Earlier this month I found myself involved in a … conversation with some so called allies who doubled down when I suggested that sexist language isn’t okay and inclusive language is the best way to show the people you claim to be allied with that you support them. This caused these allies, who were unsurprisingly white men, to lose their collective minds and accuse me of being what was wrong with the gaming community. They went on to state that they would not use an individual’s pronouns because they didn’t have to, they were strong allies and thus the people they were allied to should just know that they supported them.
One of the individuals in question (I simply cannot bring myself to call them “men” because that’s insulting to the men in my life who do the work of allies and take their commitments to those they support seriously, I’d like to call them “boys” but even my own 11 year old son understands these principles, perhaps I will call them “creatures” or “monsters”) claimed that words don’t matter, that words can’t hurt us and to this I say bullshit.
If words can’t hurt us, why does it hurt when someone calls us a hateful name? Why do people suffer from PTSD after emotional and verbal abuse? It’s right there on the tin “verbal abuse”. Words can hurt, they do matter, and we need to be better about policing proper usage of our words and language. Using a person’s name, pronouns, and other identifiers is one of the strongest shows of support an ally can provide to anyone. We learn the names and signifiers for people, pets, cars, planes, ships – it is common vernacular that vehicles are female, even Harry Dresden’s Blue Beetle is referred to as “old girl” – and weapons – who could forget Jayne’s best gun Vera? While I’m sure this practice is derived from a male driven space, I also rename all of my weapons in video games (and sometimes table top games) because I like to cause a little trouble with my girlfriends. But we’re supposed to believe it’s just to dang hard for some people to remember to call our family, friends, and strangers by the names and pronouns that they wish to be used. Moreover, we’re supposed to believe this lack of mental acumen from the same people who can memorize sporting team stats, gaming rules, or follow complicated storylines in television dramas. I’m back to saying bullshit here.
I am not the right person to tell you why and how singular they became a word that we have used in English for over 600 years. However, I have some great references to share with you, so that you too can be armed with examples of historic usage of singular they going back to the late 14th century. I strongly recommend starting with the Stroppy Editor article “Everything you ever wanted to know about singular they”, which also covers a bit about masculine pronoun preference.
While I am not a linguistics historian, I can say that I have studied German, Spanish, and Welsh in addition to English in an attempt to understand the influences of other language families on our rather hodge podge language. That study did provide me with some insights on grammar but also left me wondering why English doesn’t gender its nouns like the root languages. Turns out that Anne Curzan wondered the same thing, researched it, then wrote a book about the subject – “Gender Shifts in the History of English”. In short, when Old English met Old Norse their gendered nouns didn’t agree or even make sense in some cases, like “woman” being a neutral noun, so as the languages melded, the gendered portions of the nouns were left on the language cutting room floor.
Singular they has a long, deep historical use in English and surely other languages and we have never stopped using it. Now that there is a perceived political reason to use this word in a positive and supportive way, there are those who live and thrive in hate and discord digging in and refusing to be decent human beings. The Associated Press added singular they to the stylebook in 2017, game publishers have been using singular they with increasing frequency. Singular they is here for the long haul, there is no good convincing or compelling reason to not use it. We don’t have “preferred” pronouns, we are who we are and only we decide what that means to us, if someone tells you that you should use “he/him/his”, “she/her/hers”, “they/them/theirs”, or some other pronouns, then they have given you the road map to who they are to themselves, respect those directions and if you make a mistake, apologize and fix it.
Neutral words in Spanish
As a result of my discussion on the singular they, someone brought to my attention an NPR piece that I missed on the ungendering of the Spanish language. Individuals seeking language that represents them is not an English only issue, this is a humankind issue and one that’s not going to just go away because some may feel it’s inconvenient or doesn’t apply to them. The definition of empathy is being able to understand and share the feeling of others without having to go through what they are going through.
My challenge to you, dear readers, is to support those that need it now. Our trans, nonbinary (NB), and other nongender conforming friends deserve to be treated like the real people that they are, they deserve to hear their chosen names and pronouns when we talk or refer to them. More importantly, I challenge you to stand up to those who are willfully ignorant and hateful about not using respectful language for everyone. June is Pride Month, but don’t let this challenge stop on July 1st, this is a 24 hour/365 day challenge for everyone, whether you’re LGBTQIA+ or an ally. Be excellent to one another.