Ze, zim, zer, zher, zis, mer, hus, shkle, hum, herm, hann, ey, hu, je, xe, per, thon, yo, ghaH, co, e. Know what these words are? They are artificial constructs: neologisms cobbled together for abstruse political correctness to replace traditional pronouns that expose or define a gender in the subject or object of a sentence: the traditional he, him, she, her and so on.
They’re sometimes called Spivak pronouns after an American mathematician who coined some of them, but there are many more than he coined. Gender-neutral pronouns (GNP) are today’s newspeak. Wiktionary has a long list of them. A long list.
Gender-specific pronouns are, apparently, verboten in some circles but not our educational system – where these strange, ugly new GNP words are de rigeur for some. Gawds forbid anyone’s assumed gender should not be recognized because it could lead to confusion and bruised egos.
And in order to avoid that, we all need to memorize a list of words that makes Latin verb conjugation look simple. I’m accustomed to use gender-neutral terms like “they” instead of the binary him or her/he or she, because those pronouns have a long history of usage and, despite incongruity with verb/subject agreement, have been accepted by recent style guides as a solution to the thorny issue of identity. But until the Chicago Manual of Style or Fowler’s or the CP Styleguide approve it, I can’t get into ze or zer.
Until recently, you didn’t hear these words much outside academia because, I suppose, in the real world these made-up words just seem pretentious and silly.
Not to Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto who has been taken to task for not kowtowing to the speech police. His story has become an international one, spun along the polarized lines of debate that social media encourages. As the Sun noted:
Peterson has gone on to say that he will not address his students by the pronoun of their choice, sparking a backlash from social activists and the transgendered community.
His comments have sparked a rebuke from his employer, petitions in favour and against, two tense rallies, feverish online debate and media interest in Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom.
The university has said that while Peterson is free to express his views, students have complained they don’t feel safe, and faculty is expected to foster a learning environment free from discrimination and harassment.
A privileged few who can afford to attend university in Canada don’t feel safe in a classroom environment because a professor refuses to call them by a word not found in any English dictionary? Scary places, our universities. Forget guns, drugs, rape, or violence: here the knife-sharp edge of a misused pronoun can cut a student to the quick.
How far should this go? What if a student might feel offended and discriminated against if the professor refuses to call him/her/zhim/zong/(pick your word) a heffalump? And another wants to be called Lucky Ducky? What if one demands to be addressed using Klingon?* One wants ze, another pe, another xem – should the professor use them all, rhyming them off in a lengthy list in order to be fully inclusive and make sure no one is excluded? Can’t have anyone’s fragile self esteem tattered.
Every student should have to fill in a form at the start of every year to list the various words by which they must be addressed, and all the acceptable singular and plural pronouns by which they will permit others to be addressed or referred to. Good luck keeping them all straight (in the linear sense of the word). New York City, apparently, recognizes 31 genders. (list here). ** In The Sun, Antonella Artuso asks, “Are we supposed to have a pronoun for each of those genders? So, how the hell are we going to keep track of that? How is that going to work?”
Here’s what the University of Wisconsin suggests you say if you hear someone make a mistake trying to find the acceptable pronoun:
“I noticed that you were getting referred to with the wrong pronoun earlier, and I know that that can be really hurtful. Would you be okay with me taking them aside and reminding them about your personal pronoun? I want to make sure that this group is a safe space for you.” Follow up if necessary, but take your cues from the comfort level of your student. Your actions will be greatly appreciated.
Most of us identify with the basic binary male-female biology. I apologize for us, because apparently we’re anachronisms, linguistically. At least to a small group of activists who want to change how we refer to people. I’m not talking about simply providing gender-neutral content, avoiding blatant sexism by replacing the pervasive he and him of the past with something that is more inclusive. I’m talking about a radical change.
And I have no personal bias for or against whatever gender or sexual identity anyone else prefers. I just don’t think language defining our identities can be changed by dictate, especially since it’s been in use since the beginning of writing, many millennia past. Only a cultural shift can change that.
The masculine “he” that is so contentious was not always so binary and divisive as it seems today. Because English lacked any real neutral form, ‘he’ was used as a gender-neutral pronoun for centuries:
…forms of the pronoun he had been used for both sexes during the Middle English and Modern English periods. “There was rather an extended period of time in the history of the English language when the choice of a supposedly masculine personal pronoun (him) said nothing about the gender or sex of the referent.” The use of he to refer to a person of unknown gender was prescribed by manuals of style and school textbooks from the early 18th century until around the 1960s.
