‘English’ is a tricky word that needs some refining and defining. Language historians talk in terms of three periods: Old, Middle and Modern English. Old English was an English of grammatical gender. Middle English was an English of unstable gender. Modern English has been an English of logical gender. Old English had become Middle English by 1150 and Middle English had become Modern English by 1500. Every five hundred years or so, one English gives place to another. We see now darkly, but in time those who follow will see clearly. They are likely to look back to the year 2000 as the date at which Modern English was beginning to become Post-Modern English.
All languages change, but the English language has changed more rapidly than most. It has been spoken not on an isolated island but on an invaded island that absorbed first Danish- and second French-speaking peoples, an island that then took to trading and invading. Modern English spread as a commercial language, an imperial language, a scientific language and a world language. It has now become the global language. Judging by the entries in the dictionaries, Old English had some 10,000 headwords. Judging by the entries in the Oxford English Dictionary, Post-Modern English has certainly 300,000 headwords, even 600,000 by another kind of count.
Word counts do not necessarily count anything of great significance. All the many European languages that had a word count of 10,000 in the tenth century will have hugely increased their word count if they have not become extinct. The word count of English is nonetheless considered remarkably large. Some say that English has the world’s largest vocabulary: an easy claim to make and an impossible one to prove. Moreover, 10,000 words are adequate for everyday interactions, purposes and trades. At the same time, 50,000 words are as many as most educated people know. The huge word counts that go beyond the everyday and the educated are made up mainly of technical, scientific, dialect and slang terms. There are masses of words out there, and there is no limit to the number that can be coined or concocted. However, English is having a hard time coming up with certain kinds of new words.
In the 1970s, people in a permanent sexual relationship outside marriage were having difficulty describing each other. Husband and wife were what they were not. People ummed and ahhed so much at introduction times that for a while ‘ummer’ became a word, as in ‘I would like you to meet Roger, my umm-a, my ahh-a, my ummer. My friend.’ But Roger was more than a friend. A phrase could always be employed, and one such was ‘my significant other’. Euphemisms and evasions show that embarrassment or caution was overloading the linguistic moment. Speakers did not want to be explicit. They were reaching for a neutral term.
A neutral term was found in the word ‘partner’. In the 1970s, partners were commonly business partners or partners-in-crime. They were not partners-in-love. ‘Lover’ was available in the 1970s, but to say ‘I would like you to meet Roger, my lover’ would have been too much. Probably that is still true, and ‘partner’ does nicely. Post-Modern English demands the explicit where Modern English demanded the complicit. What you practised then, you did not preach. Now preaching and practice are to be aligned. That is causing linguistic stress.
A particular problem comes with anaphora: ‘the use of a word referring back to a word used earlier in a text or conversation, to avoid repetition.’ The problem raised by anaphora is identified by Penelope Eckert and Sally McConnell Ginet in Language and Gender. If we wish to use a third-person singular pronoun to refer to someone, English ‘forces the speaker to index the referent’s sex.’ The English language by failing to provide a gender-neutral, third-person-singular pronoun is behaving like Mr Justice Jeremy Baker. In the United Kingdom’s High Court in June 2018, he refused Christie Elan-Cane, a gender-neutral person, a gender-neutral passport. Christie Elan-Cane demanded an X tick box along with the present M and F tick boxes on British passports. Mr Justice Jeremy Baker rejected the demand.
In reporting the case, BBC News supplied a photograph with the caption: ‘Campaigner Christie Elan-Cane lost their High Court challenge’. A person demanding a gender-neutral passport could not be said to lose ‘his case’ nor ‘her case’. Saying ‘their case’ was a solution. The English third-person-plural pronouns ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ are already gender neutral. Is the pronoun problem solved if ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’ are treated as third-person-singulars?
UCLA’s Graduate School of Education tells student teachers to use ‘they, them, and their when providing examples during lessons instead of he and she’. Schoolchildren are becoming used to these forms, and the future of a language is in the mouths of its children, but these linguistic developments can raise adult hackles for two reasons. First, most adults reject most language change. Children need to learn any language their parents might be speaking, but adults need to preserve that language and give it stability. Second, the changes that are the most difficult to accept are changes to the core of a language, changes to the closed class of words that includes prepositions, conjunctions, and pronouns. By contrast, the open class of words - nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs – welcomes additions.
