The English language needs gender-neutral pronouns
As young Americans are realizing, gender norms can be harmful. Gender-neutral pronouns offer one useful mechanism by which society can foster greater gender equality through language.
While there has been progress towards gender equality in this country, there is still a way to go. A 2018 poll found that women were perceived by nearly 75 percent of respondents to be more affectionate and emotional than men. Another poll found that 87 percent of respondents perceived men and women to be different in how they express their feelings.
The unfortunate truth is that while there has been progress, gender still influences how Americans view each other, and to a large extent, that’s a bad thing. This is evidenced by the million or so Americans who struggle with gender dysphoria every year.
Research suggests that gender dysphoria may be attributable to cultural gender expectations. These gender norms cause major psychological discomfort to those who don’t conform.
Gender norms are also often not rooted in biology and are social in origin. This is evident from the massive deviations in gender norms in history and across the world.
Some societies throughout history and a few even to this day are matriarchies. In Ancient Rome, men painted their nails and powdered their cheeks. Back in 19th century America, it was normal to dress both little boys and girls in dainty dresses. High heels were worn by male European nobility.
Since the social norms surrounding how each gender is supposed to act are arbitrary, it isn’t okay to enforce these norms on people, especially when they result in gender dysphoria.
To combat these harmful norms, there needs to be a change in how people communicate. In English, when a singular person is referred to with a pronoun, a gendered term like she or he is often used.
This means that whether conscious or not, the English language emphasizes that a person’s gender is uniquely important.
If there were different pronouns for people based on race, height, nationality or weight category, that would be ridiculous. At this point, gender should be treated the same way.
While this may seem radical at first, gender-neutral pronouns are already the norm for a lot of the Earth’s population. Chinese , Persian, Bengali and Turkish all use non-gendered pronouns.
There is no better example of the potential benefits of introducing gender-neutral pronouns than Sweden. Swedish traditionally used the pronouns han (he) and hon (she), but in 2015 the gender-neutral pronoun hen (they singular) was introduced into the dictionary. Now, the word is seen on social media, the news and in books.
The word’s popularity stems from its utility. In place of having to write the Swedish translation of the individual, the person, the student and the employee, over and over again, Swedish people now just use the word hen. This reduces the wordiness of writing without requiring writers to arbitrarily specify gender.
More importantly, the word has created a greater sense of gender egalitarianism. In a study produced by researchers from Washington University and the University of California, it was found that the gender-neutral pronoun reduces mental biases and increases positive feelings towards women and LGBT people.
If it works for Sweden, there is no reason it can’t work for the U.S. too. The only question that remains is what should these genderless pronouns be. There is a growing popularity of they/them, but a downside is that there is no differentiation between the singular and plural.
Other options include terms like xe/xem or ze/zim. Regardless of what form it takes, as long as the term is put in the dictionary and taught with the rest of the pronouns in schools, like in Sweden, it will eventually catch on.
While establishing a truly tolerant and egalitarian society will undoubtedly take many reforms, one change should be the introduction of commonly used and recognized gender neutral pronouns.
Micah Erfan is an economics freshman who can be reached at [email protected]