But times and sensitivities change. As a writer and editor, I’ve struggled with this for decades, trying those awkward terms like s/he or ‘he and/or she’, writing neutral words like chair or chairperson, and spokesperson, and finally slipping – reluctantly – into they and them for the neutral singular despite the dog’s breakfast this makes of verb-subject agreement. Still, because I want to be inclusive and not sexist, it’s less offensive to my sensibilities than using some made-up term. I will use they and whatever neutral nouns I can find, but I balk at these newspeak GNPs.
While the use of the singular they is at least Chaucerian in age, it had its falling out in the early 20th century with the rise of the grammarians like Fowler, Flesch, Stunk et al. It has come back into favour today as writers and editors flail about for suitable, gender-neutral terminology. And since Jane Austen did it a lot, and Dickens used it, it must be good. As Wikipedia notes:
The singular they had emerged by the 14th century and is common in everyday spoken English, but its use has been the target of criticism since the late 19th century. Its use in formal English has increased with the trend toward gender-inclusive language.
A 2015 piece in the Wall Street Journal describes the issue at the American Copy Editors Society’s annual conference:
When pressed on whether “they” could serve as a singular pronoun, my fellow lexicographers and I pointed out that it already has done so for about seven centuries, appearing in the work of writers from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Jane Austen.
The most recent edition of Fowler’s (2015) waffled on the issue (to my great disappointment, since I delight in it otherwise). As reviewed in the Spectator:
…Mr Butterfield does not quite grasp the nettle. Most of the entry is taken over from Burchfield, who noted that Fowler’s own view was that ‘few good modern writers would flout the grammarians so consciously’ as to use they to follow a generalised noun or pronoun such as everyone or nobody. Plenty of good writers in the past have done so: ‘Now, nobody does anything well that they cannot help doing’ — Ruskin; ‘If a person is born of a gloomy disposition … they cannot help it’ — Chesterfield. Burchfield observed that English lacked a ‘common-gender third person singular pronoun (as distinct from his used to mean ‘his or her’).’ What Butterfield adds is that such a use of his is ‘now politically verboten’.
And in 2015, NPR reported that the American Dialect Society voted to make the singular “they” their word of the year:
Or more precisely, a particular use of that pronoun that grammarians call the singular “they.” This is the “they” that doesn’t care whether it’s referring to a male or female. As in “If I get a call, tell them they can call me back.” Or “Did someone leave their books here?”
So I surrender. I have made my peace with the singular they. Apparently that’s not enough for some who consider themselves gender-neutral or of some alternate sexuality (and some grammarians still resist). It seems neutrality isn’t enough. The pedestrian ‘they’ is not acceptable to some more radical groups who demand a broader selection. And since English is bereft of such terms, they get made up or imported from another language.
But lest you think this is some rarefied argument amongst pedantic grammarians, it is a bitter battlefield in our universities and colleges.
Peterson doesn’t want to use these clumsy neologisms. I don’t blame him: aside from the biology that drives us to use gender-specific language, made-up words have seldom been successfully imposed on users of English. Even Shakespeare – many of whose remarkable neologisms are still in use – failed at injecting all of them into the common usage.
But as the Toronto Sun tells us, Peterson was crucified on TVO where he was accused of “abusing students” for not accepting the dictate. Some associated Peterson’s refusal with violence and hate speech. Watch it here:
Rex Murphy has an excellent commentary in the NatPost in which he describes letters of reprimand Peterson has received from the university for refusing to tug the forelock to this politically correct nonsense:
…Peterson received from his university two letters of reprimand and warning… it is a most miserable document, in content, tone and misdirection. And, coming from a university, it is also simultaneously shameless and utterly shame-worthy… Is the university seriously claiming, by inference or direct assertion, that because a professor has freely chosen not to speak a set of freshly made-up words that others insist he speak, that others, because of the professor’s intellectual dissent, have really been made targets of “assault, injury, and death threats”?
It is bizarre and disturbing: political correctness gang aft agley. And it’s not like some august body is overseeing the language (such as the Académie française), promoting a code of use and proffering up a list of correct words after much thought and debate. No, it’s just a bunch of students used to getting their own way. because precious “self esteem” is at risk from a misspoken pronoun.
NatPost’s Kelly McParland called it a “dictatorship of the gender warriors” and I’m tempted to agree:
University Of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson has been engulfed in a raging controversy because he objects to being ordered to use whatever pronoun his students may demand, even if it’s not one 99% of Canadians would recognize. If a student wants to be identified as xe (or ze, or zee), Peterson is supposed to refer to him as xe. If an individual demands to be identified as “they,” Peterson is supposed to say “they.” “Hir”, pronounced “here” can stand in for her, him, his, they or theirs. He’s supposed to memorize all the options, note each individual preference, and alter his vocabulary accordingly.
