The “Ze” pronoun may not be one that you’ve heard a lot about, but that could change if linguist John McWhorter has anything to do with it.
In an op-ed for CNN, McWhorter argued that the time may be right to think about dropping the “he” and “she” gender qualifiers from the English language’s pronoun system and going instead with the more gender inclusive “ze” pronoun.
Before getting into the heart of McWhorter’s reasoning, here’s a little background from the Gender Neutral Pronoun blog.
While there are many contenders for a gender-neutral singular pronoun, this article will just deal with the “ze” pronoun since that seems to be the one that McWhorter is endorsing.
From the GNP.
“‘Ze and hir’ is the most popular form of gender-free pronoun in the online genderqueer community, derived from the earlier ‘sie and hir,’ which were considered too feminine/female-sounding since ‘sie’ is German for ‘she’ (among other things), and ‘hir’ was a feminine pronoun in Middle English. The current forms are still leaning on feminine, by using the same declensions as ‘she.’ ‘Hir,’ although it’s supposed to be pronounced ‘here,’ is read as ‘her’ by many people unfamiliar with the term, and the less-gendered alternative, ‘zir,’ along with ‘ze’ itself, often runs into problems when it follows a word ending in an ‘s’ or ‘z’ (or ‘th’) sound, sometimes sounding just like ‘her’ and ‘he.’ For example, read this sentence aloud: ‘As ze looked up at the stars, ze realized that this was zir favorite moment of them all.’ This isn’t as much of a problem with ‘ze,’ which doesn’t follow words ending in s/z terribly often, but the problem occurs much more often with ‘zir’ than it did with any of the declensions of ‘ne’ or ‘ve.'”
Incidentally, the GNP website endorses “Ne” in all its forms as opposed to the “Ze” pronoun.
[Image via Dylan Benito]
As for McWhorter, he believes that since language changes with the times, English speakers should consider giving more consideration to how they address individuals, who may not identify with their biological gender.
McWhorter argues that since we as a society “are opening up to the idea that binary conceptions of gender are unnecessarily rigid and don’t correspond to the self-image of a great many people, and even that people’s sense of their gender may not correspond to their biological sex,” the language should consider expunging gender-opposing words like “he” or “she,” which can come across as outdated or “even insulting” to many people.
One way he suggests of doing that: shame.
Using “Billy and I” as opposed to “Billy and me” as an example, McWhorter points out how English speakers are always quick to reprimand someone, who uses “me” as the subject of a sentence, but notes that this rigid “shaming” has only existed in the English language for a couple of hundred years.
“Now, I would hope that pronouns like ‘ze’ would not be imposed with the knuckle-rapping and contemptuous indignation with which the Billy and I rule has been promulgated,” McWhorter says, instead asserting that bringing it into conversation as a mode of “basic civility.”
“People must think of new pronouns as the proper thing to do, not as a stunt,” he adds.
The one consideration that McWhorter’s op-ed doesn’t touch on, however, is how creating a new pronoun for transgender or gender-neutral people could be conceived as insulting in itself, since many would prefer to be identified how they feel instead of how they were born biologically.
But what do you think, readers? Is there room for gender neutrality, such as a “ze” pronoun, in the English language? Would you use it? Sound off in the comments section!