Sunday, July 14, 2019

Day 4: Singular they

A propos of yesterday's post...

The New York Times recently published an interesting opinion piece about the use of singular "they".  It was especially interesting to me because the author proposes doing something that I have considered doing - using "they" for everyone, as the default singular third-person* pronoun.  (The reasons why I don't think this is an unproblematic suggestion are a post for another day.)

It's worth backing up here and saying that I naturally think about pronouns and gender.  Because a) I'm a linguist (see the title of the blog); b) I teach a language and gender class; c) my daughters both have friends who identify as gender fluid, some of whom maintain their original gendered pronouns, others of whom prefer "they"; d) to my own surprise, I find myself struggling to use "they" to refer to a specific singular human being (although I have no trouble whatsoever using "they" to refer to a non-specified singular human being, and find the arguments that "they" can only be used with a plural antecedent specious, see more below).  It's the combination of those things that attracts my attention, in the form of - hunh, I wonder what's going on there?  I have, in the past, had relatively little trouble when friends (or friends of the girls) change their preferred names.  After some mistakes, I usually settle into the new name fairly quickly.  I am definitely of the opinion that people should get to decide what they're called, whether as individuals or groups - naming is a form of power, and the protests of the dominant group that they can't keep up with the preferred names of non-dominant groups is a way of maintaining power.  Any time someone protests over something like a name change, or a particular way that language is used, it's time to start looking at power structures.  (When someone says, what's the big deal with me using X label to refer to you, instead of your preferred Y?  I always want to say, if it's not such a big deal, why not just do it?  The answer is because it is a big deal - naming is power, and the right to name is a way of asserting power.)  So what the heck is it that makes it so difficult for me to remember that my daughter's friend is "they" rather than "she"?

In response to the article, I posted the following**:
As a linguist who teaches about language and gender, I have always found the insistence that “they” shouldn’t be used to refer to a single person problematic, in the sense that such a rule doesn’t describe what many people actually do with language*** - which is to use “they/them” to refer to singular, unknown or unspecified people. We do this all the time, and to suggest that it’s confusing or ungrammatical to say “Everyone should turn in their homework now” doesn’t accurately capture reality. The place where I have unexpectedly found myself struggling is when referring to a known and specific human being as “they”. My sense is that this is difficult for me precisely because, in my mental grammar, “they” encodes a nonspecific person; I don’t think I’m alone. Nor do I think that this is immutable - we change the way we speak all the time. Grammatical elements of language (pronouns, in this case) are more difficult to change, but not impossible. As a relevant case in point, consider our second-person pronoun, “you”. Historically, “you” was our plural pronoun, while “thee/thou” was the singular. I don’t think anyone would argue now that it’s confusing to say “you should come to dinner” - even though sometimes it is (do you mean me? Or my whole family?). We negotiate those confusions in other ways [e.g., the addition of y'all to our lexicon; and when y'all, in some dialects, came to refer to singular human beings, the further addition of all y'all]. So there is no reason why our pronominal system can’t absorb a similar change in the third person. And many reasons why it should.

I've been mulling this over more since then.  Someone posted a question on my comment, saying that they thought that "thee/thou" was like Spanish "usted", that is, a formal pronoun, which caused me to confirm my assertion (I was correct; here's an interesting summary).  Basically, the pronoun "you", once simply a second-person plural pronoun, came to have a pragmatic function of also indicating respect, or of denoting a relationship between strangers (as "vous" does in French).  "Thee", over time, began to fall out of usage, except in intimate relationships in some dialects.  But it had already been encoded in the King James Bible, and in poetry, and so began to take on an additional pragmatic function as a marker of religious or poetic language, which is probably why the person who commented thought it meant the formal (when, in fact, in the Bible and poetry, it was simply marking the singular).  Summary: pronouns can come to mean more than simply first/second/third person singular/plural; they can also denote social relationships or roles.  When those additional denotations become the dominant meaning in the mental grammars of speakers, then language changes.  

The idea that we can't use "they" to refer to a specific, single, human being because it's ungrammatical or confusing just doesn't square with the evidence.  But it does square with the kinds of language ideologies that we use to police non-dominant groups.  And it does square with a strong belief that we shouldn't have to be uncomfortable when we speak - an idea that is only true for the dominant group (non-dominant groups in any given setting live with discomfort when they speak).  I tend to think that discomfort is important - it tells us when hidden norms and values are being challenged, and gives us an opportunity to look at them head-on, and to ask, whose values and norms?  To whose benefit/loss?  And, where do I stand?

*  Just for those who don't swim around in grammar all the time, some definitions.  First person refers to the speaker (in English, I/me/we/us).  Second person refers to the the addressee - the person or people being spoken to (therefore, the second people in a conversation)(in English, you).  And third person (as I always say to my students) refers to the spoken-about (she/her/he/him/they/them).
**  I am not one of those folks who leaves comments all the time - I very rarely do.  I also very rarely read comments, because they usually just annoy the crap out of me.  As my comment probably did to some other poor soul who chose to read it.
*** Linguistics is the study of what people actually do with language.  In other words, we describe real-world language use, rather than prescribing how language ought to be used.  A linguistic anthropologist, such as myself, might look at ideologies around how language "should" be used as an object of study, but our field is not focused on grammatical nitpicking.  That is not to say that we don't all have our pet peeves around language use - but when we are being professional, we know that those are ideologies/opinions, rather than true statements about grammar; the question of "good" versus "bad" language is not a linguistic one.  I often wish more people knew this, because as soon as I say I'm a linguist in any social gathering, people find some excuse to wander off and never talk in front of me again.  Little do they know that, rather than judging, I am listening carefully so I can gather data!  (mwahaha)


twinsetellen said...

oooh, this scratched me in the places that needed scratching after reading that article. I'm looking forward to thinking more about this.

Michele said...

I really appreciate this post. Language drives me crazy. My pet peeve is “these ones”.

Wanderingcatstudio said...

I don't have a problem using a person's preferred pronouns. As my grandma would say "It's no skin off my nose". (or "ass", depending on her mood).

As a writer, my personal grammar pet peeves mostly fall around spelling. That and apostrophe abuse... bend, break, blow up all the other rules, but PLEASE, learn to spell and use that apostrophe properly!!!!

I hope this link works for you.... it's something I think you'll enjoy