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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.

3 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 mentioned in this article about the term “guys”, to use autocorrection or help type features to nudge people to consider alternative options to their language when texting/authoring via technology.
    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 originally intended.

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