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.
Is feminine/masculine the only possible split you could have here? Nope: we’ve seen that other languages have animate/inanimate or various other gender systems. But if you’re looking for ways to divide humans into two equal-sized groups with a good probability of being represented in a wide variety of contexts, gender of the natural/social kind is a fairly effective means of doing so (although it’s definitely not perfect: more on this later.) It’s at least better than, say, tall people vs short people, or children vs adults, or if you’re Douglas Hofstadter writing satire, white people vs black people.
Algonquian languages actually have a particularly effective solution to this problem which doesn’t involve gender. Instead, they have two gender-nonspecific third-singular markers: one for whichever person is more central to the conversation, and the other for additional people that don’t matter as much, a system known as obviation. It’s probably unfeasible to adopt this system into other languages, but some days I really want to.
Why is gender a thing in English?
Okay, so we have some discourse-structure-y reasons for gender in general. Now for the timey-wimey part of our voyage: how did we end up with the system as it exists in English?
Let’s go way, way back to about as early as we can fathom English’s lineage, back to Proto-Indo-European, aka PIE, the painstakingly reconstructed ancestor of all the Indo-European languages from about 5000 years ago, long before written records. (People who tell you they’ve figured out what Proto-World used to look like are, alas, almost certainly selling snake oil.)
Historical linguists are pretty certain that Proto-Indo-European originally had two genders: animate and inanimate, and then shortly after Hittite branched off, later PIE split animate into the still highly prevalent feminine and masculine, whereupon we conventionally rename “inanimate” into “neuter.” (There remains a smallish camp who thinks that Hittite subsequently merged feminine and masculine into animate, which means that PIE would always have had three genders.)
Lots of Indo-European languages retain the 3-way distinction (hence why it was proposed in the first place), including German, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, and most Slavic languages, although some merged them into two again: the Romance, Celtic, and Hindustani languages divvied up the neuter nouns between feminine and masculine in various ways, whereas Danish and Swedish re-merged feminine and masculine into what’s now called “common,” although one could also say it’s Proto-Indo-European animate popping back up again. Several, including Persian, Armenian, and Bengali, lost grammatical gender entirely.
But all of these languages and plenty of non-Indo-European ones have grammatical gender in the fizz-buzz, pies-and-cakes sort of way, the kind where every noun in the language belongs to a more-or-less arbitrary class. It’s not that not having grammatical gender is completely weird: after all, lots of non-Indo-European languages also do just fine without reflecting gender anywhere other than in actual meanings of nouns. (I’m not aware of any languages that lack words for woman, man, etc. although I don’t speak all the languages.) But it is quite weird cross-linguistically to lack a grammatical gender system and yet still encode natural gender on one tiny set of grammaticalized words, aka your pronouns.
So what the hell, English?
Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on the comparative method here, because this does fall within the realm of recorded history. We even have an important date. *cue Simon Schama voice* 1066. The Norman Conquest.
Before 1066, English, aka Old English, aka Anglo-Saxon, aka Ye Olde Tea Shoppe, is pretty much your garden-variety Germanic language. We’ve got three genders (real, grammatical genders like modern German or Icelandic), a nice handful of cases, and names like Aethelred and Cyneburga (and also, incidentally, Clayton and Ainsley, so y’know, maybe I’m just really on trend.) There are some words borrowed from Danish and Latin, but simple borrowing is fairly minor as far as language change goes. The best-known example here is Beowulf.
Then in 1066, Willy B and the laden French swallows come along speaking Old Norman French, which is pretty similar to Old French, and has two grammatical genders, two cases, and names like Williame and Mathilde. And after a few generations of linguistic mixing we end up with Middle English, which has a pretty modern system of natural-gender pronouns and no more grammatical gender (or case) on the nouns. An example of Middle English is the Canterbury Tales (and here’s History of the English language with more dates and excerpts):
Wait, how do you add a language with three genders plus a language with two genders and get a language with zero genders?
Vewwy, vewwy carefully. Well, actually, not carefully at all, but rather through a highly sophisticated process of efficiency-maximization, which one could also call “random variation” and “laziness.” (It’s really hard for me to take seriously any claims about The Decline of English Among Kids These Days when you consider that if kids didn’t talk a bit differently each generation we’d still be speaking Pre-Proto-Indo-European.)
So what you really have is an extended period of several centuries in which many people were more-or-less proficient in both Norman French and Anglo Saxon, which in actual fact meant speaking the highly intermingled versions known as Anglo-Norman and Middle English. But words that belong to one gender in one language don’t necessarily belong to the same gender in the other. To use a modern example, the word for “bridge” in French, pont, is masculine, but the word for “bridge” in German, Brücke, is feminine. If you couple this with the fact that people had begun to stop pronouncing altogether the endings that indicate a word’s gender and case, you can see how these features became irrelevant for the language in general. Some people say there was also creolization, which would help explain a few things and overcomplicate some others, so I’ll leave that to these links.
