Many transgender activists are fighting for the right to be addressed by their “preferred pronouns.” Conservatives have been opposed to this because invented pronouns like “zhe” and “zher” have no basis in tradition. There is, however, one of the proposed pronouns that has roots in folk language that the grammar nazis have declared verboten: they. Think about how often you have referred to corporations, countries, governments, and organizations as “they” – and how unnatural it feels to call them “it.” Maybe there is a commonsense case for transgendered language?
In the West, language is not created by decree. Rather than being established by a central government, it arises spontaneously and spreads from individuals until it becomes enforced culturally by groups in the form of traditions.
Linguists study these evolved language patterns and try to generalize grammar rules from them. They then write dissertations, dictionaries, and grammar books, and those who wish to have a correct language abide by the rules.
Most of the time, the linguists get it right, but sometimes their rules sharply conflict with folk grammar. Consider the phrase “you and me.” Many linguists insist that the correct form is “you and I.” However, imagine someone knocking on your door. You ask: “who is it?” and the person responds: “it is I.” Doesn’t it sound like a serial killer is on the other side of that door? Nevertheless, that’s what you have to say, according to the linguists.
But what if it is a new type of emergent folk grammar that conveys a special kind of meaning that the linguists haven’t discovered yet? One possible interpretation is that “me” is more passive and, therefore, more polite than “I.” It might be a folksy way of giving deference to another person.
This brings us to the strange word “they.” When you are talking about Dick and John, there is no ambiguity: You refer to them as “they.” But what if you are referring to China? That’s a group of people too, and it feels natural to address that group as “they,” but the grammar police say that China is an entity, one thing, and grammatically, China is, therefore, an “it.”
To your folksy soul, it might feel natural to say of a country or a corporation that “they are in luck,” but grammatically, it should be “it is in luck.” That might make your ears bleed, but who are you to say otherwise?
Strangely, it may be that some transgender people have been able to formulate in words the folksy grammar underlying the common usage of “they,” namely as a word that either refers to an indeterminate group or individual. When people speak about Congress, or Microsoft, or the government as “they,” the meaning often refers to an unknown number of faceless, colorless, genderless people.
It doesn’t even have to be a group. Consider a typical conversation: “The doctor called.” Many people respond with, “what did they say?” That feels much more natural to many than “what did he or she say?” Even though you know that you are referring to a single individual, the gender is unknown and therefore fits the folksy usage of “they” as an indeterminate pronoun.
Unlike artificial pronouns like “zhe” and “zher,” the word “they” already has a well-established usage that is close to the way many transgender people want it to be used. Rather than thinking of it as a transgender pronoun, think of it as a synonym for “he or she” or an indeterminate number of individuals.
Will “they” prevail? That depends on whether people will allow this newspeak to endure.
Read more from Onar Åm.
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