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  • Yo! A new gender-neutral pronoun from, of all places, Baltimore

    Yo, a new gender-neutral pronoun, has been popping up in an unlikely spot, the hallways of a few Baltimore schools. Or maybe Maryland middle schools arent such unlikely incubators of new words after all, since theyre full of teen-agers whose linguistic inventiveness hasnt yet been beaten out of them by grammar lessons and standardized tests, teenagers who love to play with language and coin ever-newer words just to prove to adults that were never going to get it, never in a million years will be as cool as they are now. (What they dont know is that we invented cool, or our parents did, but hey, whatever.)

    The story of yo is pretty cool, though. Baltimore teachers taking a linguistics class reported that some of their students seemed to be using “yo” spontaneously as a gender-neutral pronoun, one that refers both to males and females. As in the example, "Yo threw a thumbtack at me," which is so middle school. So they decided to investigate the phenomenon. It turns out that, so far as the kids are concerned, “yo” is either something you use, or something you’re totally ignorant about. Same goes for the teachers: either they hear some of their students saying “yo” instead of “he” or “she,” or they’ve never heard the term at all. It’s like yo-users inhabit a parallel universe, one with its own language.

    Yo is a gender-neutral pronoun because it’s used both for males and females. As the name implies, gender-neutral pronouns are ones which contain no indication of the gender of their referent. In English, all our first and second person pronouns are gender neutral: I, me, my, mine, we, our, ours, you, your, yours. None of these words says anything about sex. Third-person plural pronouns are gender neutral too: they, their, theirs. Get it?

    But for some crazy reason, our third person singular pronouns ooze sex: he is masculine; she is feminine; it is neuter (OK, maybe neuter doesn’t ooze sex, but it can dream, right?).

    For a couple of centuries, English speakers who had too much time on their hands have wondered why there’s no gender-neutral, third-person singular pronoun. And a few of them decided that instead of getting a life, they would fill the semantic black hole in our pronoun system by inventing a new word. Actually, somewhere between 80 to 100 gender-neutral pronouns have been invented since the 1850s, words like ne, ip, thon, E, zie, and hiser. Lately we’ve seen hu gain some traction.

    Pronoun cartoon


    In the early days, the motivation behind gender-neutral pronouns had nothing to do with sexual equality, sensitivity, or political correctness. It was a matter of correct grammar, not social activism. According the rules of grammar, the kind beaten into us in school, pronouns are supposed to agree with their referents – the words they stand for – in gender and number. But when the referent is singular, and the gender includes both males and females, or is unknown, common practice had been to use the masculine. (Pay attention. This will be on the test.)

    The example I always use to illustrate this is “Everyone loves his mother.”

    Everyone is singular (the “one” at the end of the word gives it away), though it implies that we’re talking about more than one person, so while it’s singular in form, it’s plural in meaning. That’s a recipe for confusion and rule-breaking if there ever was one.

    But grammatical purists back in the 1870s argued that using his with everyone may agree in number, but it doesn’t agree in gender. His is masculine, but everyone belongs to a category approximately half of whose members are women and girls. So while most people (and back then, despite first wave feminism, this actually included women and girls, most of them) were content to use the masculine pronoun as a generic, the grammarians felt that doing so was a violation of their Hippocratic oath to do no harm (amazing, really, considering that most people think of grammarians as malevolent beings whose sole purpose in life is to torture others for using language they had no idea was incorrect).

    Using the available gender-neutral plural pronoun, they, wasn’t much better than the generic masculine. Everyone loves their mother, which is what most everybody says when they’re speaking, brings us gender-agreement, but it violates number agreement.

    So to restore balance to our troubled tongue, the wordsmiths gave us a slew of gender-neutral pronouns. Some of them, like heesh, hiser, himer, have been invented several times over. A couple (heesh and thon) have even appeared in dictionaries.

    But to no avail: what seemed win-win to the coiners of these words proved in the short run to be lose-lose for speakers of English. I call these gender-neutral pronouns “words that failed” because none of them ever succeeded. Invented words, words created in vitro, test-tube words, have a tough time surviving when they’re released into the wilds of natural language. A few are nurtured and bred by their keepers (gender-neutral pronouns are popular now, for example, among sci fi fans and in some transgender communities), but outside of such hothouse environments most of these lexical implants are rejected by their hosts. They tend to shrivel up and die.

    So the question is this: is “yo” different? Did yo arise naturally as part of the language of a group of teenagers, and if so, could it be more successful than the coined pronouns that came before? Yo seems to have emerged from the greeting that we associate with Philadelphia, “Yo, Adrian.” And it has probably been influenced by the second-person pronoun "Yo" in the common idiom, "Yo mama." Baltimore isn’t that far from Philadelphia, depending on the traffic, and the emergence of yo as a pronoun seems natural, not crafted by some demented English teacher (before the English teachers reading this get too exercised, remember that I too am an English teacher).

    So yo is natural, like yoghurt, but is it good for us? That remains to be seen. Right now yo is getting the kind of attention we usually reserve for the sighting of animals once thought to be extinct, or ones like the abominable snowperson, who never existed in the first place. Baltimore teenagers use it, but they also use the traditional pronoun set, sometimes in the same sentence: “Yo put his foot up.”

    It may be that yo will share the fate, not so much of other gender-neutral pronouns, but other teenage slang: it will flourish for a while, and then be replaced by something even cooler.

    Plus, while yo is natural enough, and its function as a gender-neutral reference seems well-documented (and yes, we still need a gender-neutral pronoun), my guess is that yo will be a self-limiting phenomenon. That’s because, despite the Bush administration’s push for abstinence, it’s not natural to expect a bunch of teenagers to give up sex in real life, and so far as real language is concerned, and they’re certainly not going to give up talking about sex for more than a sentence or two, either.

#1
ryan.skinnell@asu.edu Jan 9, 2008 11:56 am
Dennis, as always, your posts are most informative and engaging.  One point of note, however, is that first-wave feminism of the Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony sort was around for at least two decades before 1870, generally seen as arising in 1848 at the Seneca Falls convention.  Most of the women involved in the Woman's Movement were fighting for enfranchisement, equal rights legislation, and education throughout the last half of the 1800's, so the universal male pronoun was, if an issue at all, a secondary or tertiary one. 
#2
maureenroen@mac.com Jan 9, 2008 10:45 pm
<>Interesting! I wonder if the usage could also be influenced by the Spanish first-person pronoun yo? For English speakers who are exposed to a lot of Spanish but don't know much of the language, "yo" jumps out as being easily recognizable as a pronoun, possibly because it sounds quite like "you" in English. In fact, some English speakers who then use it might even think they're saying "you" rather than "I," making it feel like a natural substitute for any pronoun.

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