Pronoun Rebellion (3)

Unfinished, untitled work titled “Work Trying to Call Itself ‘In Progress,’” oil on unmeasured old watercolor paper (JMN 2022).

A man’s word is his bond.

It’s an aphorism. States a pithy truth, along the lines of, “When someone makes a promise, he keeps it.” This one floats a model of behavior, an ideal. Not a command, exactly, but it has hortatory weight; exhorts by affirming. It’s a cheer for honor and integrity.

Does this aphorism exclude women? What about: A person’s word is his bond? Or: One’s word is his bond? “His” keeps appearing! One’s word is one’s bond finally unhitches the saying from gender, perceived or implied. Now it’s universal and indiscriminate. In other words, aphoristic. But the matter isn’t closed.

“Man” and “his” may sound too biological to be inclusive. Defaulting to masculine forms where universal application is intended may look like sexism prescribed by male grammarians. A woman’s word is her bond states an equal truth, of course. So does One’s word is her bond. The neutral “one” allows the pivot to either gender — as long as the selected morpheme is singular. I’ve given emphasis to this last condition because it’s widely challenged now.

Many English speakers now might say or write, One’s word is their bond. The possessive call-back to “one” morphs into the plural. It crosses the number boundary. In so doing it transgresses an established norm of syntax, one that prescribes gender and number matching between sets of morphemes:

he, him, himself, his
she, her, herself, hers
it, its, itself, its
they, them, themselves, their

The crux of the matter is this: The only person English distinguishes for gender is the third-singular. An example of breaching such match-up is a statement such as The woman cut himself. Most speakers would deem it nonsensical. Many speakers, however, are receptive to a statement such as When a person cuts themselves (or themself?), infection is possible.

Transgendered phraseology takes advantage of the fact that English has an all-encompassing, third-person plural pronoun. I infer that using it reflects linguistically a drive to achieve parity between the sexes in society; also, to escape pigeonholing or disclosure of gender identity imposed by language.

I’m led to review familiar terminology of the language world I inhabit:

Person: first (speaker), second (spoken-to), third (spoken-about)
Number: singular, plural (Arabic adds dual)
Gender: masculine, feminine (German adds neuter)
Animacy: animate, inanimate

It’s to be noted that in theory transgendering is possible within the established bounds of number by saying When a person cuts itself. In practice, it appears, our notion that we’re human is more deeply embedded in our psyches than a quibble over how many we are. If one sins, so to speak, let it be against number and not animacy.

(c) 2022 JMN — EthicalDative. All rights reserved

About JMN

I live in Texas and devote much of my time to easel painting on an amateur basis. I stream a lot of music, mostly jazz, throughout the day. I like to read and memorize poetry.
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3 Responses to Pronoun Rebellion (3)

  1. Your posts have got me thinking about how deeply ingrained gender is in language – my 5 year old grandson, when asked about his younger sister always says ‘He is inside” or “He is 2 years’ old” and we leap to correct him! A sort of visceral reaction! Why do we think it’s so important to get that right and don’t correct him over other things? (He is also bi-lingual with a Spanish speaking mother but I imagine that getting the gender right is even more important in Spanish).

    And on a completely different tangent, all my grandkids say ‘brung’ instead of ‘brought’ and continue to do so even when their pedantic grandparents correct them!!

    One sends greetings!

    Liked by 2 people

    • JMN says:

      Sue, you’re helping me work out the gender puzzle right here in comments. Speaking of pedantry, I wonder if I’m not flogging the topic to death! I keep stumbling into new thoughts that lead me on. In my first teaching gig I had to quickly bone up on language acquisition in children. The class was on comparative Spanish-English grammar and phonology. The college was on the Texas-Mexico border and all my students were bilingual Valley natives aiming to go into teaching themselves. The topic was fascinating and I wished I had been trained more in linguistics. I understand the reflex to correct. Your grandson is in prime time for intuiting the rules of his language as he goes. He will work them out, including the gender protocols, I’m sure. “Mister Smith teached us numbers today” is a very logical thing to say at a certain stage. A bilingual environment is a great thing to grow up in, too. My grandkids are in northeastern Spain and are fluent in Spanish and Catalan. I’ll probably have occasion to post something about how other languages I study are structured for gender. It’s illuminating to compare and contrast. I wonder if it’s feasible to scrub it entirely from English? Most given names, for example, are gendered, but strictly by convention. I recall a song by Johnny Cash called “A Boy Named Sue.” (!)

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is such an interesting conversation – I will be on the lookout for all sorts of gendered conventions and language! Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

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