If you’ve ever seen people complain about singular “they” or so-called generic “he” (for the record, I am 100% for singular they and 100% against “he” as a default pronoun), or if you’re just really not so keen on gender binaries, you may have wondered what life and language would be like without gender pronouns. If you haven’t, well, you’re about to find out anyway. So put your linguist slippers on and get comfy, because we’re about to take an epic voyage across time and space.
Why do we have pronouns?
Let’s start with the most basic question. A pronoun, if you had that new-fangled type of education where you don’t learn grammar (the horror!), is a word that stands for a noun (or noun phrase.) So you have first-person pronouns like “I” and “me,” which stand for your trusty linguist who’s writing this article, second-person pronouns like “you,” which stands for the brilliant commentariat (flattery gets you everywhere), and third-person pronouns like “she” and “he” and “they,” which stand for other people who aren’t participating in the conversation, like Bendandsnap Calldispatch (alas.)
And the point of pronouns is that they let you keep talking about stuff without repeating names or descriptions every single time, because that gets tedious.
Gretchen: Hey Nicole, does Nicole think that Benadryl Cucumber has seen that article Gretchen wrote about Bandersnatch Cumberbund?
Nicole: Nicole doubts that this happy but also terrifying event is likely to have occurred.
Gretchen: Hey, do you think Bandicoot Cragglerock has seen that article I wrote about him?
Nicole: I doubt it.
See? Much shorter.
What do we even mean by gender?
This is probably the part where I should point out that there are two meanings for gender: there’s grammatical gender, which is sometimes also called noun class, and refers to a system of categorizing the nouns of a language (sometimes feminine/masculine, sometimes animate/inanimate, sometimes even more options) and then there’s natural gender, which is a system of categorizing people and sometimes unfortunately ballpoint pens. The grammatical sense of the word is actually older (from the 14th century: it’s related to genre and genus, i.e. type, kind, origin) and the meaning was extended in the 15th century to the human phenomenon. For a while, this extension led to gender being used as a euphemism for “sex,” where both words could refer to social or biological differences, but starting in the 1960s, feminist writers began using gender to refer to the social distinction and sex to refer to the biological one, presumably to make it easier to talk about these two phenomena separately.
Incidentally, the conflation of the grammatical and natural meanings of gender is responsible for the confusion of English speakers learning a foreign language with a “gender system.” “What,” the learner inevitably remarks to themself, “is so darn male or female about plates and bowls anyway?” The answer is nothing. You might as well call the noun classes “fizz” and “buzz” and remember that the fizz class contains women and also pie, and the buzz class contains men and also cake. The terms “feminine” and “masculine” are basically a convenient ancient mnemonic for a few members of each category, but they might as well be unfortunate homonyms for what good they do. (For example, in German, as is often pointed out, the word for “girl” is neuter, and in Irish, as is less often pointed out, the word for “girl” is masculine.) It happens that in English natural gender and grammatical gender often go hand-in-hand though, and we’ll get to why in a little bit.
But before that, I want to point out that the English third-singular pronoun system is a little more complex than it’s sometimes given credit for. There’s she/her for female people, he/him for male people, it for non-people (both s/he and it are used for babies and animals, depending largely on whether you consider them people or not), singular they/them for gender-nonspecific people, and depending on your speech community, xe/xem, ey/em, ze/hir, and a host of others for gender-nonspecific and/or nonbinary people. (By comparison, languages with robust grammatical gender systems, like French and Spanish, have feminine for (most) female people plus an arbitrary set of other nouns, masculine for (most) male people plus a different arbitrary set of other nouns, and as far as I’m aware, no gender-nonspecific or nonbinary options, although if anyone has heard of some do tell us in the comments.)
And it’s not just English: although a few languages (such as Arabic) also have gender distinctions in the second person, by and large, languages tend to make gender distinctions in the third person (okay, sometimes including the third person plural.) There’s most Indo-European languages with feminine, masculine, and sometimes neuter (although a few, like Danish, have neuter and common), Afro-Asiatic languages with just feminine and masculine, Dravidian languages with some combination of feminine, masculine, animate, and inanimate, Basque and Algonquian languages with animate and inanimate, Niger-Congo languages with 7-10 genders (people sometimes say these languages have up to 20 genders, but that’s if you count singular and plural separately, which we don’t do for any other language family.)
In fact, of the 257 languages surveyed in the World Atlas of Syntactic Structures, 112 of them have some system of grammatical gender. That’s 43%. (You should probably take a digression and go click around the fascinating graphs at WALS for a bit. I’ll wait.)
Of course, there are some 6000 languages in total, so this definitely isn’t all of them, and this percentage isn’t necessarily even a balanced one, but such a large and diverse number of people languaging reasonably independently of each other must have some reason for their actions. And, it turns out, they do.
Why is gender ever a thing?
What gives? We manage perfectly well in the first person, second person, and even the third person plural with a single, non-gender-specific pronoun, so why do we suddenly have a thousand blooming flowers of gender in the third singular?
Unlike with first and second person pronouns, the odds that you’re going to be talking about more than one third person are pretty high. Let’s look at what a sentence looks like if we don’t have several different words:
They told them that they liked their parents.
Does that mean that…?
a) 1 told 2 that 3 liked 4’s parents.
b) 1 told 2 that 3 liked 2’s parents.
c) 1 told 2 that 3 liked 1’s parents.
d) 1 told 2 that 1 liked 2’s parents.
e) 1 told 2 that 1 liked 1’s parents.
With gender, you can at least reduce the number of possible interpretations:
She told him that she liked her parents.
She told him that she liked his parents.
…and so on.
Not perfect, but at least a little better. And you can find lots of people on the internet having writing problems when they don’t have the option of using gendered pronouns to disambiguate between people.
Gretchen McCulloch is a linguist and the contributing editor of Slate's Lexicon Valley blog. She's not criticizing your grammar, but she's probably analyzing it. Gretchen has a master's in linguistics from McGill University and blogs daily at All Things Linguistic.