Can gender-neutral language just be foisted upon the majority?

Recently, Mayor Sadiq Khan of London proposed abolishing the traditional “ladies and gentlemen” announcement on his city’s transport. And just this past weekend a guide was distributed to a small number of schools encouraging people to use “pupils” in place of “boys and girls”.

As a part-time linguist and a strong advocate for gender-neutral language (GNL), I believe that language change should be progressive and not immediate. The coldness of “pupils” disregarded (“children” sounds far more natural), these are two changes replacing gendered terms with neutral yet common language. This is a continuation of the progress made since the 1960s, when many people still considered it radical. Considered radical today is the genderless title “Mx.” and a gamut of new personal pronouns including “xe”, “hir” (pronounced “here”) and anything else that isn’t he, she or singular they. Will these be widely accepted in fifty years?

Well there are some language changes from the 1960s considered radical even today with no widespread adoption. For example, the term “womyn”, coined by separatist feminists to remove the connotations of maleness from the word, sees virtually no usage today even amongst the same group who came up with it. Same with other attempts at “smashing the patriarchy” through language reform. “Herstory”. Now I’ve never seen that one used outside a Women’s Studies course and a Hillary Clinton ad campaign. An urban myth says that a group of radical feminists even tried to get the city of Manchester renamed, but again just an urban myth with seemingly no evidence to back it up.

Other attempts at neutralising language appear clumsy, for example “personhole” (which also sounds incredibly sexual ;)). In the US, there is an aversion to singular they due to Webster, and constructions such as “him/her” and “s/he” are common. Many new pronouns were coined to get around this awkwardness as well as to include the minority of people who identify as neither male or female. Unfortunately, in my opinion many of them are in the “womyn” mould of “too radical to be accepted” and I coined the se pronoun set as an alternative that doesn’t stray too far from the sound of “xe”/”ze” but looks more “natural”. See how it rolls off the tongue compared to other sets and the standard gendered pronouns of English:

  • He saw his cat.
  • She ate her lunch.
  • Se grabbed ses phone.
  • Xe packed xer bags.
  • Ze stroked hir dog.

And there’s a precedent to this- I would argue that the eventual official recognition of the Swedish gender-neutral pronoun “hen” is that it sounds natural, being halfway between “han” and “hon” both phonetically and alphabetically.

To sum up, I believe that gender-neutral language will only be accepted by the majority over time if it sounds natural. Many coinages are awkward and others need a few kinks working out (singular they, while correct in British English, can be ambiguous and “hir” looks too much like “her” on paper to be true GNL in my opinion). That’s why I advocate for the use of se, sem and ses- a good halfway point that looks good on paper and sounds good from the mouth.

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