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Bad Invention: Gender Words

By Peter Lloyd

Why in the world did we ever decided to establish separate and hardly equal pronouns to distinguish between our two genders? Some languages go further and assign gender to their nouns. What’s the point?

It doesn’t have to be that way. Some languages like Chinese and Vietnamese have no gender. They communicate quite clearly, I’m sure. So what happened? Who invented gender-specific nouns and pronouns? For what reason? Bad enough the invention, but we also have to make them agree. In Russian, some verbs take gender!

Unfortunately I have been unable to find out why we refer to female people and other living things as she and their counterparts as he? Apparently it happened a long, long time ago. But someone had to think about it and start doing it. Others had to agree and follow. One of civilization’s oldest and dumbest ideas. A bad invention.

Now when I write a sentence like, “Each student should come to class with [possessive pronoun] assignments completed,” I have to decide whether I should write “his” or “his or her” or “their” or completely rewrite the sentence in the plural, “All students should...” which sacrifices the authority I convey by addressing “each student.”

I would be happy if we lost, he, she, his, her, him, and the rest. We could make all pronouns neuter. It would sound strange at first, but we’d all get used to it. Being the only pronouns, they would no longer need to be referred to as neuter. Instead we find well-meaning writers inventing contraptions like s/he. How would you pronounce that? Back to square one.

Reading an academic paper some time ago, I was pleased that the author referred to the male and female subjects of her study as she and her. Brilliant! She not only solved the problem, she demonstrated how ridiculous for English speakers to assign masculine pronouns when referring to people of both genders.

When gender-sensitive language emerged as an issue in the 70s, like most males, I initially wondered, what’s the problem? We all know that he and men refer to men and women as in, “all men are created equal.” Easy for a he to say, right? It’s particularly difficult to argue against gender-sensitive language when God is traditionally referred to as He. Even though the devil is as well.

Playing devil’s advocate, I once made the case to a young woman friend, “You get your own pronoun. We have to share ours with you.” She quickly put me in my place by comparing my pronoun to a mansion and hers to an outhouse.

Gender-marked nouns present more serious problems. In English you can evade the suspicions of a jealous partner who asks, “Who are you texing?” with the gender-neutral response, “a friend.” Not in Spanish. You have to choose between amigo and amiga or evade the question some other way.

Language reform presents a Sisyphusian challenge. But what the heck, who wants to give it a go? Bad inventions, and this one in particular, make life more troublesome than it needs to be. And who needs that?

Peter Lloyd is co-creator with Stephen Grossman of Animal Crackers, the breakthrough problem-solving tool designed to crack your toughest problems.

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