Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#41  Postby GreyICE » Jul 09, 2010 5:41 pm

Scott H wrote:
GreyICE wrote:
Scott H wrote:'They' sounds too uneducated.
'Said one' sounds like 'sad one.'

I still think we could use androgynous pronouns.

You're still wrong to think that. /end thread


That remark took about as much intelligence as slamming a brick in someone's face, and you're not being very creative.

All proposals are mostly to completely unpronouncable. One of the greatest advances in literacy occurred when we unified written and spoken languages. Separate written and spoken languages have always hindered literacy (look at modern Turkey, which had to develop a written language to match the spoken one, or how Hebrew/Yiddish works out).

This honestly reminds me of the Hale-Bop cultists with their Nikes. One cannot fault them for creativity, nor can one criticize them for being unintelligent. Yet somehow most people are left with the impression that things could have gone a little better.

So, in short, you're still wrong to think that. /end thread
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#42  Postby katja z » Jul 12, 2010 8:36 am

GordonWillis wrote:I think it is very difficult to invent such a fundamental kind of word as a personal pronoun from scratch.

Precisely. Pronouns belong to the "core vocabulary" of a language, which tends to be relatively stable, in the sense that it tends to preserve and build upon "original" elements, not import them from another language, although there is no hard and fast rule for this - afaik the th- pronouns used in English today originally came from the related Old Norse (the OE word for "them" was "hem", if memory serves), but even there they weren't just borrowed because they sounded nice - this came about as a result of population mixing and hence language hybridisation. The reason for the relative stability of the core vocabulary is very simple - these are words that are most often used in everyday communication, and old habits die hard (besides, why would they have to, if they serve their function well).
There's a further reason why pronouns can't be changed (or new ones introduced) by decree, and it is that they are really morphosyntactic elements. Of course the structure (grammar) of a language changes over time, and sometimes by normative tweaking of certain elements (the "outlawing" of the double negative in English is a good example), but introducing new pronouns would be a major structural revolution and the only way I can see them gaining ground is very slowly, spreading first in one community of speakers and then radiating from there, possibly for reasons of cultural prestige (depending on the community that originally adopted them), or for practical value if it turned out that at that moment of social and linguistic history the effort of changing linguistic habits so far was outweighed by practical advantages.

The history of “its” seems a good example of how such things normally come about — which is, by building on what is already accepted. In Old English, the subject form was “hit”, with a possessive form “his”, the same as the possessive of the masculine pronoun “he”. By the end of the 16th century, “hit” had lost its H, and people were clearly somewhat uncomfortable with the possessive form: some people began to replace neuter “his” with “it”, and then eventually with the current form, “its”. The development is well illustrated in Shakespeare, who uses each of the forms at one time or another. I think it unlikely that any new form will become generally accepted unless it develops by some similar sort of process.

Agreed.

To my mind the most plausible candidate is “they”. For one thing, it’s already in wide use. The problem of distinguishing singular from plural is not actually very great, and the main objections are “it’s not what one is used to” and “it sounds wrong” (and also, it’s uncouth, vulgar, shockingly immoral, not to say downright wicked, etc. In other words, once people get used to it no one will care). A good comparison might be made with the two (originally different) German pronouns “sie” (she and they/you), and as with German, capitalising the word might help to reduce possible confusion in writing (which is all that really matters). In any case, we already capitalise “I”, so why not write “They” as a singular? (German has “sie” = they, “Sie” = you, both with plural verb, and “sie” = she, with singular verb). If speakers of German can cope with this, as they do, I don’t see why speakers of English should have much trouble, either. The point is that it would be a natural development from existing usage, and therefore not “artificial” or “imposed”. The key, of course, is general adoption.

Agreed again, and I think German pronouns are a very good example. (I did not know these were originally different pronouns, very interesting!) Another example is "you" in English - this used to be a plural form but is now both plural and singular. Then there is French, where in spoken language, the difference between singular and plural in the 3rd person has been eroded as a result of phonetic change, not only in pronouns but also in verb forms (of regular verbs), without causing any major problems.

