by Miroslav Imbrišević
Can you own pronouns? Members of the trans community say: ‘yes’. When they meet new people they tell them: ‘these are my pronouns’. Some trans people are happy with the pronouns which are currently in use (she/her, he/him), but others invent new pronouns. Can anyone replace the current pronouns with new ones and expect others to use them? And are the made-up pronouns a useful addition to our language? Let’s have a look.
A pronoun is a little word that takes the place of another (usually bigger) word: a noun. When I use the noun ‘mother’ I can vary my language by substituting ‘she’ for the noun. This increases efficiency (‘she’ is shorter than ‘mother’) and makes language less boring: ‘Mother got up. Mother got dressed. Mother had her breakfast…’ This would be a tedious use of language.
So a pronoun can stand for any noun. Often that noun is a person and we call the pronoun replacing the person a ‘personal pronoun’. ‘She’ is a useful little word, because it can stand for any feminine noun referring to a person*: sister, aunt, nun, etc. – but it doesn’t belong to anyone. In a natural language the only word that might belong to you is your name (Katherine, Talia, John, Fritz) – but even these names you share with others. Only if your name were unique in your language, then you could claim to own it, to claim that it is yours.
There are other types of pronouns and they are called ‘possessive pronouns’. These express a relation of possession (or closeness) to a noun; this is usually a person or an object: ‘my husband’, ‘his bag’, ‘her car’. Possessive pronouns sometimes overlap with personal pronouns. For example: ‘her’ can be used as a personal pronoun (‘I saw her yesterday’) or as a possessive pronoun (‘This is her book.’). Possessive pronouns – in spite of their name – don’t belong to the speaker. They are part of a natural language and can be used by anyone, but they cannot be owned.
Another variation of pronouns are called ‘reflexive’. Here the subject is not doing something to an object (‘I wash the car.’) but to themselves: ‘I wash myself.’ Whenever you are doing something to yourself, you would use a reflexive pronoun: myself, herself, himself, yourself, themselves.
Language develops gradually and this makes it easier to learn new terms. Nobody can change the meaning of words just by declaration (but tyrants and other repressive regimes do try just that). There are a few people who have always had the prerogative to invent new words: scientists, scholars, writers and poets. They could be said to ‘own’ their invention. But grammatical changes are never made by fiat – they take a long time. The ‘my pronoun-movement’ imposes new words as well as new grammatical features on the language community. Here is a small taste of what’s in store:
What is striking in this selection from a list of 46 different pronouns (and the list is open-ended) is the arbitrariness of the grammar. Sometimes the subject and object case are distinct, sometimes they are not. Sometimes there is an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun, sometimes there isn’t. Sometimes the reflexive pronoun is formed by the subject case, sometimes by the object case. Sometimes there is an ‘s’ in the possessive pronoun, sometimes there isn’t.
In all natural languages irregular forms do exist, but they have an ancient pedigree. Language relies on regularity, on a grammar which doesn’t permit too many exceptions. This helps learning the language and aids communication. In the above examples there is little evidence of consideration for language learners. Instead it looks like some people feel entitled to invent language – and to demand that others comply.
One could concede that each inventor owns their made-up pronouns, but what use is the invention to them if nobody wants to ‘buy’ the product – because it is inferior to what we have. The new pronouns just don’t work as well as they could.
It would be unreasonable to ask a professor to learn not just the 50-100 names of the new students in her class but also the made-up pronouns and their derivations for the growing number of students who are trans (including gender-fluid, gender queer, non-binary, etc.). If there were 5 such students in the class, all with different pronouns, the professor would have to learn at least 25 new words. This is not as easy as learning a new name like ‘Erin’ or ‘James’, because we are familiar with names. You would have to remember made-up words like ‘eir’ (sounds Icelandic – but how many people speak Icelandic outside of Iceland?) as well as their grammatical use. The latter is not easy. The difficulties of learning new grammatical features (here: cases, possessives, reflexives) might be familiar to people who have experience with learning a foreign language. Those among us who are monoglots might have real difficulties with this.
If the professor gets it wrong, all hell might break loose. She could be branded a ‘transphobe’. The solution is obviously for the students to wear clearly visible badges which state: ‘I use the pronouns: XYZ.’ But such badges don’t help with the grammatical usage – there wouldn’t be enough space to put it all down. Alternatively, the professor could just keep using the students’ names instead of using pronouns. But she would have to avoid using reflexive verbs altogether, because this could lead to confusion. Try replacing ‘Talia washed herself.’ With ‘Talia washed Talia’ – there could be two Talias in the class.
So the lesson is that nobody ‘owns’ pronouns. And if you want to be inclusive, then you might be happy with learning all these new words and how to use them. But the wider issue is this: why do some people think that their need for self-expression entitles them to impose (language) burdens on others? Why should I have to remember phrases like ‘hann feeds hannself’? This puts a considerable burden on other language users because they would potentially have to learn 100+ variations of newly made-up pronouns (and there is no end in sight) and how to use them correctly.
If you don’t want to use any feminine or masculine pronouns, there is no need to invent new words, there is actually something in place already: the neuter pronoun ‘it’. In German some words referring to people are neuter. They are neither feminine nor masculine: ‘the child’ (das Kind) is neuter and so is ‘the girl’ (das Mädchen). If you don’t like the neuter pronoun ‘it’, then let’s agree on something else – emphasis on agree – but please, not 100 different variations.
A language is something which is shared by all. Changes to the language must be acceptable to all users. The proliferation of made-up pronouns is a one-sided affair. It imposes language burdens on all other language users, but most importantly, it hampers communication (through arbitrariness and lack of systematicity) rather that aiding it. It isn’t obvious how useful these new words are to other language users. Imposing a plethora of new pronouns sends the following message to other language users: my need for self-expression and my demand for validation through language trumps any consideration for other language users – and for the functioning of language itself.
* In English ‘she’ can also be used for countries, cities, ships or the sun.