Go to content Go to navigation Go to search

Sexing the pronoun.

A friend’s been going on about a recent inamorate: “Zie sent me a mix CD,” he’ll say, or “I can’t wait to see zir.” And on the one hand, I’m looking on with the bemusement of the comfortably entwined: gosh, aren’t they cute at that stage? On the other, my teeth are slightly on edge. Kids these days, with their hopped-up language, haring off after the latest fad without the least concern for tradition. Zie? Zir?

What the hell is wrong with hi and hir, huh?

At least, those are the gender neutral pronouns I recall as having (relatively) broad circulation, back in the day. But: as I teased my way back toward the day in question, trying to pin down the where and the when of how I’d first come across them, I was finding them decidedly slippery. I’d used them, of course, in a fanthing from 1987 or so—the androgyne sidekick of the steely protagonist of some third-generation xerox of Neuromancer: “Hi yanked hir ceramic throwing knife from the plastic telephone case and climbed out the window, lowering hirself into the neon-stained night,” that sort of thing. But I hadn’t invented them: who had? Who’d been using them? (I’d been reading a lot of Orbit , sure, but can we get more specific?) Had they just been in the air? Why had they gone away? Where had this zie and zir come from, and when, and was I out getting a beer or something while it happened?

And so we Google.

Our first stop is the vaguely dismissive Wikipedia entry, which doesn’t list my remembered set (hi, hir, hirs, hirself), but does inform us of two warring pronoun factions: sie, hir, hirs, hirself, and zie, zir, zirs, zirself, which was coined to address the possible confusion some saw in sie/hir’s overly femme tilt. But Wikipedia is criminally light on etymology and morally deficient when it comes to sourcing. “Some science fiction writers,” it says, helpfully hyperlinking science fiction, “have been known to use the sie and hir pronouns for fictional hermaphrodite characters.” Which authors, though? And what other pronouns? (Like hi, instead of sie?) —Trust me, in a herd of cats like “science fiction writers,” there’s no consensus. Especially for something so small as a pronoun.

(Wikipedia does list the first recorded usage of hir on Usenet, back in 1981—but the nominative form of this variant seems to be heesh.)

From there we move on to Dennis Baron’s “The Epicene Pronouns: A Chronology of the Word that Failed.” We have, it seems, abandoned the vagueness about our dismissal. —Baron’s list gives us a glimpse of how far back the quest for a gender-neutral English pronoun has stretched; how many have been tried; how none have caught on. He cites science fiction—we learn that LeGuin’s 1985 screenplay for Left Hand of Darkness used a, un, a’s (the novel, written in 1969, used then-generic he, his, him); we’re told that Klingon has the gender neutral ghach, and that Vulcan has no common gender pronouns—but that’s just ice skating over deep water, there. He does note the sie/hir faction (listed here as se/hir) is common on alt.sex.bondage in 1992.

(Baron also gives me at least a word that would probably have been useful all along: epicene. But: take a look at its dictionary definition, and you’ll start to get some idea of the problems we face when tackling something like gender and neutrality and pronouns. How can a thing which has characteristics of both the male and female also be sexless? How can it as well be effeminate and unmanly? —Baron also lets us know hi was indeed in use: in 1884, but as part of hi, hes, hem.)

From there we move on to the motherlode: the admirably monomaniacal Gender-Neutral Pronoun FAQ. The history page starts with William H. Marshall’s observation of the English epicene pronoun ou in 1789 and hares off into an impressively extensive listing. But again: light on the science fiction authors (then, why look to the words science fiction authors use? We want to know what real people say when they really talk about these things), and hi is still only noted as part of that 1884 set. I’m no closer to figuring out where my “broadly circulated” set came from, and when.

(It occurred as I was typing this up that maybe I’d been thinking of Medea: Harlan’s World; it’s about the right time, and the fuxes have a sexless if not entirely gender-neutral life-stage. But a quick browse through the usual suspects turns up no hits, and there’s no bloomin’ index. —Then again, maybe it was Alan Dean Foster?)

So why are all these attempts to give our language something it rather desperately needs doomed? (Are they doomed?) Well, it’s an attempt to consciously hack the way people speak and think, and the hack has a more-than-vaguely hectoring air about it: the way you normally think and speak is wrong, it says; this is the right way. That the champions of epicene neologisms do have a point exacerbates the effect. And we all know how popular Puritans are at parties. Call it the problem of utopia; like vegetarianism and dress reform and suffrage and free love and anti-vivisectionism and a fascination with esoterica and Asian religions, epicene pronouns bubble up every now and then, here and there, and when they recede yet again, well, maybe the high-water mark is a little higher than it was last time.


Anyway: epicene pronouns aren’t enough. In a system of two genders, you need five sets of pronouns to cover all the bases properly demanded by an egalitarian politesse:

The epicene pronouns, after all, still privilege gender (and sex): the person in question is assumed to partake of both. (This is how, by the way, epicene can at once mean “partaking of both sexes” and “effeminate, unmanly”: masculinity, after all, is a pure state of grace, from which one can only fall.) It would be best to have as well a pronoun set that one uses when it would be if not inappropriate then unnecessary to refer to a person’s sex (or gender) in the capacity in which one is addressing them: presidents and police officers, reporters and handyfolk, letter carriers and committee chairs. But it would be rude to say it: to deny their gender and imply they had no sex. Best to assume nothing.

