Friday, August 28, 2015

Does America Need Gender-Neutral Pronouns?

Thanks to an an opinion piece by Todd Starnes on, I learned that the University of Tennessee – Knoxville’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion is worried that certain traditional English personal pronouns might be offensive.

According to Donna Braquet, Director of the University of Tennessee Pride Center, rather than assume that the person we are addressing is a he or a she , we should use a singular gender-neutral pronoun such as ze , hir , hirs , and xe , xem or, xyr .

Braquet writes

"How do you know what pronoun someone uses? If you cannot use the methods mentioned above, you can always politely ask. 'Oh, nice to meet you, [insert name]. What pronouns should I use?' is a perfectly fine question to ask".

This is not a new argument. Every few years, I come across some opinion piece telling me that the English personal pronouns that have been in use for centuries are either sexist or homophobic. The claim is that our society will be much more enlightened and inclusive if we would only eliminate the words he or she .

People on both sides of the cultural divide believe that the change in personal pronouns will bring about a change in our society - some believe for the better - some believe for the worse.

After becoming familiar with Filipino culture and three of the more than a dozen regional languages spoken here, I no longer buy into the idea than a change in English personal pronouns will have much affect on American culture.

I can't say anything about the personal pronouns in many of the Filipino languages,but I can comment on three - Cebuano, Ilocano, and Tagalog. In each of these three, there is no separate word for he or she. In all three, the word for he or she is siya. Just as English makes no gender distinction with the word they -meaning "those people", Cebuano, Ilocano, and Tagalog do the same with sila ("those people") as well as siya for "that person".

Having singular gender-neutral pronouns hasn't caused Philippines to become a Feminist and/or LGBTQ Utopia. Same-sex "marriage" is not on the horizon, in spite of the fact that Tagalog doesn't have separate words for "husband" or "wife" - the Tagalog word is "asawa" for either spouse.

Contrary to what Donna Braquet might believe, gender-neutral pronouns in English won't bring about the world she might want. Neither will the change in pronouns destroy the United States.

The U.S. has bigger problems.

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