Wednesday, June 27, 2012

X is for Xe

I was dreading the letter X—well, not dreading, exactly, but wondering what on earth I could do that was different from what others have done or might do. Tall order for a letter that begins only around 137 English language words.

So, I took a punt and chose something slightly offbase: Xe. Among other things, it's an invented gender-neutral pronoun, which means a pronoun not associated with any gender. In English, the usual gender-neutral term is now “it”, but ordinarily only used in the third person, like “its” (compared to his or her).

This is understandably offensive to intersex people and to transgendered people: After all, no human should ever be called an “it”. There are also times when we don’t want to refer to a specific gender for other reasons.

Modern English also tends to favour the universal “he”, at least in what we might call “formal English”. Obviously that’s not always appropriate, either, and the common alternative, “one”, doesn’t work in all situations—plus it sounds rather prissy.

So, what are the alternatives?

Surprisingly for us speakers of Modern English, our language once had gender-neutral terms. Middle English dialects had two gender-neutral pronouns, "ou" and "a". These terms died out as the language grew and changed, though other languages still have gender-neutral pronouns. For some reason, no one has suggested a return to our linguistic history.

One trend has been to invent pronouns, and Xe is one of them. To use the Wikipedia examples, it would be used this way: Xe laughed, I called xem, Xyr eyes gleam, That is xyrs, Xe likes xemself. If all that sounds a little absurd, well, I wouldn’t disagree, though I’ve seen Xe used on the Internet, mainly in forums and on blogs.

I think that this situation is already taking care of itself as English evolves: The answer, increasingly, is they. More and more people are using “they” to mean singular non-specific gender. Many of us do it in spoken English all the time, I do, and I also use it fairly often in written English, too.

So, while correct formal English might say, “every shopper should know what he wants,” we often say instead “every shopper should know what they want.” In my case, I’ll often re-write the sentence to avoid crimes of grammar (“shoppers should know what they want,” for example), I don’t always—sometimes I actually prefer a technically incorrect sentence construction in order to avoid invoking a gender I don’t mean to, as well as avoiding artificial and stuffy formal language.

I love language, and I adhere to the rules—but, not surprisingly, I’m more than willing to break those rules when I feel it’s justified. I don’t use Xe, or any of the other invented pronouns, but I wouldn’t rule it out; sometimes I DO like to be contrary for its own sake.

Among those other things, Xe can also refer to the name chosen to replace the infamous Blackwater private mercenary company. I posted about Jeremy Scahill’s expose on Blackwater back in January 2008. The company is now known as “Academi” precisely because it’s boring, as they hope the company now is.

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Roger Owen Green said...

I Just CAN'T write "every shopper...their", although it does slip into conversation occasionally (beats saying "he/she").

ROG, ABC Wednesday team

chubskulit said...

I am noturious for wrong grammar lol. Wish I could be as clever as you.

Rose, ABC Wednesday Team

Leslie: said...

I'm a stickler for correct grammar and cringe when I see it misused. I like your eXamples.

abcw team

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

Roger: I wouldn't usually do that, either, but I think I have in emails at least, and maybe sometimes elsewhere (like this blog), Trouble is, it's mostly unconscious.

chubskulit: In my case, it's just constant repetition: The more one reads and writes, the better one becomes. (and that's another way to avoid gender-specific pronouns).

Leslie: I'm basically a stickler, too (just ask some of my coworkers over the years!), but sometimes I'm a grammar scofflaw.