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Gender-Neutral Pronouns, Please!

October 15, 2015

Have you ever wished you could speak about another person without specifying his or her or its [some would say “their”] sex (aka “gender”)?

Frustrating, isn’t it? Certainly in the various dialects of English. Perhaps even moreso in the many languages that demand a gender for each noun; some may even have a completely different conjugation for each person, depending on “their” biologically-defined identity.


Desde eso

“Enough already!”  Isn’t it universal by now that people by nature don’t want to be stereotyped, limited, judged, and stuffed into a box?

Once upon a time, Your Meggsy sought to set this matter straight. After many inquiries with sympathetic individuals, some soul-searching and analysis, This Agent settled on a set of gender non-specific pronouns for use in English, “The Nas”:

It/She/He Na
It/Her/Him Nam/Nom
Its/Hers/His Ahz

Update January 2021: Realizing “nam” is pronounced similarly to “nom” and the etymology is supportive to change the spelling (name => nomenclature).

Also realizing pronunciation wasn’t provided previously:

  • Na is spoken /NAH/, similar to la in la-ti-do;
  • Nom is spoken /NAHM/, rhymes with freedom; and
  • Ahz is spoken /AHZ/ almost the same as Oz.

Also cognizant that a/o have gendered meaning in romance languages. “Nam” backwards interestingly is “man”, which fits my own feminist intent to a point but is not gender neutral in that sense, just a partisan flipping of the coin; and “nam” may remind some of the Vietnam War. For all these reasons “nom” seems a better long-term choice than “nam”.

Not having started a true campaign for this set of pronouns, it’s not too late to switch. Input appreciated – for now both are options and feedback is welcome but for now nom is presumed the winner.

Although “na” also has an open/short/o-type sound to it,  “no” obviously would be problematic and noh seems unecessarily long and might encourage pronunciation creep toward “no”.

Playtest, please!

To test this new proposal, we (at least, all those who entertained my determination, that is) created a looong list of example sentences, substituting The Nas for sex-con-straints-as-usual to see if using “Na/Nom/Ahz” would be awkward, ambiguous, or otherwise difficult for usage.

Example: She will take her high-frequency analyzer to verify its calibration and send an update to him.

Becomes: Na will take ahz high-frequency analyzer to verify ahz calibration and send an update to nom.

While gendered pronouns can help disambiguate assignment (and personifying an electronic instrument may be objectionable especially if it isn’t a cute droid like R2-D2), we were unable to break the new proposal in any tests in terms of spoken disambiguation and awkwardness, perhaps because of the linguistic similarity of both the beginning and ending of the new pronouns to the sound of the status quo’s existing options.

If one is used to using the plural “they” to indicate a singular being without specifying a singular person’s “gender”, either word flows similarly (they/na) and, “them” is very similar to “nom” (them~nom). Although interestingly “if they want to” changes to “if na wants to” (adding an es to “want”).

Testing further, assembling words that began or ended with similar sounds to na/nom/ahz still failed to create conflicts or confusion; certainly there were no more difficult situations than the many wacky and ambiguous possibilities English is already so famous for, and its lending to alluvial alliterations’ deluges of delusions. 😉

This testing was admittedly not nearly exhaustive as the process used for verifying the Loglan/lojban language(s)/project(s) to verify ahz/their lack of audiovisual and isomorphic ambiguity (despite my having used Lex and Yacc and a li’l bit’o Bison in mah day; e.g., to construct a JAVA compiler in old school (thus being one presumably more immediately able than most to conduct more rigorous testing)). But it seemed unwarranted. Just use it. I didn’t “care” anymore; I wanted an option and haven’t seen a better one.

The world needed an option!

This was a personal imperative. I’d already identified a great wall of impassibility/ineffability falling from the fallacious fallibility and facetious faux-fascism forcing ferociously these lamely illuminary limitations of language.

While studying Loglan/lojban as a teenager, spending the nocturnal hours learning the first 1,000 words and ahz grammar in hopes of being the first fluent Loglan/lojban speaker in the world, my inspiration stemmed in no small part from frustrations with language itself, at least in my experience (primarily with various forms of American English). The promise of being free to express any concept was compelling.

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (from which Loglan begat) spoke to me deeply: the question of whether language restricts culture, or culture restricts language. Of course, like “Nature v. Nurture”, this was a conundrum limited by the narrowness of the times, yet critical to our evolution as a species capable of consciousness. It occurred to me that English and other major languages simply by virtue of their having overrun other languages were arguably languages of conquest and that peace would only be possible if we could find ways to communicate the many concepts that had been otherwise precluded — like a prison upon our consciousness — by established and royally- and culturally- and religiously-restricted/redacted languages.

