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A Pronoun Away

by Don Webb

One can never be too careful in choosing names. — a Bewildering Stories motto

And these days, one can’t be too careful in choosing “for-names” — i.e. pronouns — either.

Years ago, bylines with "initials-only" names, e.g. “I. M. Somebody” — apologies to anybody named “Somebody” — would normally indicate that the author was female. If that was ever true, it no longer is; one never can tell anymore. At BwS, we consider omitting given names merely a personal option.

And what if a given name is gender-neutral? For example, the name “Claude” can be the French equivalent of the English “Claude” (male) or “Claudia” (female). But many such cases exist in English, as well. What to do? A true story:

I once made friends with a person I knew only by e-mail, back in the days when that’s all there was; the Internet lay in the future. In a discussion group, I happened to refer to this person as “he.” The reply: “If you were talking about me in French, the adjectives would have to agree in the feminine.” Some languages tell us what others don’t. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be embarrassed. I settled for both, with very happy results.

But how shall we refer to anybody by means of a pronoun? Whatever we choose, problems may arise. Perhaps the classic though little-known case is that of a university professor in 18th-century Germany:

The professor wished to upbraid a hapless student. He took a breath and then realized he could not use the familiar form, Du bist... because the student’s family was of the nobility. But he couldn’t use the formal form of address, Sie sind, either, because the student was a subordinate in the classroom.

Desperate, the professor clutched at a grammatical straw: Wir sind ein Esel!, “We are an ass!” Whereupon the student politely claimed exemption. We’ll consider alternatives, but in a minute.

Old English schoolchildren must have spent weeks memorizing pronoun declensions when they weren’t out farming or weren’t fending off or being fended by Vikings. A few centuries ago, everybody just gave up and settled on “you.” The dialectal plurals “you-all” and “yous” don’t serve as implied honorifics, thus perplexing the speakers of the Romance, Slavic and other Indo-European languages.

Other languages may have a plethora of pronouns. Translators may wail, “How am I supposed to translate ‘you’? Is it masculine or feminine? Singular, dual or plural? And for heaven’s sake, what is the social status relative to the speaker? I’m in big trouble if I get it wrong!” English can offer sympathy but little help.

The odd case in English is the third person singular. Recently, a high-ranking university administrator sent an e-mail to faculty and, in the signature, echoed a practice that some others use today. She added “(she/her”), to indicate that those were the third-person pronouns to use in referring to her. Now that raised questions:

Why omit the possessive pronoun “hers”?
And why tell the recipients of the e-mail what they already knew?

Regretfully leaving those questions as unanswerable, one considers the sociology of it all. Some students and others wish to omit the grammatical distinction between male (“he”), female (“she”) and non-person (“it”). To do that, some ask for pronouns like “ixy,” which I invent for the occasion.

Likewise, "they-them" is common, as though the person’s name were that of a committee. But not so fast there: the names of groups take plural verbs in British but the singular in North American.

I have yet to see anyone self-identify as "it," but I wouldn't be surprised. We do have "unpersons" at BwS but not, to my knowledge, non-persons, although I can think of at least one possible exception, namely a computer program.

Since English has no equivalent of the Turkish genderless pronoun o, which means simply “third person singular whatever,” we’ll just have to do without.

Now, back to the German professor: he could have done something similar: not address the student directly. Don’t even say, “Der Student ist ein Esel”; the student would simply turn and point in feigned horror to the boy next to him. Rather, depersonalize it and say that what he’s doing is dumm or doof, or something to that effect.

The grammatical conundrums (conundra?) are showing us culture change galloping off in all directions at once. The simplest option may consist in avoiding distinctions that some consider less obvious than they used to be.

Copyright © 2020 by Don Webb

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