On Twitter, is it 'he or she' or 'they' or 'ip'?

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at gmail.com
Fri Mar 6 17:16:25 UTC 2009

On Twitter, is it 'he or she' or 'they' or 'ip'?

Linguists: Pronouns are more resistant to change than verbs, nouns

The city of Atlanta removed 50 "Men Working" signs last year

Some of the most ancient words are "I," "we," "two," "three," and "five"

The word "dirty" will go out of use as the way to say "unclean" in 750 years

By Elizabeth Landau

(CNN) -- Twitter users may value brevity in their messages, but that
doesn't mean they don't think about the social implications of

Is this sign sexist? Some say our language should be more inclusive of
both genders.

 "Can't we English-speakers just agree upon a gender-neutral pronoun?"
attorney Paul Easton recently Twittered. "Tired of PC grammar

Easton isn't alone. There have been at least 18 recent tweets about
the fact that English has no grammatically correct substitutes for
words like "he," "him," and "his" that do not have a gender implied.

Consider the sentence "Everyone loves his mother." The word "his" may
be seen as both sexist and inaccurate, but replacing it with "his or
her" seems cumbersome, and "their" is grammatically incorrect.

"I find myself spending a lot of time reworking or obsessing over
sentences to avoid sexist language, and wonder why we settled on these
burdensome conventions rather than popularizing a gender-neutral
pronoun," Easton said in an e-mail.

It turns out that an English speaker's mind can't instantly adopt an
imposed new gender-neutral system of pronouns, linguists say. A sudden
change in the system of pronouns or other auxiliary words in any
language is very difficult to achieve.

That's because pronouns are "function words," which connect words and
phrases but do not have "content" meanings. While new nouns like
"cyberspace" and verbs like "to google" become widespread fairly
quickly -- and people often come up with synonyms for "cool" -- it's
much more difficult to introduce or change function words. The mind
just won't incorporate them.

"The function words form a closed club that resists new members,"
Harvard University linguist Steven Pinker writes in his book "The
Language Instinct."

Proposals for gender-neutral pronouns in English began cropping up in
the 19th century -- not for reasons of equality, but for the sake of
grammatical correctness, said Dennis Baron, professor of English and
linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. More
than 100 such proposals, including "thon" and "ip," have arisen, and
none of them has stuck.

It wasn't until the 1970s that the issue became about equality for
women, Baron said.

Today, Internet forums such as Twitter are buzzing about why English
doesn't have a good substitute for "they," and what could be done
about it. Transgender groups have also taken an interest in the topic
-- in fact, the Trans at MIT at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
has a gender-neutral pronoun system in its Allies Toolkit.

If there were a deeply felt need for gender-neutral pronouns, they
would arise naturally and become widespread through popular culture
rather than through an educational or governmental mandate, Baron
said. But, for now, many people continue to write the phrase "him or
her." iReport.com: Sneak a peek at a 'Tweetup' gathering of Twitter

"Does it make our culture less sexist? Probably not. But it's a nice
gesture," he said.

Signs of sensitivity

While everyone knows that "men at work" means "people working,"
studies have shown that gendered words do make a difference in how we
perceive things, said Kathryn Campbell-Kibler, assistant professor of
linguistics at The Ohio State University.

"If you ask children to draw 'cavemen,' they do draw cave men," she said.

The issue has public policy implications, too. In response to a
complaint from a local magazine editor, the public works commissioner
for Atlanta, Georgia, replaced 50 "Men Working" signs with signs that
said "Workers Ahead" last year and encouraged contractors to use only
the gender-neutral signs, said spokeswoman Valerie Bell-Smith.
Replacing the signs cost less than $1,000 total, she said.

"There are many women who work in public works, and we want to be
respectful and sensitive to the fact that they're out there, too,
doing the hard construction work," she said. iReport.com: Share your
'tweeting' tips, tech obsessions

Cindy Scott Day, a writer from Granger, Indiana, who recently
Twittered about gender-neutral pronouns, said words like "mailman" and
"fireman" have fallen out of use, in favor of "mail carrier" and
"firefighter." The "biggest dilemma" is the gender-specific pronoun
(he or she) issue, she said.

The words that stay, the words that go

The pronouns "I" and "we" are some of the most ancient words,
supporting the idea that function words are very resistant to change.
New research from Britain suggests that these words, along with the
numbers one, two, three and five, have been fairly consistent for
thousands of years.

Researchers used a supercomputer to look at how words have been used
throughout the centuries across the Indo-European family, which
includes English, the Romance languages, the Slavic languages, and
Indian tongues such as Hindi.

An obvious example of the preservation of an ancient word is "two." In
Spanish it's "dos," in Slovak it's "dva," in Farsi it's "do" and in
Hindi it's "do" -- all of which are strikingly similar ways of
denoting the number two.

"We could time travel and have very limited conversation," said Mark
Pagel, evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading in the
United Kingdom, who led the study. "We really believe that we can
probably go back 20,000 years with those really, really old words."

Adjectives and verbs, on the other hand, change much more rapidly. The
first one to go extinct will be the adjective "dirty," which will
cease to be used to mean "unclean" in 750 years, Pagel said.

Other candidates for extinction are the verbs to "turn," "push,"
stab," "squeeze," and "throw." "To push" will likely go out of use in
850 years, Pagel said.

That's because these words have a very high rate of change, according
to the computer model. Try translating them into other Indo-European
languages, and you come up with very different results. For instance,
already there are 46 unrelated ways of saying "dirty" in the
Indo-European languages, a clear signal that in English it will fall
out of use relatively quickly


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