It’s a Peculiar Little Language!

Most of us prefer either what we grew up hearing, or what sounds most euphonious to our ears.

I have always read a lot of British mystery, and it is perhaps for that reason that I often prefer verb formats that differ from the American. But (and in this way, I adhere to the “rules” of the English language, which seem to be that there really are no rules at all, since every rule has an exception), I’m not at all consistent in my preferences.

For instance, I dislike the British verb “leant” used in place of “leaned”, yet prefer “knelt” to “kneeled”. I much prefer the American “dove” to the British “dived”, and “scarfed” to “scoffed”—what, after all, does sneering and jeering have to do with gobbling up one’s food? And yet when it comes to “dreamed” vs. “dreamt”, I’m easy with each of them, using them interchangeably.

Perhaps it is the archaic flavor of the original British English which sets my preferences. I will always prefer the ages-old “wrought” to “wreaked”, while it’s probably best that no one question me on “shone” as opposed to “shined”!

I sometimes even extend my eccentric preferences to spelling. The spell-checker constantly reminds me that “theatre” is not American; I prefer “succour” to “succor”—and the French pronunciation to either, which in English sounds so unfortunately like “Sucker!”.

And that, perhaps, is the reason for my wacky taste in verbs: sound. One verb form simply sounds more euphonious or melodic to my ears than another. As I pointed out in “Mispronounced, Revisited” (October 19, 2018), there are words that I have mispronounced so long that the correct pronunciation sounds uncomfortable and wrong. The sound of a word, even as much as its form and spelling, is incredibly important to me.

Perhaps that is why I totally reject having the word “cisgender” applied to me. It is not that I rebuff the concept that I inhabit a body the gender of which, assigned to me at birth, I totally accept and practice; it is that cisgender is such an unattractive, ugly, uneuphonious word, reminding me of bullies in my childhood who called people sissies. I refuse to be called cisgender because I so dislike the sound of such an atrocious noun. Besides, it seems to me that if others can demand concessions to their gender identity, even going so far as to use the multiple pronoun “they” in place of the singular “he” or “she” — well, if others can demand such concessions to their preferences, then I have the right, also, to insist that I be called by my preferred descriptor. I am, therefore, either “birthgender”, or simply and straightforwardly female, just woman, just “she”, and not cisgender, thank you very much. You be whatever you want to be, and I will, also.

But then, not just the English language, but all languages, it seems, are having a hard time coping with and adjusting to the changes in social consciousness and recognition of gender fluidity. No doubt this mess will have shaken down in a generation or so, by which time I shall not be here to worry about it, in any case (she says with obvious relief).

Returning to the question of preferred verb forms, though, I have often found it hilarious when either British or American authors try their hand a writing a book or story set in one another’s countries. While familiar with the most egregious differences (i.e., lift vs. elevator; flat vs. apartment; chips vs. fries), each group invariably misses out on the more minor deviations, despite their best efforts. As I pointed out in a review of one novel, an American does not go on holiday, but on a vacation; nor do we go to hospital, but to the hospital. We eat cartons, not pots, of yogurt, not yoghurt, and are much more likely to cover our beds with a comforter than a duvet—although we might enclose that comforter in a duvet cover! We tend to eat candy, not sweets; desserts, not pudding, and we sprinkle that dessert with powdered or confectioner’s sugar, not icing sugar. It is these tiny differences that trip up an out-of-country writer every time, and make me wonder why they didn’t just track down an American colleague to scan their work and correct the more noticeable oddities. Nor does the shadow fall only on one side! While reading a novel set in Australia but written by an American writer, I noticed a few peculiarities myself, later collapsing in mirth at the snarky corrections helpfully provided by Australian reviewers of the book.

It’s no wonder that a non-native speaker of any language, no matter how fluent, is rarely able to converse in their new tongue with a comprehensive grasp of the nuances and subtleties understood by those who have spoken the language since birth–not when even those who learned the words in childhood sometimes find the whole darned process convoluted and ridiculous!

You can find the previous blog on the peculiarities of the English language, “Mispronounced, Revisited”, by scrolling below to the Archives. It was published October 19, 2018.

We Need a New Pronoun!

She, He, Ze or Te, that is the question.

