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January 23rd, 2008

A new but unhelpful gender-neutral pronoun

by Barbara Wallraff

The latest news from the language front is that teenagers in Baltimore have invented a gender-neutral singular pronoun: “yo.” When I learned of this, I was fascinated -- for about 10 minutes. Then I started to get upset.

I was fascinated at first because English needs such a pronoun, or a set of them -- words to fill in the blanks in sentences like “These days, an English teacher sure has ... work cut out for ...” Thank goodness, an unspecified teacher isn’t automatically /him/his” anymore. “She/her/hers” is no more equitable as an alternative, though. Another possibility is “they/them/their” -- but any English teacher who’s satisfied with this option is in the wrong line of work.

English-speaking people have been searching for and inventing gender-
neutral singular pronouns for at least 150 years. Among the many that have been proposed are “ne,” “thon,” “hesh,” “he’er,” “shey,” “e,” “hisorher” and the unpronounceable “s/he.” Unfortunately, none of these coinages has caught on outside small subcultures. So people keep inventing new ones.

Why does it upset me if kids in Baltimore came up with their own solution to the pronoun problem? Well, for one thing, that isn’t what they did. Their teachers, having discovered their students’ use of “yo,” went on to document how the kids used it. Two of the examples the teachers collected were “Yo is tuckin’ in his shirt” and “Peep yo.” In the first example, note the word “his,” which makes it clear that “yo” here isn’t an unspecified person -- it’s a particular male. The second example means “Look at him (or her).” Out of context, we can’t tell the sex of the person being referred to, but obviously, whoever was speaking was referring to someone he or she could see -- another particular person of known gender. In neither case do we have an unspecified person, and therefore “yo” isn’t that holy grail of pronouns our entire culture has been seeking.

Even so, it might be a good thing to have a pronoun that refers to individuals without regard to their sex. Transgendered people and activists of certain stripes make this case, and I’m not arguing the contrary. But “yo” isn’t a good candidate for this job either, because, according to the collected evidence, the word has a slightly disrespectful tone. Surely we don’t need a new pronoun that’s equally disrespectful of everyone. Furthermore, anyone who thinks those kids came up with “yo” in order to promote gender equity is even more naively utopian than I am.

Kids have always had private languages that they use with one another. The 1920s equivalent of “Peep yo” was “Get a load of that!” In the 1940s, it was “Check it out.” But -- is it just me? -- what the hell are today’s teachers doing admiringly documenting this stuff? Instead, shouldn’t they be working as hard as they can to impart the skills their students will need to function -- let alone succeed -- in the wider world? The ability to use standard English may be the most valuable skill of all. If those kids can switch effortlessly to “Look at him” when they’re talking with the teacher or another mainstream authority figure, I withdraw all objections. But somehow, I doubt they can. And if they can’t, what kind of future is in store for them? I can hardly bear to imagine.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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