A while back, I ran across some people who were upset at the way that the English language (and, frankly, Romance languages in general) didn’t have a gender neutral pronoun. It had been suggested by some among these people that a new pronoun was needed: “hu”. By adopting the use of “hu”, it was thought, we would free ourselves from the inherently sexist structure of traditional grammar. Many mocking jokes ensued, as is often the case when overly-earnest people attempt to force political and/or moral change through pure lexical fiat. (Cf. “differently abled”.)
Well, at least one university is addressing this issue, but not with “hu”. Rather, the University of Vermont will be committing to (not committing) one of the cardinal sins of traditional grammar: using “they” in the singular.
Gieselman began spending time at Outright Vermont, a trans and queer youth center where the gender lexicon of activists and academe is widely accepted. “As soon as I learned about a genderqueer identity, I was like, ‘Oh! That’s the one!’” said Gieselman, who frequently ends sentences with a gentle laugh. “Before, it had been really difficult to explain how I was feeling to other people, and even really difficult to explain it in my own head. Suddenly, there was a language for it, and that started the journey.”
Gieselman dumped the girlie name bestowed at birth, asked friends and teachers to use Rocko, the tough-sounding nickname friends had come up with, and told people to use “they” instead of “he” or “she.” “They” has become an increasingly popular substitute for “he” or “she” in the transgender community, and the University of Vermont, a public institution of some 12,700 students, has agreed to use it.
I suppose this makes sense. Once you decide that pronouns should reflect the rather more malleable social concepts of gender rather than the somewhat less unyielding notion of biological sex — not an entirely unreasonable decision to make, mind you — it make sense that you’d go with “they” rather than “it”, which has a somewhat dehumanizing connotation.
I would like to point out, however, that a language with a lot of rules is a language with a lot of ability for differentiating various shades of meaning, and that the more you futz with things, the more ambiguity you introduce into the social discourse.
Of course, here, that sort of seems to be the point, right? And kudos to the University of Vermont for really committing to their ideals, and making the policy systemic and reflected in the pedagogical infrastructure:
The university allows students like Gieselman to select their own identity — a new first name, regardless of whether they’ve legally changed it, as well as a chosen pronoun — and records these details in the campuswide information system so that professors have the correct terminology at their fingertips.
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Today, a growing number of students are embracing the idea that when it comes to classifying gender, there should be more than two options — something now afforded by the dating website OkCupid and by Facebook, which last year added a tab for “custom” alongside “male” and “female,” with some 50 options, including “agender,” “androgyne,” “pangender” and “trans person,” as well as an option for controlling who can see the customized version.
Of course, language can get out of hand when it bends completely to politics. I’m thinking of the “LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM” community at my own alma mater, Wesleyan University. There may be a point where the individual control over language begins to interfere with its role as something held in the common intellect.
Where that line is, I don’t know. I suspect it’s somewhere between “they” and “LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM”, or as one of my favourite songwriter/singers put it, “The truth is in between the first and the fortieth drink.”