You keep talking about this “case” thing
Yeah! Case is great, and I don’t have space to go into the details here, but basically it means changing the form of a word depending on whether it’s the subject, or the object, or the possessor, or sometimes other things. English doesn’t really do case anymore (except for possession: you could say that –’s is a case marker), except *drumroll please* on the pronouns! So we’ve got I/me/my, we/us/our, you/your, they/them/their, and yes, she/her, he/him/his and it/its. Sometimes we’re pretty confused about when to use which, but by and large we’ve managed to retain both case and gender on pronouns, despite having lost it on our nouns and the adjectives that agreed with them.
We don’t have gender on non-third-singular pronouns because we never had it there in the first place (and neither does, say, German: French does, but the really core bits of English grammar are Germanic, not Romance). But you can kind of see how the switch in what the singular, gendered pronouns referred to happened. At the point where you’re not making the distinction every time you use a noun, you or your grandchildren start to forget which arbitrary grammatical class they belong to, and it becomes easier to just use the inanimate it for any that don’t come with an obvious semantic clue, and restrict she and he to the really easy-to-remember feminine and masculine entities. (Perhaps if the categories had been called fizz and buzz, things would have happened differently, but that’s what we’ve got.) Relics of an older, more abstract system of grammatical genders still shine through occasionally, such as the use of she to refer to ships, countries, and abstract nouns like Liberty, which are often but not always feminine in related languages with robust grammatical gender, but for the most part, yeah, we’re at semantic pronouns.
The much-maligned but totally fine case of singular they
But pretty much as soon as people started using semantic cues rather than grammatical cues to pick which pronoun to use, they started being faced with the problem that semantics isn’t always a foolproof guide and yet sometimes you need a pronoun anyway. A solution which popped up, from as early as the 1300s, was to extend the uses of the third person plural pronoun they. Note that we’re still in Middle English, which was when we lost grammatical gender in the first place: these changes go pretty much hand-in-hand. Here’s some more Olde Tyme Writers:
And whoso fyndeth hym out of swich blame,
They wol come up . . .
—Chaucer, The Pardoner’s Prologue (c. 1395), quoted by Jespersen and thence in Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage.
Eche of theym sholde … make theymselfe redy.
— Caxton, Sonnes of Aymon (c. 1489)
There’s not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend
— Shakespeare, Comedy of Errors (1594)
Using the plural pronoun for a singular meaning is actually very common in English: the originally-plural you got extended to mean a formal, singular you and ultimately completely annihilated thou, and even we can be used as singular if you’re pretending to be the Queen or Helen Mirren.
But then, in the late 18th century, grammarians started recommending that people use he as a gender nonspecific pronoun because they was ostensibly plural, as part of the grand tradition of awkwardly shoehorning English grammar into Latin which has caused many of your present grammatical insecurities, and which I’m totally sure had nothing whatsoever to do with the patriarchy. Many excellent writers proceeded to ignore them and kept using singular they, just as English-speakers had been doing for some four hundred years by that point, although the more easily intimidated types (er, axe to grind, who, me?) and a whole bunch of style manuals did end up adopting generic he. That is, until they started facing pushback in the 1970s from people like the incredibly badass Kate Swift and Casey Miller, who you should go read about right now.
Recognizing that it’s useful to have a gender-neutral (aka epicene) pronoun but that many people are uneasy with both generic he and singular they, various creative people in both language reformer and nonbinary activist camps from the 1850s to the modern day have developed and advocated for an assortment of options. While some invented epicene pronouns never made it past 1850s obscurity (heesh) and others are deliberately more fanciful (bun, bunself), a few made it to relative popularity particularly in certain communities, including ey, eir, em (the Spivak pronouns) and xe, xir, xem, both with a variety of spellings. It’s pretty hard to change the most common words in a language though, so at the moment the only one that has really wide use is our old friend singular they.
Despite this occasional lingering sense of unease around it, these days reputable usage guides endorse singular they for a whole host of reasons and institutions from Facebook to the Canadian Government are increasingly accepting of it, so maybe in another couple hundred years we’ll have finally forgotten about this foolish vendetta.
So, why gendered pronouns in English? And why all the controversy about sometimes not gendering them?
A series of historical accidents, largely, reinforced by the practical consideration that it’s often useful to be able to distinguish between multiple third-singular persons, although it’s deuced frustrating to be forced to mark them for gender all the time.
Gretchen McCulloch is The Toast's resident linguist. She writes about pop linguistics and especially internet language for several places, including Mental Floss and her own blog, All Things Linguistic. She lives in Montreal, but actually on the internet: @GretchenAmcC