Only much later did Your Agent Meggsy learn with awe, admiration and joy, that some languages were long free of these chains.

Even later, much less joyously but no less in awe, a friend heard this concern about languages of conquest and confided cynically yet with compassion: “conquest is the language.”

“Conquest is the language.”

Yet examples exist!

Finnish, for example, to draw on personal experience, is a language I’m assured is free of compulsively-sex-defining pronouns. While acclimating to Finnish language and culture some summers ago, Your Agent was most impressed to learn that in Finnish, one must actually do extra work to specify the sex of a person! Huzzah!

Essentially, in Finnish, all actions and actors are presumed equal across “genders” until specified otherwise, and thus all pronouns are by nature non-specific to gender. And “believe you me”, in Finland you would not assume that a “man’s job” couldn’t be done by a woman!

Cutting wood? Add in a “she” if you prefer. Or a “he.” Or nothing at all. We’re only talking about cutting wood, so it’s immaterial whether the person is biologically male or female. How refreshing!

Instead of “they’re cutting wood” in plural form, erroneous for a singular person/being,we would say “na’s cutting wood.”

Is there evidence that this language openness in Finnish has led to societal openness? The leadership by women in Finland certainly supports the hypothesis that such freedom from self-fulfilling prophesies inflicted by “natural” language have important effects on socio-political outcomes. Finland was first country in Europe (and before the U.S., of course) to realize women’s suffrage, and first in the world to recognize women’s right to office.

My stay in Finland was full of tales of strong women; in one dramatic example, my close friend’s grandmother, at age twelve, climbed a grain silo and waited with but a shotgun to dispatch Russian warplanes should they pass overhead. (But then the sad legacy of war is invoked and the terrible trauma of losing half a population to the merciless onslaught of empires.) 

Did empowered women in Finland free the pronouns, or did the freed-up pronouns empower the women?

Does it matter? “Chicken and egg”, “nature v. nurture”, main thing is move forward.

Moving forward is possible; just recently Finland’s nearby neighbor, the country of Sweden, announced a “fresh infusion of 13,000 new words” to the dictionary of the Swedish Academy, including the adoption of a gender neutral pronoun (hen).

We all must know how bent-out-of-shape so many English speakers can get if deprived of sex identification of children and infants. “Is it a boy or a girl” seems the first question so many impose. With some attention and skill, when speaking of anyone doing anything, one can meander through the language omitting clues as to the sex of the subject(s) spoken of. Just see how the sexual unknowns tension builds then!

The urge to know and to classify can be so strong, but is it necessary? Is it innate?  True this is seen in many other aspects of existence as well. Where people are “from”, their “age” in annums, their calculated class, rationalized race, etc,. become major sticking points to communication and commonality in such a system of conformity and categorical closure. To hold the space for possibilities can seem difficult or even tortuous to so many people in so many situations. Why is this? Does it need to be? Can it be challenged, changed, transcended? (Trans-gendered, haha?)  Erk, sawwy. Back to theeewiusss:

There are so many examples where people have released these chains and accepted open possibilities, that evidence associates such freedom and acceptance with a healthier, more honest, and more harmonious society.

It still seems self-evident that without the means to communicate concepts, culture is constrained, and our potential to evolve our consciousness is curtailed, and may wither, atrophy, and die on the no longer fruited vine. Whoever or whatever takes our means to speak, does so to subject and even enslave us. What took our freedom of thought, our freedom to be?

For we yearn to be. Just as nature, requires nurture. 😉

Next stop on the linguistic sub-series: how to write about yourself and your experience without saying “I”.

P.S. You can use Mx. instead of Mr. and Ms., is that cool or what?

Updated with minor edits/additions January 2021.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2019 2:14 pm

    Perhaps the first use of “ahz” as a gender-neutral possessive pronoun occurred in this 1996 article regarding the rights of bicyclists to cross bridges in the San Francisco Bay Area (California, USA):

  2. December 5, 2019 6:38 am

    An interesting option to raise awareness about the generally gendered “guys” is to use auto-correction or help type features to nudge people to consider alternative options to their language when texting/authoring via technology.
    In fact, this has been done! Reported in this article:
    A group of government employees wrote a custom response for the messaging app Slack that would have a bot ask questions like “Did you mean friends?” or “Did you mean you all?” whenever a user wrote “Hey guys”; a Spotify employee embraced the idea, and the professional network Ladies Get Paid has a similar feature in its Slack group of some 30,000 members.

  3. January 22, 2021 6:45 am

    A teacher who works with elementary school children decried how harmful the use of “they” and “them” as singular pronouns is. Na described how confused children are and how difficult it is simply to teach how to use they/them as plural pronouns.

