In 2013, I met with a group of LGBT activists in Wellington, New Zealand. During introductions, everyone gave their name and their preferred gendered pronouns. I believe this was the first time I was introduced to the concept of defining ones own pronouns, which has become more common all around the world. I find this growing trend problematic for a number of non-political reasons. Not only does it create an ability to offend directly within the language, but it defeats an important trait in the evolution of language, and thereby increases cognitive load in basic conversation. Language is representative of both things in our physical world and abstract concepts. However when you really break down natural language, it’s all metaphor. Defining pronouns for oneself breaks those metaphors and hinders our ability to relate to each other in our basic conversations.
Many modern languages seemed to have evolved around classifying things, in order to reduce cognitive load. We create a word for frog to classify all of those amphibious hopping creatures into one easily recognized term. Although we break down species, we don’t give names to each individual frog, and tend to only name those animals we keep domestically as pets. Pronouns help significantly with cognitive load, freeing us from the need to remember everyone’s names, such as when several different people introduce themselves at a party.
When people insist on having custom personal pronouns, they are increasing the cognitive load required for casual conversation. You don’t have to remember that person’s name, but they are expecting you to remember a piece of information about them; and refer to them by that piece of information. Language is representative. Much of language is metaphor, and there is some language theory that would argue all language is metaphor. Even for words representing a seemingly discrete object, like water or a chair, cannot exist in an of themselves. Those words require all the context surrounding those objects, for the human mind to represent and classify them. The sounds we speak, which are just disruptions to air and atmospheric pressure, and words we write, break down in our brains into recursive lookups in ways we still do not truly understand.
From a technical standpoint, English has been gaining simplicity over the past few centuries by removing parts of our language. The words thou and thy in Shakespeare and older translations of The Bible, along with their verb conjugations (e.g. “thou swimest”), no longer appear in common usage. These were pronouns for the informal version of you. Where as other languages have kept their formal and informal versions of you, English has dropped the informal over the years, leaving us with only one form of addressing someone else in the second person. One could even argue removing the tiers from you may increase equality in common conversation; removing a term that indicates where one views someone they are addressing within their own social hierarchy.
When we call something water, it is based on the representation we perceive, whether that is its texture and taste for a blind individual, or its color for those with sight. Words represent things and ideas. When we reach for nouns, they should come naturally as a way to represent what we perceive, either with our senses in the physical world, or as concepts in our heads. For this reason, changes in language tend to be slow. Pronouns in English are generally regarded as a closed class, that is a part of speech where additions are rare.
Taboos in Language
Up until now, dealing with offense in language typically involved either not using certain words, or using words more frequently to remove their taboo. In the early 2000s while I was in University, I heard a friend exclaim the words, “little faggot,” when her pet ferret tried to bite her. This word, faggot, a word we’d constant use on the playground when I was in Middle School, now felt incredibly wrong when I heard it. I suddenly realized it was a word I had stopped using, but I couldn’t remember a specific time or decision in my life where the acceptability of the word changed.
In contrast, there is George Carlin’s famous stand up 7 Words You Can’t Say On Television. In this routine, he rapid fires the words “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.” These were words that were taboo for broadcast television at the time, often reserved for film, if they were used at all. To contrast, the comedian Lenny Bruce was arrested years prior for using the words, “Cocksucker, fuck, shit and ass.” Between Bruce and Carlin, the taboo over these words began to wain1. Although we still don’t hear this kind of profanity on broadcast television, mostly due to the individual standards and practices of media companies, it’s become much more common in major streaming media productions.
Words either went away because we socially evolved to consider them intolerant, as is mostly the case with slurs, or the social taboos around those words simply diminished, such as with profanity. Trying to apply changes with the direction of specific pronouns, in contrast, is very problematic. It’s easy to stop using words in our common lexicon, but when people demand a specific pronoun, they essentially create a means, within the language itself, to offend someone. You can offend someone simply by using the word that represents how you see them, because it’s not the word that describes how they see themselves.
Synthesis Over Time
With seven billion people on this planet, I can empathize with the idea of being lost in an ocean of people. We desire to be unique in the same way we desire to be loved and accepted. Yet acceptance also involves the realization that human beings socially evolve gradually. From the perspective the dialectical method, adding or removing words from general use to reduce offensiveness is an extreme idea or thesis. The backlash to such ideas (such as this post and others like it) are an antithesis, and the eventual conclusions that English speakers converge on in the future will be a synthesis of new ideas of what is and isn’t acceptable.
Looking at the history written language, changes in language tend to follow a form of Zipf’s distribution. Many of the irregular verbs currently used in English are still irregular because they are very common. Less common verbs slowly changed in regular forms over the course of time, while words used more frequently continued to stay irregular2. An example is the verb wed, which is evolving in English to be used in its more regular form wedded on many signs and invitations for weddings. This slow convergence is an evolutionary trait of natural language, as language is not a road, computer, or legal system that can be replaced, but a complex and distributed tool of civilizations that is often shared by a large and slowly moving base of people in societies.
Some people with specific gender pronoun preferences may react indignantly when someone else refers to them with a pronoun they do not associate with. Others may politely correct those who misgender them. Although this is in the forefront of social issues today in terms of transgendered rights, historically it hasn’t been exclusively a trans issue. A man with a high voice might be called “ma’am” on a phone, and I’ve personally been mistaken for a women on a few occasions when I had long hair, at least until I turned around. Perhaps an angered response shouldn’t be the first reaction when another human being is simply trying to represent what they perceive into a form of verbal communication. After all, it’s unlikely people intend offense.
I personally believe that asking and declaring expected pronoun usage in introductions and casual conversation is a bad idea. This doesn’t come out malice for those who want to be addressed differently or political drives or even moral reasons. It comes from a technical perspective on how the English language has evolved and how we currently use it as a society. I could be wrong of course. Our future could involve a version of our language where pronouns become an open class and we become a better society because of it. We could also turn back to previous language iterations and take the easier route of removing pronouns, collectively moving towards only one pronoun for all genders. However, the largest legitimate concerns I have with customized pronouns are that they make a language less representational of ones own perception, as well as increase the ability to cause offense in simple speech.