(Continued from https://ethicaldative.com/2022/01/22/pronoun-rebellion-1/)
Wallace Stevens said of his poem “On an Old Horn” that, if he had succeeded in saying what he had to say, the reader would get it.
“He may not get it at once, but, if he is sufficiently interested, he invariably gets it.” [1942, quoted by Paul Mariani]
Frank Perfetti’s contributor profile in Poetry magazine reads in its entirety as follows:
Frank Perfetti* writes of the work in this issue, “With a smile I let the viewer draw their own conclusions.” [February 2021]
Stevens’s reader and Perfetti’s viewer emblemize the same fond hypothesis: an audience. Their respective callbacks — “he” and “their” — to a singular instance of that postulate betray a distance traveled over eight decades towards… what to call it?
I need to name the language behavior I’m at pains to converse about in terms of what it is, not what it isn’t. Coining a word — genderflection — in order to document its opposite, as I’ve done earlier, is overly clever, inefficient and vaguely emotive. It betokens a certain resistance to the linguistic behaviors described, coupled with a good-faith effort to channel those feelings through restrained analysis and open-ended contemplation.
It dawns on me that the word I seek is already out there: transgender. Transcend, transgress, translate, transport…transgender. I should have twigged sooner to its transworthiness for my discussion.
“Transgendered” expression is, then, a pressuring of language to discard time-worn, reductive distinctions rooted in biology-plus-culture. Vestigial holdovers of it in English are the third-person singular pronouns “she” and “he.” At the dawn of time, survival may have hinged on reporting whether an approaching human was male or female — one was likelier to rape and pillage than the other. But in the modern day?
There’s a possible precedent for a singular pronoun collapsing into its plural mate and disappearing from the language: It’s when “thou” gave way to “you” for the second person. There’s a loss of precision, which accounts for dialect forms such as “y’all” and “youse” and “you ‘uns” and “you lot” that are alive in speech. If transgendered “they” takes hold, perhaps “they all” or “th’all” is in the offing for talk about explicitly more than one of “them”.
Should certain nouns be next to fall? If words like “man” and “woman” retreat to archaic usage, then A man’s word is his bond becomes A person’s word is their bond, which will be as explicit as it gets, unless disambiguated by amplification: A person’s word is that person’s bond. Efficiency isn’t always the summum bonum in how language rolls.
(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved
What do you think about the term ‘cisgender’ or ‘cis’ ? I’ve only recently come across it and had to look it up to find out what it meant. (I really like this discussion of yours!)
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Sue, thanks so much for your interest. I get so few comments, it’s thrilling to receive input. I’m glad you brought up “cisgender.” I too have encountered it, but not frequently enough not to check what it means again, which I’ve just done. I’m still trying to figure out and express what’s interesting about how identity gender affects grammatical gender. I think there are one or two more installments in my little discussion (hence the numbering), and I hope you’ll stay tuned. Let me know your thoughts.
So nice to have this conversation with you!
Yes it’s interesting how important the whole gender identification issue has become – understandably I guess with more acceptance of LGBTIQO identification. I do wonder a bit about whether the use of ‘cis male’ or ‘cis female’ is a pushback against the transgender movement?
I was also thinking about how my English mother often used ‘one’ when talking about herself or others – it’s non gendered but rather formal! eg. ‘One always enjoys thinking about this’
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Likewise enjoying your feedback! I share your curiosity about the “Cis” terms. I haven’t found a way to use them. This is such complex territory. What a happy coincidence that you bring up the usage of “one”! It’s making an appearance in my continuing thoughts about language gender. I have Scots in my background, and I always heard that those folk were prone to use “one” so as not to be too personal. I remember now how my grandmother would say things like “A body can’t be too careful.” One sends kind regards to you!
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