  4. March 5, 2021 7:08 pm

    A great deal has happened in the public awareness of gender diversity since this article was written some 5.5 years ago. One aspect of the pronouns that seems unclear at times here in my article is the relationship of pronouns to gender versus birth- or apparent-sex. Not to suggest sex is a binary to begin with. Of course the conception of meaning is first within the being of the speaker.

    Personally I feel I have been a lifelong seeker of honesty and accuracy, clear seeing, undoing delusion. Not to delude myself that I have, let alone can, succeed. The goal remains quintessentially important and I believe it’s important to everyone. Consider it related to the scientific method. Or acceptance as in Buddhism. Stereotypes are antithetical to this seeking quest.

    Asserting pronouns carries an implicit semantic assertion about both sex and gender, however. And still, official efforts at categorization of people consistently misuse and mix these terms, and frequently give only binary options. (Some online forms allow one to skip but interestingly won’t allow an undo.)

    I strongly believe in pluralistic approach to gender. In my concept, we are all borne of the same cloth so to speak, the weave varies for each of us, and varies over time. That cloth exists separately from our appearance, and varies independent of biological sex. Birth sex also develops from similar parallel, embryonic, forms, suggesting the potential for one or the other directions of form diverges from an essential unity,. This biological shape constrains us in myriad ways and thus of course influences our individual experience and identity, as well as others’ perceptions, reactions, expectations, which in turn further influences us (e.g., self-fulfilling prophesies).

    If a male-bodied person happens to tend toward characteristics and behaviors society has predominantly/traditionally categorized as female-gendered, is na a female, despite the male body? Does na need to even self-identify as female gendered to be so? Is it more appropriate to call nom by female pronouns, by male, or by something less defined? I hope you share my view that the person may choose their preferred identity and that may change over time – it may also be concealed when not safe to reveal – and just as our personalities vary with the group we’re in at any given time, wouldn’t it be natural that ahz gender identity also varies?

    If na is more likely to be nurturing, to network, to engage in crafting, to be quick to volunteer for “female-gendered” activities like childcare, shopping, cooking, cleaning, home making, social planning, and to have close friendships with other female-gendered people, is ahz gender female? Is it okay to observe this and call nom “woman”? Is it ever okay to call nom “man”? I’m asking rhetorically to encourage you to think…and to feel…reflect and (re)consider…

    To dig into that: the terms “woman” and “man” have become very problematic for me. On the one hand they may be considered factual, and same with “girl” and “boy”. In this notion, adult male-bodied = man, adult female-bodied = woman, etc. This already misses the hundreds of millions of intersex people on the planet (and that’s just for starters).

    Many if not all cultures also carry a conception of coming of age, so the terms “man” and “woman” suggest passing through certain trials, to earn the title. “You are a woman now” has a meaning – it is not just a change of age (which is terribly vague to begin with and also varies with culture – as do all these categories including “young woman” or “young man”.

    Feels there can be much value in coming of age rituals, of expectations of adults for ethical, responsible behavior for example. But particularly today, at least in furst wurld USA, in a time when it can seem there is so much more opportunity to escape traditional sex roles (which may arguably be false in many cases and places!), coupled with such a lack of responsibility or involvement of community and even family in the upbringing of a child (which takes a village).

    Ironically, the social fabric has been in large part eroded by some of the same forces which have been liberating, not least the all-too temporary luxuries of the oil age. And here there is also little cohesion about what coming of age means.

    “You are a man now” means – what?

    Even if there were more clear and socially embedded coming-of-age trials available, who has the authority, the presumption, to cast those assignments and make those judgements, particularly when meeting someone for the first time or perhaps even more likely, describing someone you’ve never met? Who would we allow to crown us kings and queens of our born class? And who has the authority to declare themselves, on behalf of all others?

    I have tried to avoid using “man” and “woman” as terms in recent years, and it can be quite difficult – because there are legitimate issues in society and affecting individuals as “men” and “women” – and there is much power and invested meaning in those terms (e.g., the women’s movement! Try saying the “female-bodied movement” ten times fast – if you dare – for it is clearly disrespect and at the same time misses the meaning). Identifying as a gender and sex, binding the two, is powerful. To assert otherwise seems too often fraught with peril. Yet is either more grounded in truth? The truth is the truth.

    There is a debate about race today in which strong criticism is levied upon those who seek to be “color blind” and to deny the effects of race, the differences by race, or one’s racism, whether internal, or outward in effect. (And there are those whose racial identity does not match the dominant social projection of their racial identity based on their appearance.)

