Despite much political resistance, the United States has taken certain measures to become more inclusive and respectful to gender minorities.
One of the major societal changes being examined is the use of gendered pronouns.
Under this system, there are two singular pronouns: he and she. However, individuals who do not choose to identify in the gender binary are left excluded.
There is a movement trying to create new pronouns or use the plural pronouns them and they to refer to others.
The new pronouns include: zie, sie, ey, ve, tey and e. These do not refer to one specific gender.
This evolution of language is not far off from the history of language and the use of pronouns in the past. They and them have been used throughout most of history to refer to a person whose gender is unknown.
Assistant Professor Christopher Strelluf studies the evolution of language, and believes this movement is politically motivated.
“I think an important place to start is the idea we should use ‘he’ for everything,” Strelluf said. “This is a new idea in history (because) it does not have a historical origin.”
In 1489, William Caxton, an important linguist, said “Each of them should make themselves ready.” He uses “them” to refer to a single person.
In the 1800s, there were several books about elocution which encompasses the rules of grammar and language. However, once the first set of books was written, the only way to write new books was to come up with more rules.
This was when the switch to the strict he and she pronouns occurred. Now, the singular they is used to describe someone whose biological sex is known but who is choosing to opt out of the binary.
Strelluf is not convinced the new pronouns are going to stick.
“Pronouns are function words that just deal with grammatical functions,” Strelluf said. “All a pronoun does is let you know a gender and a number. Those function words are really inflexible. There is a long history of trying to add words to a language to perform that specific function and none of them have taken hold.”
Assistant Professor of English Joseph Haughey said gendered pronouns have been steadily used for centuries. Even Shakespeare used the same pronouns we use today.
Haughey had the opportunity to have dinner with Joy Ladin, the first openly transgender professor at an Orthodox Jewish institution.
“Joy’s book was the first book I have read from an open transgender author and she uses feminine pronouns,” Haughey said.
Although Ladin acknowledges the expansion of pronouns, she worries the movement is focused on removing the gender binary completely.
“At the dinner, I thought it was interesting when she talked about people removing the gender binary completely,” Haughey said. “She did not want that; she needed the binary to understand who she was. I felt comforted by that because I need gender to understand who I am too.”
Ladin’s book helped Haughey better understand the LGBT community and gender dysphoria.
“There are lots of things about my body I wish I could change. I wish I could lose weight, I wish I could look younger, handsomer, faster, stronger,” Haughey said. “There are all of those things I would like to change, but I am very in tune with my gender. For me, my gender and body matched up.”
Haughey’s assumptions about the trans community were also challenged.
“What comes out of that is an understanding of transgender and how there is not a one-size-fits all answer,” Haughey said. “It was easy for me before to look at people who are transgender and think they must all be on the same page and agree on the same issues, but it doesn’t actually make sense. Everyone is still trying to figure everything out the same as anyone else.”
Similar to Strelluf, Haughey does not think the new gender pronouns will make their way into literature.
“It is hard for me to imagine the pronouns such as z, eir and hur making a big shift into literature, with the exception of the singular they,” Haughey said.
He does not foresee this change causing any major miscommunication problems when interpreting literature.
“Language is constantly shifting; we will continually look at the changes,” Haughey said. “Sometimes it can be a little confusing, but there are often footnotes to help us move on. I suspect, as language makes its shifts and jumps, we will be able to figure it out. People will have to think carefully and critically in the future, the same as we do now.”
Students would like to see a change in language as well.
Sophomore human services major Julia Morris identifies as agender. Morris uses the pronouns they and them and would like to see the terms used more around campus.
“You don’t know what someone’s gender identity is,” Morris said. “There is nothing wrong with someone wanting to use the gendered pronouns for themselves, but I like to have the option to not use them.”
However, when someone assumes Morris’s gender, it is difficult to have the conversation to correct them.
“I don’t typically have this conversation with people because I do not want to out myself to everyone,” Morris said. “I have not even told my roommate, who still refers to me as ‘she’ because it is pretty hard.”
One change Morris wants to see on campus is the option of they on forms requesting identity. Furthermore, they would like to see more gender neutral bathroom options.
Coordinator of Diversity and Inclusion Gabbi Ray also supports gender neutral bathrooms on campus as well as the acceptance of all differences.
“I want us to be able to get to the point where accepting someone is not even a conscious choice; you just do,” Ray said. “My job and this office’s job is to make sure each student feels a strong level of support.”
Ray feels as though Northwest has a long way to go to be more inclusive, but it is taking the measures it needs to become more inclusive in the future, including hiring herself as well as a vice president of diversity and inclusion.
Ray believes discrimination stems from lack of knowledge.
“We are trying to provide more educational opportunities for students so it is not unusual anymore,” Ray said. “One of the things I say all the time is ‘people stop trying to figure out what they do not know.’ People don’t know about something, so they shy away from the differences. This is not the answer.”
One of the major questions is how gender neutral language will look in other languages. Spanish, for example, has masculine and feminine nouns.
Sophomore human services major David Anzures knows this is a major roadblock, but has given several presentations on using the gender neutral term latinx.
“I want to see latinx be more known to the public,” Anzures said. “Get in the habit of using gender neutral language because so many people do not identify with their biological gender.”
Anzures recognizes using gendered pronouns will be a hard habit to break, but it is still important.
“You do not want to misgender anyone by accident,” Anzures said. “When I do not know someone’s specified gender, I go neutral with they and them.”
English professor Kenton Wilcox wants to promote gender neutral language in the classroom as means to provide an optimal learning environment.
Wilcox believes students can be preoccupied in class about how the rest of the students perceive them.
“I would rather all of my students feel comfortable with me and their classmates, so then the focus can be on the material for the class,” Wilcox said.
With the increased visibility of people who do not fit the gender binary, Wilcox sees an increased need to accommodate language.
“As an activist, I believe in trying to accommodate and calling people what they want to be called,” Wilcox said. “As a linguist, only time will tell whether these new pronouns will actually take root.”
As language continues to evolve, we can only hope the mindsets of people do as well.