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A note on gender-free language.

April 2004

Alternatives to the clumsy "he / she," "him / her," and "his / hers".
In contrast to some languages, English lacks the gender-neutral personal pronouns which allow reference to persons in the singular without specifying gender. This has only recently been considered an issue; in the past, the use of masculine pronouns has been generally accepted as being inclusive of both genders. Today, use of combinations such as he/she or his/her are occasionally resorted to, but are clearly too clumsy to catch on as replacement pronouns.

English is one of the most flexible and responsive current human languages. Over the past century, thousands of new English words have quickly been formed whenever new products or practices have brought a need for them. The recent computer revolution and the current popular movements of personal self-centeredness are cases in point, each enriching (in a quantitative sense) the language with hundreds of new and occasionally useful terms. It therefore seems remarkable that the problem of a lack of appropriate pronouns has not been quickly resolved. The reasons are perhaps that acceptance of a new word for a new product or procedure is generally recognized as clearly needed, while there has not yet been broad frustration at the limitations of our existing set of pronouns; and also that changes at the periphery of the language are more readily accepted than changes at its core. English speakers have gotten along well with "he, she, him, her, his and hers" for centuries, and are not eager to change. Nonetheless, the time may have come to resolve the current pronomial awkwardness. One solution is obvious: Form additional pronouns to cover the meanings we want to express.

To achieve this, four new personal pronouns would be needed to supplement the existing third person singular pronouns in the subjective, the objective, the possessive, and the reflexive forms. In other words, to obviate the need for the forms "he/she, him/her, his/hers(her), and himself/herself". The following new singular forms, derived from the third person plural forms by dropping the initial consonants "th", suggest themselves:

    For "he/she" (subjective/nominative): "ey" (pronounced: ay)
    For "him/her" (objective/accusative/dative): "em" (pronounced: emm)
    For "his/hers" (possessive/genitive): "eir" (pronounced: air)
    For "himself/herself" (reflexive): "emself"

"A performer, when ey gets excited, may wet emself. The audience will laugh at em and point at eir costume."

OK, I hear you. There's something wrong; it just doesn't sound English. Let's simplify slightly:

    For "he/she": "e" (pronounced: ee)
    For "him/her": "em" (as above)
    For "his/hers"): "er" (pronounced: ur)
    For "himself/herself": "emself" (as above)

If a pedestrian doesn't watch er step, a car may hit em and e'll find emself in a hospital.

It may be objected that some of these forms sound like popular spoken contractions already in use. Yes, that may be, but all change is in some way objectionable. Within a short time, these forms could take off and become the new standard.

(Of course we could just neuter everyone and accept the use of "it" and "its" as neutral pronouns referring to persons:

The letter-carrier was late. I got so mad at it! It was no excuse that a dog had bitten its leg.
No, perhaps not ...)

© 2004 H. Paul Lillebo

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