    I for one am given to believe that racism is learned, not innate, but that it is learned quickly and deeply throughout so many societies today. Think of all the stories of a child who suddenly realizes ahz skin color is horrifically determinating of ahz life. Think of whether a any baby of any color has a different reaction to differently colored caregivers. In theory race could be as big a deal as differently colored eyes, hair, shape of foot, nose, chin, things most people seem not to dwell on. (Unity between “races” has existed – for example, in struggles for labor rights – but race provides an expedient way to divide and conquer, resulting in protests being directed toward their fellow workers on the fear of scarcity and the desire for a higher status, instead of collaborating toward better conditions and sufficiency for all.)

    As I’ve read about this denial of racism and considered it, with great sympathy, I became concerned that my lifelong desire to escape stereotypes and projections, such as here with liberation from gendered pronouns, could be criticized similarly. Am I for example, trying to escape the general history of crimes by male-bodied people upon female-bodied people, by asserting that I am to be considered neutral?

    I was a teenager when I first realized some female-bodied people would literally fear me simply for my apparent birth sex, on first sight, no matter what my behavior, and there seems little I can to heal and transform all too many of those reactions, which hurt me as well. I was walking on a city street on a beautiful day, and noticed a female-bodied person was walking toward me in the distance, on the other side of the street. I sensed fear and felt self conscious. I wanted to disappear, to escape, to remove the perceived source of the disruption to the other person, who I could barely see, did not know, probably never passed again. Where did this come from? It was a unique moment of realization of the pain and imprisonment which exists and contributed to my rejection of projected male identity, even as many positives of male archetypes exist (so I was later told).

    The space held by “traitors to the patriarchy” can be a lonely and dangerous one.

    The distrust that exists, and the traumas that are so prevalent, make many believe that males are inherently bad or evil. Deeply and sincerely, no matter what others project on me, I do not wish to be evil, I do not seek to harm, and so absolutely do not wish to be cast as evil and precluded the opportunity to join in healthy and happy interpersonal relations, not least to realize and express my true nature. At the same time, male power brokers certainly do not include me in their ruling class, nor would I accept such a privilege. And the state of male socialization and emotional intelligence seems quite dismal – while the culture of exploitation and exclusion continues where female power is gained as well.

    Even as I bear the scarlet letter of my birth sex, I am far from immune from oppression throughout my life. And in the course of defending myself and others from abuse, I have seen that abuse of power can be levied quite similarly by a wide variety of body types both male and female in appearance.

    How to heal society? So many concepts in this comment which I’ve wanted to develop into an article – and now this Friday night comment has basically become one – apologies please for any unintended consequences – dialogue encouraged – I hope this is helpful to others as well as me.

    For a discussion of acceptance (not resignation) within Buddhism:

    How does racial identity relate to language constraints?

  5. April 12, 2021 12:35 pm

    In a recent professional interaction with a female senior staffer of a large state agency, the term “grandfathering in” was used repeatedly.

    With no offense to grandfathers, nor to that senior staff person, the urge to find a gender neutral phrase was immediately felt. It occurred to me that “grandparenting in” works just fine.

    The idea that grandfathers owned land seems to harken to the times and places when only males could or normally would own land. that is no longer the case. By adapting the meaning to the very similar term “grandparenting in” we are also respecting those who are neither male nor female.

    We do not, however, seem to respect those who do not have grandchildren for any number of reasons (from age, to medical, to environmental ethics) and so the term is still discriminatory.

    At the same time it’s an allegorical term, a metaphor at least, and it’s nice to have a connection to the past, and it’s nice to have a term which honors grandparents or even positive male archetypes.

    Curious what the abundant and carefully considered readers think. For now “grandparenting” is my new campaign in these cases.

  6. March 27, 2022 5:57 pm

    Meggs. Thanks for the report. It’s helpful to read again. Just writing to mention that a BBC or NPR type broadcast I overheard this weekend, a professor with a female-sounding voice, affectation, interviewed by a reporter with a female-sounding voice, British-sounding accent. The peak of the conversation: what we need is GENDER IRRELEVANCE, not gender neutrality.

  7. May 18, 2022 10:55 am

    Here’s a thought.
    Can we work with the contractions that natural speech makes?
    If you take he/she and remove the consonants, you get “ee”.
    If you think of the short form of the spoken him/them you get “um” or apostrophe-m (“mm”), and for her you get apostrophe-r or “ur”.
    For the possessive you could add “z” sound to the third person (umz, urz).
    Is there a neutral form similar to both um and ur?
    This would fit well in what people already naturally say…on the other hand, it’s easier to get “ee” from “he” than from “she” because “h” goes silent more readily. And if people are just using what ‘comes naturally’ maybe they’re still packing a lot of unconscious bias in.
    Maybe it needs to be something totally different so people start to really “get” it that we aren’t just changing language, we’re changing our concept to include the many possibilities that aren’t immediately evident. And respecting the private reality of the individuals we meet.

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