As for the pronoun "they", I'm frankly amazed that it has managed to gain so much acceptance so quickly, in a few decades. I think this has been possible in English partly because the use of "they" doesn't demand a revolution in the morphosyntax of the sentence, as it would in more strongly inflectional languages.

:cheers:

EDIT: I should add that thinking up new pronouns (or other changes to language) can be an interesting thought experiment to explore how our languages do function, and this can work particularly well in fiction, highlighting all we take for granted in language through an effect of defamiliarisation. But from what we know about how languages change, it is highly unlikely (to say the least) that such an experiment could have a significant impact on general usage.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#43  Postby Scott H » Jul 17, 2010 8:50 pm

Another problem with 'they': What if you're talking about two subjects, one plural and one singular, and you have to use 'they' to refer to the singular? Wouldn't that be a bit... awkward?

"If the soldier confronts a group of hostiles, then they are expected to take cover and protect themselves." Wha-- who's they?

I still think you're being a bit harsh in your denunciation of my fun little project.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#44  Postby hotshoe » Jul 17, 2010 9:32 pm

Scott H wrote:Another problem with 'they': What if you're talking about two subjects, one plural and one singular, and you have to use 'they' to refer to the singular? Wouldn't that be a bit... awkward?

"If the soldier confronts a group of hostiles, then they are expected to take cover and protect themselves." Wha-- who's they?

I still think you're being a bit harsh in your denunciation of my fun little project.


You're right, "they" as singular causes as many problems as it seems to solve.

But at this point, American culture is drifting into "they" singular in spite of its problems ... looks inevitable to me, but I still admire the project of trying to find a better alternative.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#45  Postby Scott H » Jul 17, 2010 9:35 pm

Thank you, hotshoe.

Another problem with 'they' is that it might decrease the fluidity of cognition associated with the distinction between singular and plural subjects. We want to give language an elegance that is fitting for an intelligent species.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#46  Postby hotshoe » Jul 17, 2010 9:59 pm

Scott H wrote:Thank you, hotshoe.

Another problem with 'they' is that it might decrease the fluidity of cognition associated with the distinction between singular and plural subjects.


Good point about the cognitive distinction between singular and plural.

It's analogous to the discontent speakers of American English have with "you" being both singular and plural. Most people have accepted that, but there are substantial groups who insist on separate words to show the difference. So we have created "y'all" and sometimes "youse" (although that is not always used as a stand-alone pronoun but often as part of the idiom "youse guys").

I think it shows a need for the language to match the mental map of difference.

We want to give language an elegance that is fitting for an intelligent species.
Now, when I talked to God I knew he'd understand
He said, "Stick by my side and I'll be your guiding hand
But don't ask me what I think of you
I might not give the answer that you want me to"
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#47  Postby GordonWillis » Jul 18, 2010 12:02 pm

hotshoe wrote:
Scott H wrote:Another problem with 'they': What if you're talking about two subjects, one plural and one singular, and you have to use 'they' to refer to the singular? Wouldn't that be a bit... awkward?

"If the soldier confronts a group of hostiles, then they are expected to take cover and protect themselves." Wha-- who's they?

I still think you're being a bit harsh in your denunciation of my fun little project.


You're right, "they" as singular causes as many problems as it seems to solve.

But at this point, American culture is drifting into "they" singular in spite of its problems ... looks inevitable to me, but I still admire the project of trying to find a better alternative.


looks inevitable to me, but I still admire the project of trying to find a better alternative.


I’m afraid I don’t. Language is arguably the most important tool of self-expression that is available to us, and the thought of some anonymous youngster making rules for the entire English-speaking world is objectionable (but no doubt you can claim membership of that ancient tradition of prescriptive grammarians ;) ). Of course, as a “fun little project”, it is harmless enough, and in any case I doubt whether anyone will take any notice. Personally, I love the English language and accept that in a way it has a life of its own.

