Thursday, 9 September 2010

Ze is nothing new

    I saw the piece linked below a week or so ago when it came out but was rather busy and never had a chance to post it. I'm rather surprised I've not seen anyone else pick it up, it's not from our corner of the web but it's rather interesting.
    Here it is. The Gender-Neutral Pronoun: 150 Years Later, Still an Epic Fail


  1. wot an annoying article. Something isn't an epic fail because some nitwit pedant says it is. And use of 'their' is perfectly acceptable. Case closed, next!

  2. At the risk of tooting my own horn - I wrote about this article, and an associated one in The Economist, a couple of weeks ago.


    (To be fair, I have to admit to being a regular reader of both the print and online editions of The Economist.)

    I'm not sure if Dennis Baron is a witless sophist - he's professor of English and linguistics at Urbana-Champaign. And the Oxford University Press isn't exactly some fly-by-night activist group! I thought his article quite informative.

    "Ain't" has a similar problem to the singular "they" (etc) - it's a common phrase, but frowned upon by some (many?). Essentially, they're colloquialisms that stand the test of time.

    Some phrases just refuse to go away, and some need to be shown the exit. "Ze" is one that doesn't need that - it needs to be dragged to, and tossed from, the gate marked "And never may ye return!" So far it seems to be hanging onto the damned door knob.

    Carolyn Ann

  3. I get really annoyed when people decide that the words that other people use for themselves aren't good enough. Ze is a case in point. If someone wants me to use a gender-neutral pronoun for them, and they tell me they prefer "ze", then I'll damn well try to use it. Yes, I prefer 'they' (etc.), but it's not my decision.

  4. My apologies for missing it elsewhere, as I said I was rather busy.

    I found the article interesting for its history of gender neutral pronouns. I wouldn't quite dismiss the author's conclusion, remember as a linguistics specialist he's commenting on the uptake of gender-neutral pronouns in the wider English corpus rather than its uptake among those who wish to adopt it for themselves. In the wider corpus he's quite right in assessing it as an epic fail.

    I take the simple view that if I wish to be referred to as "she" when presenting my improbable seven foot girl act then the least I can do is make the same effort for someone who wants me to ze them. I may get it wrong sometimes, but I'll damn well try.

  5. ack, i'm sorry - i had just been having a conversation with someone else who was talking about this article as "proof" that he shouldn't have to use "ze" or other GNPs. i think my frustration at him bled over into my comments to you and carolyn ann. my apologies!

  6. I'm not much bothered about 'zie', though I honour anyone's choice to use it for themselves. I'm more interested in 'they' or 'their' as a gender-neutral pronoun. The acid test of its rightness is whether it is widely used in that context, as language is democratic. Experts, real or self-appointed, may deprecate if they like, but in doing so they remind me of Rasselas' astronomer, who has spent so long watching the stars that he has come to believe that they move to his bidding.

  7. But it's not about authority, Dru. Language does evolve - but not necessarily in a democratic manner. (Didn't Imlac persuade the astronomer of the error of his ways?)

    As an example, I'll point to cisgender. An inarticulate clod of a concept, it's both unnecessary and insulting. Having been given its imprimatur by a few gender experts (it was invented by one), it's widely (and sometimes wildly...) used within interested communities. Outside of those communities, the concept behind it isn't deemed necessary! With cisgender, who's forcing an idea onto others?

    nixwilliams, no offense was perceived, let alone taken! :-)

    I do think you're using the wrong argument, though. It's not a question of "good enough" - it's more a question of whether the concept behind the word is good enough to withstand scrutiny. The idea of someone being gender-neutral needs an awful lot of propping up. (Making a claim in no way implies the accuracy of the claim). The idea that we need a gender-neutral pronoun is on even shakier ground! I do detect some beginnings of a need; general writers are starting to complain that he/she, s/he, etc are inadequate. ("He or she" is clumsy.) The typical solution is to assign an identity, cast a character or two to help with the provided explanation, along with an explanation of why such a tactic is needed.

