Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Problems with Pronouns

To most people, pronouns are effortless.  They were assigned a pronoun at birth, and that's what everyone has always called them.  They never think about it, it's a non-issue.  But I think pronouns are the greatest failure of the English language.  Our lovely language's use of pronouns is entirely dependent on the concept of binary gender.  There is male and female, he and she, her and his, Mr. and Ms.  There is no gender neutral singular pronoun.

Recently, many Trans groups have come up with neutral alternatives.  The most common is ze/hir, though there are many others.  I find these invented words cumbersome and awkward.  My favorite alternative is simply using the plural gender neutral pronoun they/their as a singular pronoun.  This is grammatically incorrect, but is becoming more and more acceptable.

As far as I'm aware (and a very brief Google search did not reveal anything different), there is no commonly used neutral for Mr./Ms.  I've seen Mx., and M. but how exactly do you pronounce either of those?  They're even more awkward than ze.

I raise this issue because in my new office we use formal titles.  My colleagues and I address each other by Mr. or Ms., not by our first names.  I have been dubbed "Ms. K" (no one can pronounce my full last name, so I conceded to the initial K).

At this point I'm still using female pronouns in most of my life only because I haven't found a gender neutral alternative that I'm comfortable with.  For the most part it doesn't bother me, because I don't often hear myself referred to using pronouns at all (how often do you call someone "she" where they can hear you? That would be rude, no matter the genders involved).  But in this office space, I'm called Ms. K constantly.  The "Ms." is an ever present demarcation forcing me into a binary gender that doesn't fit.  It's made me a lot more aware of how much being genderqueer has become a part of my identity, and how uncomfortable I am with people assuming I'm cis-female.

How can we hope to create a society that doesn't depend on a gender binary when it is so entrenched in our day to day language?  I have to believe that it's possible, but I'm really not sure of the best strategy.  Is is better to focus on changing the language, because we know how much language influences thought?  Or should we focus on changing social structures and attitudes and hope that language will follow?  Do we try to do both simultaneously; Is that even possible?

And then I remind myself that progress comes in baby steps.  Most of my office still doesn't know the difference between Ms. and Miss.  Miss is a counterpart to Mrs.; Miss refers to an unmarried girl who will take her husband's name and become a Mrs.  This distinction is sexist and outdated; it presumes that a girl is using her father's name until she marries and takes her husband's name.  Ms. is pronounced "Miz", and it is the non-sexist female equivalent to Mr., acknowledging a woman's last name as her own not that of a male in her life.  But Most of my office still pronounces "Ms." as "Miss".  And as much as I am not entirely a "Ms.",  I am really, really not a "Miss".  Progress is slow, but I think my presence is going to be good for this office.  I'm trying not to rock the boat too much in my first few weeks, but I'm also not hiding who I am, and I think just having a genderqueer feminist around is going to do some good for this company.  Every little bit counts, right?

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