The aim of the exercise is to remove any hint of gender from the language. It’s the goal of people who feel that being identified as male or female is a trap, or a prison, and wish to break free. They do not “identify” as either of the conventional genders, and feel their perspective should be recognized and respected by others, and that the language should be adapted to suit their needs.
More troubling is the potential of Bill C-16 to seep into our language, and thus affect us all:
…the federal Liberals are proposing a bill to amend the Human Rights Act and Criminal Code “to add gender identity and gender expression to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: I support reducing sexism, and I’m an advocate for gender equality. And I don’t like Peterson’s attention-getting tactics or his rightist leaning. Discrimination against anyone is not acceptable in Canada.
The intent of the legislation is good, but its implementation raises potential problems. Will we all be forced to use some manufactured verbiage to prove we’re not bigoted? And who will choose the politically correct words? Will they differ from region to region, or school to school because different groups can’t agree on what words to demand?
This is well outside any reasonable approach to language, politics or culture. McParland comments that,
Politicians are second only to university administrations in their refusal to resist any small group that shouts loud enough long enough.
The squeaky wheel – which we well know from local politics (who can forget the “inpeach council” signs on main street?).
The U of T’s Varsity newsletter reported on the letter Peterson received from the university’s administration:
The letter… warns that Peterson’s refusal is “contrary to the rights of those persons to equal treatment without discrimination based on their ‘gender identity’ and ‘gender expression.’”… the refusal by a teacher or colleague to use the personal pronoun that is an expression of the person’s gender identity can constitute discrimination”…(the) letter discusses complaints from students, employees, and other individuals calling Peterson’s comments “unacceptable, emotionally disturbing and painful.”
There’s that precious self-esteem again. It gets easily bruised if you don’t get what you want. How traumatic to accidentally be called you instead of zhou or xe or whatever your politically correct word-du-jour is. Peterson responded on YouTube:
There’s a debate planned between Peterson and another – as yet unnamed – person. I don’t think it will change anything. This is one of those ideological debates in which the lines are cast in concrete, not sand.
This issue has boiled and bubbled, toiled and troubled into a debate about free speech, which I don’t agree with. I don’t believe it’s about free speech: like so many debates shouted out on social media, it seems only the side you’re on deserves free speech and the others must be muzzled.
It’s about sanity and common sense. It’s about being mature and about the responsibilities of adulthood. Sometimes you don’t get your own way even after a tantrum. Sometimes you just have to accept that you can’t have everything you want all the time and you’re not special. It isn’t bullying or discrimination to be treated like everyone else.
It’s also about the tyranny of petty political correctness. Once upon a time political correctness was a benign force to ensure we did not overstep the bounds of sexism, racism, bigotry or bad manners. It broke the hidebound traditions of establishment habits. Nowadays it seems like an Orwellian ogre, a Borg-like takeover. If we don’t bend to every whine and whimper, we’re called culturally-sexually-politically-biologically insensitive, yet when we do, we are accused of cultural appropriation.
In Quebec, professor Gad Saad – the Gadfather – has had a lot to say on the subject:
He argues political correctness is limiting the free exchange of ideas on university campuses across the continent — and he holds special disdain for professors who do not fight back.
This is not about discrimination, at least for me. I don’t care a whit about anyone’s sexual orientation. I am neither offended nor attracted by it and, as far as I’m concerned, consenting adults can practice it to their heart’s content as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone or involve children.
But regardless of your opinions about the binary biology or sexual inclinations of mammals or yourself, you cannot change language by dictate. Nor can you force someone to use words that suit the politics-du-jour simply because they’re your words. Language will accommodate itself to political and cultural change, not the other way around. Use your preferred terms long enough and others will follow. Or not. That’s how language works: by usage, not law.
Show some spine, U of T. There are a lot more important things for your administration to be pondering. And at the same time, stop pandering to Peterson’s ego. He has the right to free speech, but that doesn’t make him any better or worse than anyone else with an opinion.
* In Klingon, ghaH is the non-gender specific pronoun. You can read more about Klingon and gender specific language here. But you need to be aware of the gender-specific connotations of maqoch and chaj.
** The full list. At least half of these I have never heard of, at least in a description of sexual orientation. None of them seem to apply to seniors, however.
- Drag King
- Drag Queen
- Femme Queen
- Gender Bender
- Trans Person
- Third Sex
- Gender Fluid
- Non-Binary Transgender
- Gender Gifted
- Gender Blender
- Person of Transgender Experience