    Claiming to be gender-neutral is not the same as claiming a gender; those who claim this are rejecting the idea that they have a gender. They are neither man nor woman, male nor female - which can be easily proven not to be true. The claim also has some interesting implications - far too many to address in a blog comment. Besides which, insisting upon a pronoun such as "ze" means I am being forced to accept an idea that I have significant disagreement with. Who has priority in such an event? Are their ideas of language more "correct" than mine? That's too hierarchical for my taste; not to mention it implies a knowledge of "truth" that I don't believe is possible! There's also the whole "polite" thing going on - is it polite to insist I change my ideas to suit "you"? (English is in need of a generic "you", too!) Politically correct though it may be to (eagerly?) accept something like "ze", I tend to think insistence upon it is an imposition upon me.

    I have disagreement with some gender claims as it is! On top of that, you're arguing that I should accept a word I consider ridiculous, and a concept I have no trouble proving baseless? A better argument might be an exploration of the clumsiness of "he/she"! At least it keeps to language, and doesn't involve contrived, controversial, definitions that have holes you could fly a 747 through!

  8. dru, i'm really interested to see how they/their as a singular pronoun is coming more and more into common usage. i really like it!

    carolyn ann, i'm going to have to disagree with you and then agree to leave it at that. i'm too tired to pick apart how essentialising and problematic your arguments are in any depth. a couple of examples: the idea of someone feeling a- or non-gendered is just as legitimate as someone feeling that they're gendered masculine or feminine; "you're trying to force your ideas on me by asking me respect your pronoun choice" is typical transphobe material and a pretty nonsensical argument.

  9. Wow.

    I'm transphobic because I disagree with you? Because I disagree with you on something elementary about people? Or because you can't cope with disagreement?

    You're willing to tell me I'm wrong, insult me in the process, and not make any effort to prove your assertion? You're unwilling to engage in debate - but you're content to throw accusation and insult around.

    Nice. Real nice.

    Carolyn Ann

  10. I did not call you transphobic. What I am trying to say is that the rhetoric you're employing is the same rhetoric that transphobes use when they don't want to respect (binary-identified) trans people's gender and pronoun requests (i.e. "you're forcing your world view on me", "i can easily prove that you're not the gender you say you are"). I find it pretty odd that you would want to use those same arguments to try to undermine the legitimacy of other people's identities and pronoun requests.

    At the moment, your argument is sounding extremely like the argument I was having with someone else as I mentioned above. If I'm getting something from your words that you don't intend, then please feel free to clarify. At the moment perhaps we disagree about something elementary, I don't know. If you are not arguing that you should be able to disrespect people's gender identity and pronoun choice, again, please do clarify.

  11. I disagree with you, chapter and verse, Carolyn Anne, but I'm not going to 'debate' with you because I learned over on my blog that it is pointless, and you have done stuff that I don't think is good. If you want all the air in this particular room, here it is. I'm leaving.

  12. To be honest - I'm very wary of continuing this conversation. Your inference was darned clear! (Speaking of clarity?)

    I maintain that pretty much anything anyone claims for themselves is not my business. I am, if you want to attach a label, quite the libertarian. I like to; it upsets self-proclaimed libertarians when they discover I'm to the right of Ayn Rand. :-) You live your life as you see fit. I'll live mine as I see fit.

    Where I get interested is when "your" demands have implications for others. For instance, if you insist that I respect the gender claims of all, you'll find I can't do that. Not because I'm prejudiced (although you might consider me so), but because there are some individuals I don't trust to make honest claims. Violent Canadian rapists, for example.

    In a nutshell, I am not arguing that I "should" disrespect any gender claims; I clearly shouldn't. Frankly, I rarely care what others call themselves. That's their business, not mine. What I am arguing is that I should be free to think about such claims, and if they have implications and those claims capture my interest, that I can examine and write about them. To be blunt: language is a common business.