I’ve just read (well, actually, skipped over reading most of) yet another story of some celebrity about whom I know little and care less who has come out as bisexual / transgender / asexual / lesbian / demisexual / gay / pansexual / cisgender / “I only have sex with Martians.  Green Martians, not purple ones”, or some other variation on the apparently-boundless spectrum of human gender and sexuality.  Well, here is me coming out with my reaction: Who the (multiple bad words deleted) cares?! 

Why is announcing this information to the entire planet not considered to be simply in bad taste, let alone the uttermost extremity on the far intergalactic end of the narcissism spectrum?  Why is it anyone’s business, except for the individual’s own partner? (Or partners, to be more likely accurate.)  Normalizing variations of human sexuality can no longer be considered an excuse for these vainglorious announcements, since “normal” comprises an extensive range these days, while those who do not accept such differences are never going to do so, anyway.

This most recent declaration included the expository remark that the individual in question wished to be known by the pronouns them or they.  And THAT, as much as anything, set my teeth on edge.

I fully understand and agree that those who’ve concluded they fall into a previously-unremarked gender category may feel disconcerted by referring to themselves using the gendered pronouns she or he.  But, frankly, in light of these unremitting public revelations,  we badly need a new, genderless pronoun added to the English language.

Language, not just spoken language but written language, changes. In the longer-ago-than-I-care-to-remember era in which I grew up, the only pronoun of general reference was “he”.  It didn’t matter than an entire magazine issue might be geared toward the female of the species; “he” was the pronoun of indeterminate reference used within its pages.  This was galling and irritating to all females everywhere; it was simply wrong.  I even endured one minister, God help me–pun intended, by the way–who insisted that we were all, male and female together He created them, Sons of God.  That’s right. Sons.  Only Sons.  No Daughters. Not even Children.  Just Sons.  (Here insert the sound of grating teeth…)

Eventually—I believe it may have been sometime shortly after the introduction of the prefix Ms. to replace Miss or Mrs.–one began seeing writing which used the phrase “he or she”.  Yes, always, always that damnable “he” first!  Or occasionally even “s/he”.  (As an aside, this could lead me spinning off into a discussion of why it is always the male noun now used when gendered nouns were once the norm; i.e., always actor, rather than actress—why is it always the male noun that becomes the norm?  But I suppose that’s a grumpy discussion for another blog post.)

In any case, despite these permutations, the pronouns of multiple reference were always “they” or “them”.  A student who misused the words they or them in writing that school essay was likely to see a blatant red circle on the sentence and a lowered grade.  Worse yet, students who had, as I did, the misfortune to attend a parochial elementary school were apt to have the Ruler of Death smacked across cringing knuckles.

Consequently, I will never be able to view the pronouns they or them as anything but pronouns of multiple reference.  An individual referring to her or his (Ha! Take that, Wielders of the Ruler of Death!) person using they or them will forever indicate to me that the speaker suffers from multiple personality disorder. It’s not just grammatically incorrect; it’s downright confusing.

The simple fact is that, if we are to accept, acknowledge and adhere to our new understanding of the fluidity of human gender while using the common pronouns of personal reference, then we  need new pronouns.  The English language is endlessly malleable. New words are added at an alarming rate. We have, after all, come up with new words to describe these many variations of human sexuality.  The word transgender; the uneuphonious cisgender, which I personally so dislike (more about that in a future blog post) —those words were not commonly used until at least the 1960s, or even much later.  Why, then, not new pronouns?  Why not words which genuinely eschew gender, and simply reference humanity?

I have seen Ze or Zhey used, as well as Te or Tey.  (I suppose it should actually be Ze or Zhey or Zheir or Zhem, or Te or Tey or Teir or Tem.)  I have no preference for either form, and a consensus could probably only be reached by whatever words see the most use—sort of like the antique VHS/Betamax debate.  And while learning to use brand-new words instead of trying to hammer old puzzle pieces into the picture in an attempt to make them fit might be disconcerting to many, it is actually the appropriate thing to do.  One should  genuinely bend with the winds of change, rather than try to break in a word that’s already seen gender-filled usage for generations.

Until that happens, though—until the English grammar texts and the grave arbiters of language correctness settle on a pronoun of indeterminate gender reference, I shall continue to use my preferred “she or he”, if only to avoid the Universal Ruler of Death.  I have very tender knuckles.

Liked this essay?  Then you might also enjoy “Who or Whom? That is the Question!”, from April 17, 2018.  Scroll down to the Archives link to locate it.