Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Epicene pronouns — now even crazier

Late last year, I learned (first from Ben Zimmer on Language Log, here, with a reference there to a post Dennis Baron's Web of Language, here) about a new epicene pronoun (that is, a gender-neutral replacement for he/she), yet another of roughly a bazillion ill-fated proposals along these lines. And apparently once a story hits the wire, it never dies … our CapTimes ran the same basic story yesterday (here's a version from another paper, since the CapTimes doesn't link it).

This proposal is for
hu, "pronounced huh", presumably [hʌ], which "trips off the tongue easily". (Granted, that may have doomed my own earlier proposal for epicene [qʉʕi] with a high falling tone and creaky voice, spelled kooky.)

My point is not to revisit the clinical insanity of pushing new epicene pronouns — it's almost as smart as shipping pallets of $100 bills to a war zone. Baron covers this point wonderfully, and he's quoted at length in the article. Besides they/them/their works just fine, as Ben and millions before and after him have noted. Nor do I need to moan about the quality of press coverage about language and how the press loves to roll the same stupid stone up the same stupid hill every day ad infinitum. Language Log does that on an ongoing basis.

No, I just want to consider the heart of this passage:
The latest such pronoun comes from DeAnn DeLuna, who teaches literature at Johns Hopkins University. Her creation, "hu," would replace he, she, him, her and his. Because it's just one word, unlike an entire set of pronouns, DeLuna says it's easier to use than other gender-neutral pronouns.
First, let's assume that her in the list is doing double-duty, indicating oblique and genitive, with hers just left off the list. (And I'll get to reflexives in a minute.) I figure that's legit, since these folks are surely thinking in terms of distinct sound shapes and not in cells in paradigms.

This is a dramatic proposal, not for eliminating gender differences (which it does only partially), but for obliterating case distinctions: Most English personal pronouns come in sets of at least three — let's call them nominative, oblique and genitive, with 'dependent' and 'independent' forms for some genitivies. (Be patient, the fourth set, reflexives, are still coming.) This chart uses '—' to indicate the absence of distinct forms for oblique forms for some pronouns.
Finally, let's acknowledge that most North Americans have a second person plural in spoken usage.
  • First person, sg. and pl.
    • I, me, my/mine
    • we, us, our/ours
  • Second person, sg. and pl.
    • you, —, your/yours
    • y'all, —, y'all's / you guys, —, you guys's [among other variants]
  • Third person, sg. and pl. (with three genders in the sg.)
    • she, her, her/hers
    • he, him, his
    • it, —, its
    • they, them, their/theirs
DeLuna, if the article has it right and I've understood the article, proposes:
  • First person, sg. and pl.
    • I, me, my/mine
    • we, us, our/ours
  • Second person, sg. and pl.
    • you, —, your/yours
    • y'all, —, y'all's / you guys, —, you guys's [among other regional variants]
  • Third person, sg. and pl. (with two genders in the sg.)
    • hu
    • it, —, its
    • they, them, their/theirs
I'm assuming DeLuna wants to keep to the current standard with regard to second person plurals. Otherwise, she'd presumably do what most of us do and use the plural here and avoid the whole freakin' problem. Besides, she's a writing teacher, so I'm guessing that she's generally heavily invested in Standard Language Ideology, trying to change a norm and the article certainly implies that she's eager to enforce her views.

Overall, that is one weird pronominal system. Third singular would actually still keep a gender distinction — let's call it animate versus inanimate — and the animate pronoun would have no inflection at all, less than even English nouns (cf. hu wrote a book; I saw hu yesterday; that's hu car parked in the driveway, but the table vs. the table's size), while the inanimate would have genitive vs. non-genitive distinction. We can't discount the possibility that 's is being regarded as a suffix that attaches to pronouns, so that this last one would be hu's car. (If it's s-less, the genitive use of hu matches her in r-less dialects, by the way.)

Of course, if the exclusion of
hers wasn't a mistake in the article, we'd have a feminine form just for the genitive, but sensitive to the dependent/independent distinction.