I briefly discussed an aspect of ambiguity earlier, and now katja z has too. And thank you, katja, and I am sorry that somehow I missed an early notification of your comment :cheers:. Ambiguity is always a problem to some degree, and given English syntax it is remarkable that we don't have more problems with it. But context is crucial to comprehension, so I dare say that that is an important factor in avoiding confusion.

Languages do not necessarily evolve in what one would suppose to be the the most “sensible” way, but given the number of factors that play their part this isn't really very surprising, and we just have to accept it. I won’t bore you with a comprehensive list of the various changes that I personally regret, but they include the loss of hither, thither, whither and the corresponding hence, thence and whence (belonging to the same series as here, there, where). It is not easy to see why such elegant and economical words should have been universally replaced by their more awkward and complicated present-day equivalents, even if one allows that those equivalents in some form or other may be equally old, but such things happen. Too bad.

katja z wrote:
As for the pronoun "they", I'm frankly amazed that it has managed to gain so much acceptance so quickly, in a few decades. I think this has been possible in English partly because the use of "they" doesn't demand a revolution in the morphosyntax of the sentence, as it would in more strongly inflectional languages.


That’s a really interesting comment and leads to much thought. I’d like to restrict myself here to the observation that, as regards the length of time involved, I make it a personal rule to assume that “new” developments have been in use for far longer than I have been aware of them. A good example is how “legitimise/legitimize” appears to be ousting “legitimate” (verb) from regular usage. The latter was the word I learnt as the “normal” one back in the early 50’s and for years I supposed that the former was some ugly new upstart (perhaps not unreasonably, as -ise/-ize is in constant use in the formation of new verbs). In fact, The Shorter OED gives the date of the first recorded use of “legitimise” as 1791, hardly “new” (legitimate, verb, from 1531). So it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that singular they is pretty old, though the oldest example I can find is from Thackeray, Nobody prevents you, do they? (quoted by Ernest Gowers in The Complete Plain Words). I would guess that singular they has its origin in such natural and unexceptionable idioms as this, from Jane Austen:

“To my fancy, a thousand times prettier than Barton Park, where they are forced to send three miles for their meat.”
(Sense and Sensibility)


A plural is clearly meant, but it is not difficult to imagine such a usage being extended to a logical singular without anyone even noticing. This is a different argument from the “nonsexist” one, but I think it more likely that the usage arose well before anyone began to seriously question the accepted use of he as the appropriate pronoun for a person unknown. (By the way, if you want to start a thread on the subject of split infinitives, do so by all means :roll: ).
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#48  Postby Jehannum » Jul 18, 2010 12:17 pm

I use 'he', 'him', etc. as gender-neutral pronouns.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#49  Postby NineOneFour » Jul 18, 2010 1:00 pm

Scott H wrote:"Gendered pronouns notoriously are the front line of such consciousness-raising. He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this." -Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

How much sense is there in procrastinating on these issues? At some point, we would like to have gender-abstract personal pronouns, and we would want them to sound good.

For starters, how about:

he, she, ze ("zee")
his, her, zir ("zeer")
him, her, zem ("zeem"), zer ("zur"), or zerm ("zurm")

I was thinking, it might be a bit unfair to those who speak with a German accent, but it is at least a possibility, among others.

What are your ideas?


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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#50  Postby katja z » Jul 18, 2010 1:12 pm

GordonWillis wrote:
I’m afraid I don’t. Language is arguably the most important tool of self-expression that is available to us, and the thought of some anonymous youngster making rules for the entire English-speaking world is objectionable (but no doubt you can claim membership of that ancient tradition of prescriptive grammarians ;) ). Of course, as a “fun little project”, it is harmless enough, and in any case I doubt whether anyone will take any notice. Personally, I love the English language and accept that in a way it has a life of its own.