    You know what? I've been through the gender/language wringer once or twice. As I said, I'm very leery of getting into such a debate with you.

    No. I am not going to agree that my words need clarification. I am not conceding to your quietly proclaimed demands. If your consideration of me is for the worst because of that - so be it. If you think me the transphobe because of that, so be it. To apply your own logic, it's not what you think, it's what I claim. If I find a claim interesting, it's because I find it interesting. I can deal with the difficult questions that arise from such an examination, I can accept that sometimes that there isn't an answer, or that I might not like the answer to the questions that are raised; I am not inclined to believe you are equally able.

    Are you?

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  14. Morning all, however early or late it may be for you.

    My friend Dawn has a habit at moments such as this of offering everyone tea and biscuits.

    The prevalence of they/their as a gender neutral pronoun. As it happens I know someone with the expertise and tools to answer that question if it is possible to be answered. Small snag: I'm not out to him, yet. However as a function of what I do for a living he's the sort of person I can have those kind of conversations with so when the opportunity presents itself I'll certainly seize it.

  15. Violent Canadian rapists, for example.

    I have . . . no idea what you're talking about! I wouldn't mind having a discussion about language and gender (I have also done my fair share of debate in this area), but these kinds of random asides do little to aide the coherency of your argument. I'm well aware that sometimes the questioning and the debating is actually more interesting than trying to find an answer, but your opinions seem to be pretty well formed and set, judging from your previous comments. Likewise, some of mine (basic respect for the gender identity and pronoun choices of all people, for example). If we're at a point where our fundamental beliefs are so different that we can't actually have a useful discussion, so be it.

    Now, I'll bite - a snide insult to repay you for yours! Since you can't seem to differentiate between "You're using the same rhetoric that transphobes use against trans people" and "You're transphobic" (even when I clearly stated that I did not call you a transphobe), I'm not really willing to continue a conversation about language use with you. So, cheerio!

    Jenny, sorry to have taken up so much time and space in the comments to your post, and my apologies for my part in derailing the discussion and lowering the tone. I hope you're enjoying your weekend, despite this!

  16. Ugh, I'm sorry - posted before I saw your comment Jenny. Thanks for the tea and biscuits and sorry again for squabbling in your sandpit! I'm going to leave this discussion now, because I think I'm a bit too annoyed to contribute anything constructive.

    Carolyn Ann, I'm sorry for that last paragraph to you. Sinking to exchanging insults is not usually my style.

  17. nixwilliams, thank you.

    It would appear that you want to start with Granny Smith apples, while I'm starting with limes. Not once have I ever said that others should not be respected; neither have I said that others should be respected!

    What I am stating is that claims can be examined. But you won't know that, because you've said your piece and left.

    The violent Canadian rapist comment was a reference to a particular gender language debate I was a participant of. A Canadian raped a woman, got caught and sent to jail. On furlough (he promised he wouldn't be naughty), he violently raped another woman. Now he says he raped those women because he actually wants to be a woman. Some trust his claim, I don't. I never believed the claims of the men who raped me. Why should I believe the claims of another rapist? (That I was mocked by, I suspect, prominent transgendered individual is neither here nor there.)

    But you don't know any of that - because you're off, unwilling to engage in a serious debate. :-)

  18. Previous note deleted as it had a typo and didn't reflect my true feelings.

    Dru: Please do me the favor of spelling my name correctly!

    I have no idea what you learned when we debated "Jews Ears" on your blog. What I do know is that when you claimed that you "don't own the phrase" (or whatever facetiousness you wrote), you were simply excusing yourself from apologizing for the offense you caused. If you were paying attention, you'd have noticed I specifically wrote that I didn't consider you anti-Semitic.

    For your damned information - my wife is Jewish. How do you think it made her feel when I told her of that photograph - and your title? And then told her that you didn't "own those words"? Perhaps you should compare notes with Dr Laura Schlessinger?