Since sentences and meaning might unravel, no language likes to change its pronouns. However, English has already done that twice. In some dialects of late-period Old English, ‘he’, and ‘heo’ came to sound alike. People living in the Danelaw adopted a Norse pronoun to give us ‘he’ and ‘she’. In late-period Middle English, the pronoun ‘one’ appeared. It was probably an adoption from French. ‘One’ might have served as today’s third-person-singular, ungendered pronoun if it had not been adapted in the eighteenth century by the upper classes. As substitute for ‘I’, they took to saying things like ‘one does one’s best.’ It is ‘frequently regarded as affected’, says the Oxford English Dictionary. Along with ‘we’ as a first-person singular, ‘one’ is best left to the monarch.
So, is the answer ‘they’, ‘them’ and ‘their’? Emmy J. Favilla offers a more radical solution. She says that English should adopt ‘ze’, ‘zir’, ‘hir’, ‘xe’, ‘xem’ and ‘xyrs’ as gender-neutral pronouns. In A World Without ‘Whom’, Favilla argues for a radical rethink not just of pronouns but of the language as a whole. It might be presumed that Christie Elan-Cane would agree. Favilla and Elan-Cane presented their cases in recent years, but assaults on the sexism of the English language are not new. In 1980 in Man Made Language, Dale Spender denounced the androcentric nature of a language in which the word ‘man’ is used to include ‘woman’ and God calls for the pronoun ‘He’.
A schoolteacher in Tallahassee has undertaken to improve the situation by asking her class to use gender-neutral English. To begin with, the children must call teachers ‘Mx’ (pronounced 'Mix') rather than Mr. or Ms. Parents have expressed alarm. The X-factor looms large in genderlect. Elan-Cane wants an X tick box. In Los Angeles, there are calls for the term ‘Latinx’ (pronounced ‘Latinex’) to replace ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina’. Meanwhile, ‘Latino’ and ‘Latina’ remind us that patriarchal discrimination is not peculiar to the English language. Spencer and Favilla are not saying that.
Seven thousand years ago, Proto-Indo-European divided the universe into masculine, feminine and neuter - in that order. The more than four hundred modern languages that have descended from Proto-Indo-European have inherited a worldview that puts men first. Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman addressed the rights of woman as a political issue. That was in 1792. It was not until 1980 that Dale Spender addressed the rights of woman as a linguistic issue.
Seven hundred years ago, Middle English moved toward neutrality when it abandoned the grammatical genders of Old English. Modern English remains open to the Spencer and Favilla attack, but Post-Modern English is in the vanguard of change. And, thanks to Middle English, English feminists are not facing the first-stage difficulties that confront linguistic feminists in France and Spain.
BBC News. ‘High Court refuses bid for gender-neutral passports.’ BBC News (22 June 2018): www.bbc.com.
Bosworth, Joseph, and T. Northcote Toller. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1898.
Campbell, Alistair. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Enlarged Addenda and Corrigenda. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972.
Crystal, David. The Stories of English. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2005.
Curzan, Anne. Gender Shifts in the History of English. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Dailey, Ryan. ‘Teacher requests students use gender-neutral pronouns; parents divided.’ USA Today (21 September 2017): www.usatoday.com.
Eckert, Penelope, and Sally McConnell Ginet. Language and Gender. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Favilla, Emmy J. A World Without ‘Whom’: The Essential Guide to Language in the Buzzfeed Age. London: St Martin’s Press, 2017.
Mallory, J. P., and D. Q. Adams. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
McKibben, Sarah. ‘Creating a Gender-Inclusive Classroom.’ EducationUpdate (April 2018): www.ascd.org.
Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, www.oed.com.
Reichard, Raquel. ‘Why You Should Replace Latino with Latinx.’ Latina (19 April 2016): www.latina.com.
Spender, Dale. Man Made Language. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul 1980.
Toller, T. Northcote. An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary: Supplement. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1921.
Wollstonecraft, Mary. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: With Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects. 1792. Edited by Ashley Tauchert. London: Dent, 1995.
For a ‘Word of the Week’ on our 2018 theme of Women and the English Language visit: https://twitter.com/theenglishproj
The English Project’s October Posting: Developing Ideas of Genderlect: The twentieth-century language debate began in terms of women’s speech being in ‘deficit’, shifted into the view it was ‘different’ then became talked about as one of many ‘diverse’ styles; in the Twenty-First Century, how do we describe the speech of a range of genders?
The Trustees of the English Project