I wouldn't go so far as to say this is objectionable, only that it can't make much impact. Of course, if such a project were taken up by a notable prescriptive grammarian, it would be different, at least in another language. Contemporary English-language linguistics shows a strong preference for descriptive over prescriptive grammar, and additionally, English is in many ways an "excentric" language - it doesn't have one (normative) centre, so language policies of individual countries can only have very limited impact. But even in languages where the prescriptive central norm plays a much stronger role (French comes to mind) most of the development happens spontaneously, by which I mean that it emerges from communication practices of various groups of speakers.
In a way, each speaker is part of this change, but no one can single-handedly cause a linguistic revolution. This is a collective process whose agents are various linguistic communities, not individuals.

I briefly discussed an aspect of ambiguity earlier, and now katja z has too. And thank you, katja, and I am sorry that somehow I missed an early notification of your comment :cheers:. Ambiguity is always a problem to some degree, and given English syntax it is remarkable that we don't have more problems with it. But context is crucial to comprehension, so I dare say that that is an important factor in avoiding confusion.

Context, and implicit assumptions/expectations shared by the participants. There are various other mechanisms too, from syntactic patterns to stress and intonation patterns (in speech) or the use of punctuation and typography (in writing).

Languages do not necessarily evolve in what one would suppose to be the the most “sensible” way, but given the number of factors that play their part this isn't really very surprising, and we just have to accept it.

This is an extremely important point. Language change does parallel evolution in this: it is not teleological, and it proceeds by tinkering with whatever is available, rather than by complete design overhaul.

I think the changes you mention have to do with the general tendency of English towards using analytic forms, as well as a tendency to substitute regular forms for irregular ones which is a general feature of much language change. The modern forms may be awkward in one sense, but they are less so in another - they are more readily remembered and understood - so it could be argued that there is a trade-off between different (dis)advantages.

I’d like to restrict myself here to the observation that, as regards the length of time involved, I make it a personal rule to assume that “new” developments have been in use for far longer than I have been aware of them.

I agree that this is a good rule of thumb, as "new" developments only gradually gain general acceptance and make it into written sources (although I think that in very recent times, with the widespread use of internet, this time lag has shrunk or even disappeared, at least in English).

Re "legitimise", this doesn't surprise me, I would even say that "legitimise" is probably the older form, since the verb comes from French "légitimiser" (1st p. sg: je légitimise), "legitimate" being a later back-formation from the adjective.

I would guess that singular they has its origin in such natural and unexceptionable idioms as this, from Jane Austen:

“To my fancy, a thousand times prettier than Barton Park, where they are forced to send three miles for their meat.”
(Sense and Sensibility)


A plural is clearly meant, but it is not difficult to imagine such a usage being extended to a logical singular without anyone even noticing. This is a different argument from the “nonsexist” one, but I think it more likely that the usage arose well before anyone began to seriously question the accepted use of he as the appropriate pronoun for a person unknown.

This is a very interesting observation. I have never yet thought of the singular usage of "they" in connection with collectives, but it certainly makes sense. By the way, collective nouns which can take either a singular or a plural verb form (like "team", "government" etc.) are another interesting quirk of English which I've yet to meet in another language ... (I am not saying they don't exist anywhere else - that would be an outrageous claim since there are thousands of languages that I don't speak. Yet :grin:)
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#51  Postby Kazaman » Aug 21, 2010 8:35 pm

English uses "one," which is already a third person singular pronoun or the third person plural as neuter pronouns. Some bitch that using the third person plural as singular and plural is confusing, but surely it can be no more confusing than the second person.

Alternatively, we could re-adopt grammatical gender. :grin:
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#52  Postby Scott H » Aug 21, 2010 9:00 pm

The problem I see with 'one' is that it's just too arbitrary. When you speak of 'one,' you're introducing an arbitrary subject, which cannot be named prior without creating confusion. For example, compare:

"If the defendant wishes to defend his innocence, he must present his objections carefully."
"If the defendant wishes to defend one's innocence, one must present one's objections carefully."

There is clearly a problem here: namely, that by saying 'one,' an arbitrary subject is introduced, thus extending the quantificational scope of the sentence to include subjects other than the defendant.

