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Grammatical gender is the concept, found in about a quarter of the world's languages.
That you can sort all nouns into male or female. La or le in French. Der, die, or das in German -- the das is for neuter.
In Zande, which is found across a few countries in Central Africa, there are four grammatical genders: human male, human female, animate, and inanimate.
There are even occasional languages.
With even more complicated systems than that.
Now, I'm a descriptivist linguist. I am not meant to judge whether language features are good or bad.
I'm just meant to describe what they do. But grammatical gender is just such a stupid concept.
I sort-of hate myself for saying that, but it's really silly.
Oh, that's a computer, (in) French? So it's male. All computers are male.
And that's a bottle, is it French? So it's female? All bottles are female? Really? Should I dress it up in a friggin' pink apron and give it a rolling pin as well?
(Descriptivism. Don't judge).
I'm exaggerating, but I genuinely have tried searching the literature for any advantages of grammatical gender.
There's only one vaguely convincing argument, which is that it can help clear up ambiguities and speeds up recognition of words by a small amount.
Okay. But three-quarters of the world's languages manage just fine without it. And meanwhile, grammatical gender causes a heck of a lot of problems.
First problem: it affects the way you think. When asked to describe a key, German speakers -- who classify key as male -- were likely to associate it with "hard," "heavy" and "jagged".
Whereas Spanish speakers -- who classify key as female -- were more likely to say it was "golden," "intricate," and "little". That also says a lot about gender roles in society, but my word, that's something I ain't qualified to talk about.
Second problem: it's really clunky. Job adverts in languages with grammatical gender have to either use both terms or a half-assed marker to clarify that they're asking for anyone.
Which brings me to English. English doesn't have grammatical gender -- it used to, in Old English.
We've still got a couple of words like blond and blonde that change depending on gender, but we don't have to worry about having to file everything into one box or another.
But what we do have is the third-person pronouns "he", "she", and "it". And that's a problem.
If I want to refer to you, the viewer, I have to use the pronoun "he or she".
Which is ludicrous for several reasons: one, it's an unwieldy three syllables, and it sounds awful.
Two, there are folks who don't fit into, or don't want to declare as, either of those categories, and if that surprises you, you need to get out more.
Since "it" is a bit dehumanising.
There's really no suitable pronoun to use.
Except. English does have a solution. And lots of people are using it.
And a lot of old stick-in-the-mud folks hate it. The answer is "they".
Facebook is using "they". I signed up to Facebook before they started asking for gender.
And I've never actually told them that I'm a guy. So my friends will see "Tom Scott updated their profile picture".
And you know what? That sounds absolutely fine to me.
It just seems normal now. It's going to depend on your dialect whether it sounds good to you, but brace yourself, 'cos singular they? It's spreading fast.
I bet you didn't even notice.
When I used it in the very first sentence of this video. And it's got history. Even Shakespeare used it.
Better yet, because "they" sounds natural, it gets around the problem of trying to force invented pronouns into English -- which, let's be honest, has never actually worked.
So there you go. I've gone against my descriptivist training, and said that one linguistic trait is better than another.
And I'm okay with that. Because... some people are "they". Get over it.
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Gender Neutral Pronouns: They're Here, Get Used To Them

8886 Folder Collection
Rachel Kung published on February 19, 2019    Rachel Kung translated    Evangeline reviewed
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