In an episode of “The Dirty Word,” a series that examines “where sex and language get it on,” Amanda Montell dives into the history of gendered pronouns in English and the conversation around the singular “they” which many individuals who don’t fully ascribe to “he” or “she” prefer.
Mostly, the host explores the pushback against using “they,” and how some see it as a grammatical affront to the English language. “When we look back at the history of English pronouns,” Montell explains, “all those grammar-based arguments against singular they kind of unravel, ultimately revealing that these discussion of gender-neutral pronouns aren’t really about words at all.” Guess what they are about? “Underneath, what’s really happening is a debate about identity and beliefs.”
Now, that’s not entirely surprising to anyone who’s been in a conversation with someone who seems morally opposed to the singular they as applied to gender nonconforming, genderqueer, or non-binary individuals. As the host explains, it’s often a red herring to disguise discrimination, a stubborn unwillingness to accommodate others, or something much deeper. However, this video and the history it presents shatters that shield of “proper English” and exposes that attitude for what it is—a thinly veiled dismissal of someone’s gender identity.
Montell, author of the upcoming WORDY: A Feminist Guide to Taking Back the English Language, goes into how many languages around the world ascribe gender to nouns and how that structure isn’t entire separate from English, as well as the fact that many languages in the world have gender-neutral pronouns. “They,” she explains, has been applied as a singular non-gender specific pronoun for hundreds of years so acting as if it’s a radical bastardization of a language is ridiculous.
It’s fascinating history and interesting stuff, even if you’re already on board with the singular they. And if you’re not, maybe a history lesson about how language evolves might convince you to move along with it as well.
(via HelloGiggles, image:screencap)
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