(That’s the meaning of peh, the Spouse’s contribution to the field. —A modulation of penn, coined by Chas for use by his aggressively egalitarian Siblinghood of Wreckers and Freebooters, in our off-again on-again joint fantasy world. Saying “penn” in the game to refer to a hermaphroditic character got to be second nature rather quickly; unlike a lot of the aforementioned attempts at epicenery, it’s put together with an ear towards speaking: based on one rather than he/she, it runs penn, penn, penn’s, pennself.)

But if an epicene can’t make it, what hope has a true non-specific?

And anyway, we’re no closer to who planted hi and hir in my brain. Not that it’s all that pressing an issue: hi and hir might solve the bias problem that the overly effeminate sie and hir has, and it isn’t nearly so aggressively ungainly as zie and zir (the words, not the person): but say “hi” out loud, in the sort of context where one uses pronouns, and it’s all too quickly confused with “I.”

I think I like Delany’s game with pronouns best. In Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sandafter an opening set on a grimly “normal” world (that is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful pæans ever to the sheer power and beauty and necessity of reading) he rolls us into Marq Dyeth’s first-person narration, where she, her, hers, herself is the pronoun set of choice for addressing everyone you meet—except someone you desire. —Then it’s he, him, his, himself.

(And anyway, there’s always they. Are you not legion? Do you not contain multitudes?)

  1. scooterd    Mar 2, 02:01 AM    #
    I've always favored they myself. People have been using it naturally for years, at least back to the 16th century, I think. Damn Latin scholars are their attempts to remake English. There are a couple places where usage of they can be confused between it's unspecified singular and broad plural forms, and for that I have found no satisfactory alternative. Say levee. The only place it even comes up for me, generally, is rules-writing, and I could always just alternate gender in examples. Technical writing is much harder.

  2. David M. Chess    Mar 2, 02:23 AM    #
    Spivak r00lz 0kay! Although "they" is certainly the market leader.

    (Wikipedia entry: if you know more than it does, improve it! That's the whole idea. Wikipedia r00lz 0kay also.)

  3. --k.    Mar 2, 04:54 AM    #

    “They” as a singular works well enough when you’re referring to non-specific persons; it gets a little weird when you’re referring to a specific person, but wish to remain either openly inclusive or cagily noncomittal as to their gender. But hear, hear to cries for damning pedants! (He says, his toes a little toasty.) Have they never read their Emerson?

    As for the Wikipedia: correcting its not-necessarily-inappropriate bias toward Usenet and internet usage would require rewriting it from the ground up, which, I understand, is rather against the spirit of the thing. What I could add: a link to Æther Lumina’s FAQ, for a more comprehensive view of the variants and their history. And while I’d like to utterly scotch the line about what science fiction writers have used, I’d also like to think this post demonstrates I haven’t done the research necessary to authoritatively back up what my gut’s telling me.

    But the link to the FAQ, sure. Maybe at lunch.

  4. languagehat.com    Mar 2, 05:27 AM    #
    Kip at Long story; short pier has a long discussion of the various gender-neutral pronouns that have been proposed in the course of crackpot and/or feminist history, with especial focus on a set he vaguely remembers from the '70s: hi,...

  5. Jeremy Osner    Mar 2, 06:28 AM    #
    There is also Thon and its forms. In case the hypertext does not work: http://www.chiroweb.com/archives/10/17/19.html --

    Thon, that one, he, she, or it: a pronoun of the third person, common gender: a contracted and solidified form of that one, proposed in 1858 by Charles Crozat Converse, of Erie, Pennsylvania, as a substitute in cases where the use of a restrictive pronoun involves either inaccuracy or obscurity, or its non-employment necessitates awkward repetition.

  6. Seth Gordon    Mar 2, 07:21 AM    #
    The Twin Oaks commune uses "co" for "he/she/him/her", "cos" for "his/hers", and "coself" for "himself/herself".

  7. Prentiss Riddle    Mar 2, 09:05 AM    #
    Epicene pronouns were briefly in the news a couple of years back when Mike Newdow, the guy behind a Pledge of Allegiance lawsuit, used his 15 minutes of fame to flog them instead of freedom of religion. Sigh.

    If your readers are looking for the "Chronology of the Word That Failed" essay and getting 404 Not Found messages: Internet Archive to the rescue!

  8. --k.    Mar 2, 09:15 AM    #
    Thanks, Prentiss, but the fault lay with me: there was a curly quote I hadn't cleaned out of the a tag. Fiddlesticks! (It's better now.)

  9. blargblog    Mar 2, 11:17 AM    #
    A Guy Thing
    A popular belief (possibly myth) regarding autism blames mercury-containing vaccines for the rapid increase in autistic cases over the past few years. I don't have the medical background to evaluate this theory, but I think the risk posed by the...