To solve these problems and others, we might really need to be creative.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#53  Postby GreyICE » Aug 22, 2010 3:35 am

Uh, no, for the second sentence, you would use 'they.' The fact that you can fuck up word usage doesn't make the word not work.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#54  Postby shh » Aug 22, 2010 4:01 am

If you're in court you can probably just look and see if it's a man or a woman. :)
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#55  Postby Kazaman » Aug 22, 2010 3:28 pm

I was about to say ... and in legislation one may apply the third person plural as a singular neuter pronoun.

"If the defendant wishes to defend their innocence, they must present their objections carefully."

EDIT: Well, it seems that you guys beat me to both points! :)
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#56  Postby Scott H » Aug 24, 2010 11:26 am

Alright, let's use my first example.

1. "If the soldier confronts a group of hostiles, then they are expected to take cover and protect themselves."
2. "If the soldier confronts a group of hostiles, then one is expected to take cover and protect oneself."

Notice how both examples fail to communicate the desired meaning. In the first, 'they' could refer to the hostiles or some other group, and in the second, 'one' could refer to anyone -- not just the soldier, as the case may be required.

I still don't like the idea of using 'they.' It seems to juxtapose two instances of the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent.

Now, you could say 'said one' in the first instance before saying 'one,' but it's two whopping syllables long and may get cumbersome when used repeatedly.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#57  Postby shh » Aug 24, 2010 12:06 pm

Language isn't a logical construct Scott, 1 communicates the meaning perfectly as far as I'm concerned. I and eeryone else I know have been using it as long as I can remember. It has never lead to confusion.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#58  Postby katja z » Aug 24, 2010 12:09 pm

It's often much simpler in languages that have grammatical gender ... at least one advantage of having to memorise that a book is feminine in language A, only to discover that it is masculine in language B and neuter in language C. :mrgreen: Seriously, the whole trouble over which pronouns to use in English seems a bit exotic to a non-native speaker. In the other languages I'm more or less familiar with, it's the grammatical gender of the implied noun that resolves the issue. (On the other hand, these languages have recently been inventing feminine forms of quite a lot of nouns, especially the ones referring to professions, in order to express the new social realities and aspirations. But this is a much simpler task, as it doesn't affect the grammatic structure of a language.)

Btw, I don't quite get what's wrong with having two-syllable personal pronouns. Many languages have them, including my own, and manage just fine. Examples: "você(s)" in Portuguese, "ella" or even three-syllable "nosotros" and "vosotros" in Spanish, etc. It's just a matter of habit.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#59  Postby GreyICE » Aug 24, 2010 12:58 pm

Scott H wrote:Alright, let's use my first example.

1. "If the soldier confronts a group of hostiles, then they are expected to take cover and protect themselves."
2. "If the soldier confronts a group of hostiles, then one is expected to take cover and protect oneself."

Notice how both examples fail to communicate the desired meaning. In the first, 'they' could refer to the hostiles or some other group, and in the second, 'one' could refer to anyone -- not just the soldier, as the case may be required.

I still don't like the idea of using 'they.' It seems to juxtapose two instances of the Fallacy of Affirming the Consequent.

Now, you could say 'said one' in the first instance before saying 'one,' but it's two whopping syllables long and may get cumbersome when used repeatedly.

Well, you have identified a problem. You don't understand pronouns in English. Subjective pronouns refer to the subject preceding them.

You'll note your first sentence has similar 'ambiguity' (if you don't understand English) if you make both the subject and object plural, or make the subject and object singular. But our language doesn't have that issue. You would be using objective pronouns if it were referring to the object (him, her, us, them, etc.). The hostiles would be 'them' as they're the object of the sentence. That's how sentences like "He had them lead the parade" function properly.

So 'they' must refer to the subject. Basic English.
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Re: Invent your own androgynous personal pronouns!

#60  Postby shh » Aug 24, 2010 1:04 pm

GreyICE wrote:That's how sentences like "He had them lead the parade" function properly.
I actually had to re-read that to see why you'd use it as an example. :D
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