that people ask us to use, one of those reasons can be because we buy into a whole kind of metaphysical framework of gender, because we think that there is no real gender binary or some people exist beyond the gender binary. Or it could be because of this political goal that feminists have long sought after, which is the goal of abolishing gender. But it can also just be because of much more pedestrian and simple things, like recognising that it can feel extraordinarily painful and uncanny and uncomfortable to just be misnamed, even in these quite small ways. So there are these kind of deep, I think, questions to be asked about the relationship between language and reality. But there are also equally deep but different kinds of questions about just decency and kindness when it comes to how we name people.
TJ: People should be called what they want to be called. It seems very hard to argue with that idea. When you put it in those terms, how can it be controversial that people should have the names they want to have?
AS: Except I do think it's not that hard to understand why people find it difficult, because language is this kind of public thing. So when you apply to yourself a name that I apply to myself, it can feel like you’re changing the meaning of that name or the resonances of that name. My first name is Amia, so I've never had the experience of meeting someone with my first name, but you, Tom, probably have had that experience a lot. And in fact, there's another Tom in the LRB office. But I've always imagined that's an interesting and disconcerting experience, although maybe it's one that someone with the name Thomas is very used to! But you don't own ‘Tom’ all by yourself. You have to share ‘Tom’ with all the other Toms in the world.
TJ: Well, that's okay! Amia Srinivasan, thank you very much.
AS: Thanks so much, Tom.
TJ: You can read Amia Srinivasan's piece on pronouns in the current issue of the LRB, along with James Meek on the World Health Organisation, Ferdinand Mount on Boris Johnson's first year, Alison Light on Charles Booth’s London poverty maps. And Katherine Rundell considers the hare.