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  • A new pronoun. Again?

    There’s a new gender-neutral pronoun in town.  Hu – an epicene replacement for he and shehas been in the news, but so far it’s not on many people’s tongues, and while hu has appeared in print, it’s not likely to catch on any time soon.  

    Most of our pronouns are gender-neutral: I, you, we,they, me, our, them, us,it.  But there are two exceptions: he and she.  Normally this is not a problem, since he and she are incredibly useful words.  But sometimes the lack of an epicene third-person pronoun causes us to produce sentences like these:  

    (1)  Everyone loves his mother.

    (2)  Everyone loves their mother.

    (3)  Everyone loves his or her mother. 

    All express an excellent sentiment.  Nonetheless, some people object to the pronouns in them on cultural, grammatical or stylistic grounds.  

    (1) is an example of a generic masculine, both insensitive in that it excludes half the population, and ungrammatical, violating a rule which requires pronouns to agree with their antecedents in gender as well as number.

    (2) has non-gendered they, long common in English speech and writing, but a “violation” of the number agreement part of the pronoun rule, since words like everyone, while notionally plural, are grammatically singular.

    (3) is both singular and gender-inclusive, but the frequent use of he or she, him or her, his or hers is considered clunky.

    What we need, say the hu-users, is an epicene pronoun. We need to say "Everyone loves hus mother."  Or do we?

    For well over a century word coiners have been hard at work filling the gender gap with pronouns like heesh, ip, ith, hie, E, thon,hse, ve, per, and now hu.  And for well over a century, word users have been ignoring them.

    The English vocabulary is quick to change: ringtone, spyware, biodiesel, supersize, wave pool and manga are all recent additions to our word stock.

    But our pronoun system is stodgy.  The last “official” new English pronoun appeared in the 17th century, the possessive its (before that time, it served as subject, object, and possessive all rolled into one). 

    New pronouns have it tough.  Take the case of you guys.  The expression you guys has been around forever, but in the past two decadesit has exploded as a new second person plural.  That’s because you guys fills a need.    

    The pronoun you is both singular and plural.  That’s why many people say youse, you’uns, and y’all when addressing more than one person.  Unlike these words, you guys is not stigmatized as regional or nonstandard.  However, because it remains informal, and more likely to appear in speech than writing, you guys isn’t recognized by dictionaries or grammar books as a pronoun at all. 

    The creators of the modern hu consider it a shortened form of human.  But hu has a long history as a pronoun in its own right, going back to the Hebrew of the Torah.  Some scholars even argued that Hebrew hu was a gender-neutral pronoun used to refer to God (to be fair, current opinion suggests that hu was masculine).  

    Hu has also been around for years in English anyhu (sometimes anyhoo),an ironic variant of anyhow or anyway. More recently, we find hu in instant messaging and texting as an abbreviation for the relative pronoun who.

    Hu has a pedigree and it may fill a semantic black hole.  It’s just the kind of formal, rational word that appeals to grammarians and dictionary makers.  After all, its predecessors heesh and thon appeared in dictionaries despite the fact that nobody used them.  

    But none of the gender-neutral pronouns ever had legs, to use another new expression, and despite recent publicity, hu is certain to join my list of words that failed.  We already have singular they, and although it will have some serious and committed advocates, everyone else will greet hu with a laugh or a shrug.  As the texters might say, hu needs it, yu guyz?  

#1
phdwife@etex.net Nov 28, 2006 2:20 pm
As long as there are "hes" and "shes," there will be "his" and "hers."  Eliminate the sexes, and you can do away with those pesky gendered pronouns.  Until then, I'm afraid "his" and "her" are here to stay.  However, if grammatical rules are fluid (or largely ignored in many instances), then why don't we all agree to make "Everyone loves their mother" grammatically acceptable?  After all, AAVE and other dialectal forms have become a part of the lexicon, so instead of trying to wipe out gendered forms of speech, let's simply make heretofore ungrammatical speech okey dokey.
#2
bjs2033@columbia.edu Nov 28, 2006 3:56 pm
I've learned not to worry about whether or not grammarians approve of new pronouns; practical usage, and not esoteric proclamation, will continue to dictate the evolution of the English language...much to the chagrin of certain academics who seem bent on making English into an undead language.

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