The Singular Case for “They”

In the last century, back when I first began daring to think of myself as a writer, I thought I knew how gender was supposed to play out in language. I had grown up speaking Tamil at home. It’s a language that is set up quite logically, with a neutral gender assigned to inanimate objects. I’d struggled mightily with Hindi, in which common nouns are gendered, there is no neutral gender and you’re just supposed to know that a chair (कुर्सी), for example is feminine and your glasses (चश्मा) are masculine.

IMG_2066But I thought I knew the rules in English. Pronouns were supposed to correspond to the referent, whether that was male, female, or genderless. When you dealt in plurals, however, the male, rather illogically, was supposed to embrace the female. That posed a minor problem for me, if truth be told. Still, (we’re talking about America in the 1980s here) I was determined to follow the rules in order to be recognized as literate. In order to make people stop saying to me in surprised tones, “You’re from India? But you speak such good English.”

[Brief aside: Rule-following did not help that cause. Some people still say that to me. These days I reply: “You don’t do too badly yourself!”]

So I spent a lot of time dancing around the noun-pronoun-gender minefield.

Then I read Ursula Le Guin’s afterword to The Left Hand of Darkness. And realized that the little unease I’d always felt about that embrace situation–well, maybe it wasn’t so irrational after all. Men have spoken for women for centuries, not to mention embracing them without asking permission. How natural it was then for the language of Empire to reframe suppression and erasure as inclusion.

Still, whenever I could, I tried to write in plurals. I’d torque myself into twisty sentences, or clip them all into many short ones, in order to make that gender connection unnecessary. But it was when I was reading students’ work that I really began to doubt my own adherence to a rule that had begun feeling more and more archaic to me. Susa Silvermarie’s critical thesis on gender fluidity eventually led me to question, among other things, some of the building blocks of grammar that I’d taken for granted.

In 2016, NPR offered this update:

Talk about belated recognition. At its meeting in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, the American Dialect Society voted to make the 600-year-old pronoun “they” their word of the year for 2015. Or more precisely, a particular use of that pronoun that grammarians call the singular “they.” This is the “they” that doesn’t care whether it’s referring to a male or female. As in “If I get a call, tell them they can call me back.” Or “Did someone leave their books here?”

As ordinary as it is, that use of “they” has always been a bit disreputable — you might say it, but you wouldn’t want to write it down. But now it’s a pronoun whose hour has come.

So there. I’m burying my gender pronoun hatchet at last. If anyone calls me on it, tell them to worry about something else instead.

How about apostrophes?

 

Landscapes of Language

I am a child of lost language. Well, it wasn’t the language that was lost–it carried on doing fine without me. I was the lost one.

It didn’t have to be that way but that’s how it turned out. Born into a Tamil-speaking family. Never studied the language. An itinerant family, we moved often. It wouldn’t have been practical. Spent some years distancing myself, as well, in an adolescent pursuit of cool. Now I can speak Tamil but I’m barely literate. So–no excuses. Just facts.

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English gave me the ticket to where I am now, a writer of books for young readers, publishing in what is unquestionably the world’s bridge language. But then there is the literature of my ancestors, tangible in objects like this one but in many ways opaque to me.

For years I blamed myself. Spent some time pretending it didn’t matter. Spent some time being angry with the system that created the linguistically stranded, like me. And now  as I enter the 6th decade of my life, maybe I’m finally learning to come to terms with it.

So Iona Sharma’s article rang many bells for me. And it’s beautifully written. Here’s a snippet:

Gaelic will never have monolingual speakers again. My native language is gone forever. Relearning it is possible; decolonisation of the mind is possible. But I have been changed, first by the forgetting and the relearning. What is left is post-glacial, a landscape irrevocably altered.

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I could tell myself that postglacial is still a landscape. And every landscape has its own beauty.