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Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Newspeak of gender-neutral pronouns

Rather than reducing the English language to pale neutrality, let’s enrich it.

In our brave new world of sex and gender experimentation, the English language is teetering on the edge of a lingusitic precipice. We lack names for the new relationships which are being created.

Take, for instance, 24-year-old Kyle Casson, a gay supermarket worker in England. He was desperate to have a child (but not, obviously, a wife). His mother Anne-Marie volunteered to be a surrogate mother for his baby. So Kyle shopped around for a donor with the right hair and eye colour and organised fertilisation and implantation at an IVF clinic. Eight months ago, 46-year-old Anne-Marie gave birth to Miles by C-section. It is believed to be the first time that a single man has had a baby through surrogacy in the UK.

The relationships of these three people are tangled, to say the least. Anne-Marie is the mother of Kyle, and both the mother and the grandmother of Miles. Miles is both the half-brother and the son of Kyle. Kyle is both the son and the ‘husband’, or at least partner, of Anne-Marie, who is already married to Alan Casson, who is Kyle’s step-father. We have no words for these relationships and they are becoming more and more common.

The kneejerk response has been a conservative one: reduce the number of nouns and pronouns. This is the course taken by the University of Vermont in the US, as the New York Times reported recently. In an effort to accommodate the frustrations of transgender students, it has created a new pronoun, ‘ze’, for students who do not want to identify as either male or female. Students can now choose their preferred pronoun in dealing with the university bureaucracy: the traditional he or she, ze, they, or ‘name only’.

But is this really the way forward? No doubt it will meet stiff resistance from people who remember that the aim of Newspeak, the language of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, was to have as few words as possible:

‘Relative to our own, the Newspeak vocabulary was tiny, and new ways of reducing it were constantly being devised. Newspeak, indeed, differed from most all other languages in that its vocabulary grew smaller instead of larger every year. Each reduction was a gain, since the smaller the area of choice, the smaller the temptation to take thought.

‘Ultimately it was hoped to make articulate speech issue from the larynx without involving the higher brain centers at all.’

So I think you will agree that ze simply won’t cut the mustard.


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