    Now talk to me of bigotry.

    Carolyn Ann

  19. Good morning, Jenny. :-)

    Thank you for hosting these debates. :-D

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  21. Excerpt from one of your e-mails, Carolyn Ann:

    "I'm glad you responded - I was thinking that you wouldn't. I did write a blog post about "Jew's Ears", but didn't mention you by name or link to your blog or the picture. I was still feeling disturbed by the name, and I find it helpful to write about such moments. If anyone makes the connection (as far as I know, no one reads my blog, anyway!), it's immaterial."

    ...there was also a comment you made on my blog which you subsequently removed. I concluded that your subsequent stated sense of outrage was manufactured.

    I imagine people can judge for themselves how bigoted I am, because all my side of this exchange is still available and unedited.

    I seem to recall that you have said that you find the use of the term 'cisgendered' offensive too. It's not going to stop me using it, because it is a useful term in context.

    I try not to be offensive. If someone tells me that they have found something that I have written offensive, I look very carefully and respond in a way I think is appropriate. This response might not be considered appropriate by the offended party. In which case, I'm happy to hand the case over to that very moderate person on the Clapham omnibus.

    I stopped responding to your posts because we don't seem to have much common ground; I have my truth, and you have yours. Mine at least doesn't make me unhappy.

    *Sorry, Jenny*

  22. Dru, do you really need a lesson in personal interaction? Are you so unaware of conversational device that you fail to understand what I was doing? Are you really so oblivious to the offensiveness of "Jew's Ears"?

    I was trying to be conciliatory at that point. I was offended with the title of your photograph. I gave up on conciliation when you subsequently stated that you didn't "own" a phrase - and as a result didn't have to apologize for using such a derogatory term.

    Yes, I do consider "cisgender" to be offensive. You seem to think that offense is all of a kind - you seem to have no sense of degree. Cisgender is lazy and contrived; if someone wants to use it, who am I to say they shouldn't? (As it seems you know my writing so well, perhaps you can point out where I've explicitly barred its use? As if I could?) On a scale of 1 to 10, cisgender barely moves the needle; Jew's Ears moves it to the maximum.

    I forget what I subsequently deleted.

    You might try to avoid giving offense, but it seems that when you do manage to - you have a neat way of excusing yourself. By the way, your attempted facetiousness is amateurish, at best.

    If someone has to tell you that "Jew's Ears" is a derogatory name, your truth is so simplistic it can't do anything but show you for what you are: oblivious! I have little doubt that's why your "truth" makes you happy.

    Carolyn Ann

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  24. Self definition is important- Would you describe yourself as a troll? I don't want to feed you, anyway, whatever you are. Cheerio.

  25. Sheez - is that all you can manage?

    Any cheaper would be free. :-)

  26. ...and that is the story of how Jenny learned to never, ever, bring up a language usage topic again.

  27. Yeah, strictly old wrecks and cider from now on in.

    On the subject of which, you should see the cideristi on the subject of "Cider" vs. "Cyder". It's cidre methode champagnoise corks at dawn in the saloon bar of the Dabinett and Foxwhelp over that one!

  28. Crikey.

    From where I'm standing, this sentence and a half from the article you quoted says it all for me:

    "...they’ll just take their chances with singular they. After all, if you, which is also gender neutral, can serve both for singular and plural, why can’t they do the same?"

    At least part of the debate seems to be about correct use of grammar, and not just about gender. Now I have a respect for language and for writing and speaking as well as I can, and I also like to be flexible and have fun. It seems to me that it's very easy to forget about flexibility, and get lost in tiny detail that lends nothing to user-friendliness, practicality and the like. Understandings evolve, and language evolves, not always in sync with each other ... and there it is. I'm quite happy to use 'they' and 'their' in the singular for a gender-neutral pronoun.

    Jenny, I hope you weren't driven too hard to the cider. Or the cyder, for that matter ;-)