So now, at last, what about those reflexives? That's an issue in the Epicene Wars and it's not mentioned here, but if you don't use hu for reflexive third singulars, you haven't solved the problem at all. So, I imagine we get:
  • A: Hank's head sure is all banged up.
  • B: How'd hu hurt hu, anyhow?
  • A: Hu got hacked in hu hockey game.
Say that five times fast.

But maybe the closing quote from DeLuna gives away something:

I'm interested in people having fun with language," she said. "The idea is just to communicate.
Can I join the fun? Let's add inverse marking, by adding d'oh after a sentence.

Update, 10:35 am: See Ben Zimmer's comment on this post. I considered
the interpretation he suggests DeLuna intends for whatever the minimal time is for the human brain to consider something, namely that we keep all of our current pronouns and add hu only for the new epicene slot. In fact, if DeLuna is following her own rules, that is her intent, since she refers to Dennis Baron using 'his'. That means the article got things wrong — hu only replaces he/she, etc. specifically when we need to be gender-neutral. That makes the whole thing far less interesting, but it would create an ever odder paradigm:
  • Third person, with four gender/animacy distinctions in the sg., none in the pl.
    • she, her, her/hers
    • he, him, his
    • hu
    • it, —, its
    • they, them, their/theirs
I suppose this works in terms of features: We've got the usual +masc./+anim., +fem./+anim., -anim. in the singular, along with hu as +anim, -masc./-fem.? Does that work?

Since Cassidy mentions Salish in her comment, I'm wondering what language shows anything like this kind of system, in terms of gender/animacy and gaps in the paradigms. Not Klingon, right?

6 comments:

Ben Zimmer said...

As I understand the proposal (not that it makes much sense to me either), he/him/his and she/her/her(s) would remain in the pronominal paradigm, but hu would take over whenever a gender-neutral pronoun was needed (regardless of case distinction). Here's a genitive example from DeLuna's interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "The liar is hu own worst enemy."

Cassidy Rasmussen said...

The crazy thing about the 'Epicene Wars' in my experience is the inability of English teachers to just let go of their prohibition against singular 'they' in writing.

I knew a member of an English department at one time who was extremely concerned about sexist language and really wanted an epicene pronoun but simply admitted that it was beyond her abilities to not correct singular they.

For all who want an epcience pronoun in English I challenge you to just put your red pens away and/or your prescriptive judgments against singular they.

On a completely random note... the 'word verification' for this post was 'tolnxcio' which looks like Salish to me...

Mr. Verb said...

Yes, this IS the right approach: Put the red pen down. Now. Hands in the air. Walk away slowly. Slowly.

But if the BRITS can use the plural here, surely that carries some weight with prescriptivists. Not.

Funny you mention the word verification — One more vowel and it'd be a perfect southern Mexican placename. I actually started this blog basically because a blog I read regularly uses it and had a weekly contest for a while asking people to send in and define the forms they got. May have to do a post on that … .

Cassidy Rasmussen said...

This is a beautifully productive procrastination thread so here are a few more things to add to the fire...

(1) Harley and Ritter's Language (2001:482-526) paper deals with pronoun structures but is a bit light on the gender issue. One relevant aspect is on p. 514 where they refer to some of Greenberg's Universals (for what they're worth) and state "A language never has more gender categories in non-singular numbers than in the singular" which is one accurate aspect of the proposed pronoun system...we should still take away their red pens though...

(2) In the complete spirit of procrastination, word verification , slang and many other things, I give you this link...

http://www.collegehumor.com/picture:1763911

Mr. Verb said...

Yeah, this definitely fits some generalizations from typology, like the one from Greenberg you note, and I guess some pronoun systems are ridden with odd gaps (case, whatever). Third singular just seems kind of heavy already and to add a whole new (sub) paradigm there with yet new case patterns is odd.

Man, does everybody on the planet know Harley & Ritter cold, or what?

Good link on verification -- maybe I WILL post on this topic!

Joe said...

OK, let's take your last interpretation as the right one. How easy would it be for well-meaning users of English to master this system in daily usage? I think a lot of people use a sort-of-generic 'he' sometimes without being aware of it. And I know I would struggle mightily with getting rid of the third plural for this purpose.

I wonder what her plans for that/which usage are? So, it's "easy", but "I've not quite worked out all the hitches."