The flow of trans thoughts never seems to abate, partly because the media are awash with the stuff; and the most recent addition to the maelstrom is ze. It looks like a bad rendering of French, but it is in fact an attempt at a non-gendered pronoun. Now in theory I’m all in favour of this; in fact I have long lamented the absence of a gender-neutral pronoun in our language. Hitherto we have had to resort to they, which sounds a little impersonal, belonging as it also does to animals and objects. But what I object to is the attempt to enforce its use by means of emotive bullying. A few months ago it was reported that Oxford University Student Union required students to use it rather than ‘he’ or ‘she’, though it’s only fair to say that they subsequently denied this: however there is a lot of expectation from trans and non-binary people that everyone should remember and use the correct pronouns.
Of course as a matter of politeness people should be called what they wish: but whereas I’d be annoyed if, after repeatedly asking someone to call me Liz, they persisted with Elizabeth, I have to recognise that Liz is an understood abbreviation; it’s in common usage. People don’t have to get their heads around it. This is not the case with ze, and The Press Association has recognised this in their recent advice to journalists:
Then again, there was a time (and I remember it) when Ms was new and not many people understood it; but with perseverance it became accepted. It is now rare to find a form on which Ms doesn’t appear as an option. Mx has been proposed for those not wishing to declare their gender – or, presumably who consider themselves non-binary, but has yet to catch on. Besides, there has to be a limit to the number of options.
The problem with this proliferation of pronouns is that a) people may struggle to remember them and b) won’t understand the need for them. Do most people – Jo and Jane Bloggs – have a clue what non-binary is, or even know it exists? As the Academie Francaise is continually discovering, it is pointless passing decrees on what language people should use: unless and until we have a society like in ‘1984,’ people will continue to talk about le weekend, le parking and le camping – and until and unless people want a non-gendered pronoun they will continue to use he and she.
As I have said before, we – as a society – have had a debate about issues such as homosexuality and gender equality and on both issues we have, by and large, come to a consensus. There will always be people who disagree, but there is now widespread acceptance of the belief that homosexuality is not a choice and should therefore be treated on a par with heterosexuality: likewise most people accept that women should be treated on a par with men. But we haven’t yet had that debate about transgender folk, and we need to have it. Most people are baffled and confused; they don’t understand what it is and where it comes from, let alone how to deal with it. And issuing a series of fiats is just not helping.
One thought on “Don’t Call Me Ishmael”
It’s not usually possible to engineer lasting change in a language by planned intervention. It occasionally works, for example the word “quiz” was said to have been introduced via persistent graffiti after a bet that it couldn’t be done. However, pronouns are very much in the heart of the language, making them even harder to change. Also, words beginning with Z are usually considered exotic or foreign by English speakers, making it even less likely that this would work.
The same can’t be said of the Swedish “hen” pronoun though, which is much more likely to be adopted, but their own media have also advised against it.