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New Book Explores The History and Use Of Pronouns

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He, she, him, her, they? The subject of pronouns and which ones to use with which people has become ubiquitous in society these days. In his new book, “What’s Your Pronoun - Beyond He and She,” linguistics scholar Dennis Baron recounts the centuries’ long search for that missing gender-neutral pronoun.

Speaker 1: 00:00 You see them below the signature line on emails, more and more these days. A person's preferred pronouns. There are familiar ones. She, her, hers, he, him, his, but more and more you're seeing they them theirs. English has a pronoun problem and it turns out that problem has been around for a very long time. And his new book, what's your pronoun beyond he and she, linguistic scholar Dennis bear and takes on the history of the search for that elusive non-gender specific pronoun. He joins us now. Dennis, welcome. Hi, great to be here. I talked about it a little in the introduction, but to listeners who aren't familiar with the pronoun issue, how would you describe it?

Speaker 2: 00:42 Well, uh, for a few hundred years now, commentators have been noticing an absence, a missing word, a lack of a gender neutral, and now a nonbinary pronoun for the third person singular. So we have he, she and itch, but no way to really indicate someone whose gender is unknown, whose, uh, gender needs to be, uh, hidden for some reason to protect their identity or whose gender doesn't fit the traditional, uh, uh, binary of masculine and feminine. So gender nonconforming, uh, transgender, uh, individuals, non binary individuals. So those, there's been, uh, this gap that people have noticed and attempts to deal with it by either using an existing word like the pronoun they, which is typically been plural, but has been used quite frequently over the last, uh, hundreds and hundreds of years, uh, as a singular as well. Or by coining a word, coining a new word, or by borrowing a word from another language.

Speaker 1: 02:02 And for those of us who've noticed pronouns popping up in emails and other places, you know, we might think this is a new phenomenon, but it's actually hundreds of years old, right,

Speaker 2: 02:12 exactly, exactly. Uh, people started talking about it in the 17, 80, 17, nineties. There's a missing word. We need this word. Let's coin a word, let's borrow a word. But people have been using singular, they since the 14th century for, uh, sentences like, uh, everybody forgets their passwords. Everybody is singular, there is plural.

Speaker 1: 02:37 And the issue of, of pronouns figured prominently in one tumultuous time in American history. Tell us about how the issue played out during the struggle for women's rights in the 19th century.

Speaker 2: 02:50 Okay, so in the 19th century, uh, both England and the U S passed laws, which said whenever a masculine word like he or man, uh, occurs in a statute that is meant to include women as well. So he means she a man means both men and women. And so suffragists in the 19th century seized on this generic he and said, well, look, if he is generic in the criminal code, uh, where the, the criminal is referred to as he, but women are punished for the same crime as men, then he should be generic in the voting laws as well. So if the voting laws refer to the voter as he, that should include women, that should mean women can vote. Unfortunately, legislators and judges who were pretty much universally men at the time said, nah, that's, that's not, that's not gonna work.

Speaker 1: 03:58 Mmm. And so what methodology have people used over the years to come up with new pronouns?

Speaker 2: 04:04 Well, there, there have been a number of things. Uh, one of the earliest ones in the 1780s was somebody noticed well in dialect, uh, speech in different parts of England. There's a sort of generic Ooh, or, or, huh. Or something like that that, that's used, uh, for men, for women, even for animals. Uh, let's use that. In all the early 19th century people started making upwards of, so in 1841, a doctor who apparently had time on his hands wrote an English grammar and decided that E the letter E capital E should be the gender neutral pronoun. He, uh, the possessive with B E S S and M four, a M for, for the object form E S M. a. Nobody, nobody paid any attention to his suggestion, but that's the earliest one I found of a coined pronoun.

Speaker 1: 05:08 You know, some people you know, might be uncomfortable with the whole issue of gender fluidity and how that's figuring into the pronoun conversation these days. Um, some might see it as political correctness run a muck. What would you say to them?

Speaker 2: 05:23 There are, uh, people who, who actually do say that it's political correctness, run a muck. It's a violation of my first amendment rights to say whatever I want and you can't force me to say your pronoun. Uh, I'd say, well, they're entitled to that opinion and nobody's really forcing anything. What we're really trying to do is get people to respect one another and to include one another in the conversation, whether it's spoken or written. And it's, you know, a politeness issue. It's a civility issue. It's, it's a way of saying, you know, I'm listening to you by, by using those pronouns.

Speaker 1: 06:08 And even though, as you say, the pronoun issue has been around for hundreds of years, you know, it seems there's renewed energy behind the search for that perfect pronoun. How hopeful are you that English speaking society may finally settle on a new pronoun anytime soon?

Speaker 2: 06:25 Well, uh, I don't think we're going to settle on a new pronoun. I don't think there's a one size fits all solution. And I think what we're going to do is continue to have multiple ways of dealing with the pronoun issue we always have. And I don't see why we can't glue with, uh, you know, several different options. The, he and she are not going away singular. They is not going away. And there's enough people using coined pronouns that they're not going to go away anytime soon. And even though there's not one specific coined pronoun that everybody's rallying behind, and enough people are using them to suggest they feel in need to have a coined pronoun. So we have those multiple solutions and I predict that in certainly in the short term, certainly in the short term, multiple solutions are going to continue.

Speaker 1: 07:21 I've been speaking with Dennis Baron, author of the new book. What's your pronoun beyond he and she, the book is out now. Dennis, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you Jade.

Speaker 3: 07:35 [inaudible].

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KPBS Midday Edition Segments

Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.