  10. Tenser, said the Tensor    Mar 2, 04:26 PM    #
    Pronouns in Marain
    These posts on Language Hat and Long story; short pier discuss various proposals for, and fictional accounts of, gender-neutral pronoun systems. I was immediately reminded of a passage in the novel The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks.

  11. Sigivald    Mar 5, 09:02 AM    #
    Perhaps I'm just a hopelessly curmudgeounly conservative, but I don't see the need for any explicitly-neutral pronouns, let alone a full set of three additional ones (if we count "it" as unacceptable by virtue of being used for things rather than people).

    (Regarding the friend and the inamorata; they both have genders, right? (Inamorata, in fact, is feminine!) Does friend think there's something wrong with referring to a specific person with a known gender with a gendered pronoun? Hell and Bollocks! Kids these days!)

  12. --k.    Mar 5, 09:54 AM    #

    You misread; I deliberately used “inamorate.” Kludgy, perhaps, but there you go.

    And since you’re using “gender” “properly,” rather than “sex,” I’m going to assume (snarkily) that you’re not all that conservative.

    Do we need them? I think so—

    First, there’s a lot more than two genders, and many of them (if not most) cheekily inhabit the liminal, epicene wonderland between Tab A and Slot B. So it’d be nice to have a set of pronouns that respected what it is they think of themselves, and what it is they’re trying to do with whatever it is they’re doing. You may disagree, or think it’s unnecessary, but respect is respect; politesse demands it.

    Second, there exists the possibility of sexless individuals, for whom a set of pronouns that acknowledged the lack of sex would be appropriate. Granted, this option only comes into play once we’ve got AIs and robots and hairless grey aliens from zeta Reticuli who have no naughty bits at all running around. But any well-designed system that posits two categories, but recognizes that not everyone can neatly fit into either, must have contingencies in place for those who fit both, and those who fit neither, no matter how theoretical, and that’s where we find ourselves here. (Certainly, anyone building the customs and habits of a science fictional world ought to consider it.)

    The third instance I think I go into in enough detail in the post above: it would be nice to have a set that acknowledges the person could have a gender, yes, but that gender is of no concern or relevance to the context in which the person is addressed.

    So do I think we need them? Well, I think we need world peace, too, but that ain’t gonna happen any time soon, and it wouldn’t involve imposing pronouns by fiat. And there’s plenty of languages that have gender-neutral or unspecifically gendered pronouns on this planet, and their use doesn’t seem to have done much to prevent sexism and woolly-headedness.—I mostly like playing with the ideas. What would happen if? Wouldn’t it be nice maybe? Why not?

    But as far as the inamorate goes: certainly, the person has a biological sex; they also feel that the gender roles and assumptions that usually accompany a wholehearted acceptance of that sex do not fit the way they see themselves, to such a degree that they are willing to do some violence to the language in order to address the issue. (Also: sartorial sensibilities, but that’s at once much easier to accept and neither here nor there.) While I wholeheartedly respect the sense of alienation one can feel (and I will refrain from adding at that age), to say nothing of the urge to tilt hopelessly at windmills just because they’re there (my own favored arguing style involves a technique I really must come up with some vaguely Italianate name for: artfully slicing one’s own nose from one’s face to spite the entire enterprise; I know from windmill-tilting), still—I can’t quite bring myself to respect said inamorate by using “zie” and “zir” in any but a general sense, with a faintly melancholic air of gentle mockery. That reluctance, while eminently sensible, I think, nonetheless makes me feel old. (Especially, perhaps, because I find it so sensible.) —To have found such a treasure-trove of ill-fated attempts to solve this very problem stretching back 150 years and more merely fuels my admiration, but not my respect. Respect, after all, cuts both ways, and language deserves some little respect. I’m willing to meet the inamorate halfway, with the eminently sensible singular “they.” (As championed by the eminently sensible Languagehat, among [many] others.) For all that it sounds odd when used to address a specific individual, and for all that some little confusion would open my friend up to charges of polyamory.

    But I don’t think he’d mind so much. Your own mileage probably varies. As, I suppose, it should.

  13. scribblingwoman    Mar 12, 05:25 AM    #
    Hi, Hir, Hirs, Hirself

  14. Great Teacher Umikun    Oct 7, 02:03 PM    #
    Personally, I advocate an epicene pronoun as a means of doing away with the gendered pronouns. I am personally opposed to pronouns which needlessly advertise a person’s reproductive organs, and it actually rubs me the wrong way when people use the pronoun he on me, even though I am male. I just feel that she and he reduce each of us to our reproductive organs by making a distinction which is practically never necessary.

    I have to side with the poster who suggested thon, but I would recommend case forms for a more natural feel: thon in the nominative (she/he), thone in the accusative (her/him) and thane in the genitive (her/his). These forms are still distinct even when spoken quickly as most pronouns are, and I know because I actually tried them out verbally. A lot of proposed epicene pronouns look so wacky that I doubt that their creators ever gave them a test run.

  15. Kip Manley    Mar 16, 11:15 AM    #

    I should probably update this? —Turned out it was Diane Duane. Her Trek fic, specifically. (I’m a horrible snob. Her and John Ford’re the only trekfic I’ll allow in the house.)

  Textile Help