There’s a post over at Samizdata on the subject of gendered pronouns. It talks about the apparent problem of some men and women not wanting to be referred to as “he” or “she”, and yet another problem whereby some people object to a third person of unknown sex being automatically referred to as “he”. Hence, apparently, there is a need for a gender-neutral third person pronoun. I should point out that Natalie Solent, the author of the Samizdata piece, is merely discussing the issue and groping around for a possible solution rather than demanding something be done, but I’ll weigh in nonetheless.
The first thing that occurs to me is that, as with so many other present-day crises, this is something that appears to be limited to the English-speaking world. The supposed problem is that the use of “he” or “she” infers sexual attributes to the person in question which they might not like, but this might have more to do with the nature of English grammar than a desire on the part of an ancient system of Patriarchy to impose their characterisations on unwilling recipients.
English, being a highly simplified language, doesn’t have gendered nouns and so the only time you see “he” or “she” is in relation to a living creature which, until recently, must be of one of two sexes. A lot of other languages – French, German, Russian to name three – have gendered nouns whereby inanimate objects such as a book, a car, a window, and a door are referred to as “he” or “she”. In the case of Russian and German they even have nouns of a neutral gender.
Things get further complicated in French when the possessive third person pronoun takes the gender of the noun, not the person. In English we say “her book” and “his book” depending on who owns the book. In Russian it’s the same. Only in French they say “son livre” using the masculine form even if the person owning the book is a woman. Conversely, if a man owned a car you would say “sa voiture” because car is feminine.
My point is that people who grow up speaking such languages are probable more resistant to the notion that the pronoun says much about the sexual characteristics of the object in question. When a Russian says “you can park near her” referring to a hotel, nobody is going to think this is attributing sexual characteristics to the hotel, much less as a way of imposing ones traditional views of sexuality, etc. People who use these languages are more likely to see gendered pronouns as grammatical conventions and nothing more, and they probably don’t even see the oddity of things such as knives and forks having a gender in the first place.
I’d be interested to see if this controversy over gendered pronouns exists in the non-English speaking world. I am confident it doesn’t in Russia. Perhaps it does in France, but I doubt it. My guess would be that this is being driven by people who, not having the first clue about languages (including their own), are basing their entire objections on an implication that simply isn’t there.