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:
- androgynous, or epicene;
- assuming no gender at all, or non-specific.
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 Sand—after 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?)