May 9, 2017 by

by Kate Gladstone –

I have been wondering how the “roll-your-own-set-of-neo-pronouns-to-insist-on” people (the users of “hir / zie”/ etc.) manage when they are learning/communicating in a second, third, etc., language.

For instance: let’s imagine a college student whom we’ll call Jan. Jan does not feel adequately described by either the pronoun set “he / him / his” or the pronoun set “she / her / hers,” so Jan informs everyone: “My pronouns are ‘hir / zie / hirs’ and instructs others that only these pronouns shall be used when speaking or writing about Jan. Now, Jan wants to make a difference in the world, and has resolved to do this by helping Hispanics: here in the USA, at first, but eventually by living and working in some Spanish-speaking nation. To prepare for the task, Jan enrolls in Spanish 101 — and learns, on the first day of the course, that the Spanish language has no neuter third-person pronouns, not even for inanimate objects.

What does Jan do?

What does Jan require classmates to do, when they mention Jan in the language that they are studying?

What does Jan ask — or demand, or outright tell — the teacher to do, when grading Jan’s spoken and written Spanish?

We will assume that Jan puts up with Spanish instruction just long enough to get a chance to ask the teacher (cellphone in hand, to make a video selfie of this historic moment): “Can you please teach me how to say in Spanish: ‘My pronouns are “hir,” “zie,” and “hirs”?'”

The Spanish teacher tries wearily — once again — to explain Spanish pronouns, which Jan finds unsatisfactory. At this moment, Jan realizes that the only choice available is not a choice of pronouns, but a choice of verbs: FAIL the course, or WITHDRAW from the class, or LEARN and USE Spanish pronouns along with the rest of the language. Rejecting all of these, Jan tries something else: BLAME the teacher, and the language, for being triggering — for attacking Jan’s sense of self — and demands an immediate A+ because of inability to do the classwork under the conditions imposed by the subject matter. When the teacher reminds Jan: “The option to withdraw ends in two weeks, and your work remains unsatisfactory in vocabulary and grammar,” Jan arises and walks out of the classroom — nose in air, proudly and slowly strutting towards the Student Union and its Trigger Trauma Comfy Recovery Lounge, while the video selfie uploads to YouTube.

The teacher e-mails Jan that evening (“cc”ing the department head and the dean), as follows: “Immediate withdrawal from the course is strongly advised,” explaining again that Jan isn’t making sufficient progress to avoid an eventual F. Jan withdraws — but, still needing a foreign language course to graduate (as well as a purpose in life thereafter), looks around to see which other foreign languages (preferably spoken by peoples who are oppressed and/or are beloved in Jan’s sociopolitical circles) have instructors who will accept a new student this late in the term.
Arabic 101, as it happens, still has an open seat — and the instructor considerately offers Jan some personal tutoring to make up for the weeks already missed. Jan lasts just three days in Arabic class: because Arabic is even more pervasively gendered than Spanish, and has just as little room for “hir / zie / hirs.”
Gender-marking in Arabic is obligatory not only for nouns and adjectives and pronouns (Arabic second-person pronouns — singulars and plurals too — are all gendered either masculine or feminine, as are all the third-person pronouns in Arabic, and all the nouns too), but for the verbs too (second- and third-person verb-prefixes and suffixes in Arabic are masculine or feminine, depending on the gender of the subject) — and even for basic arithmetic and counting (the words for numbers change with the gender of the noun that they modify).
The instructor’s course-notes and the course textbook point out, further, that Arabic-speakers generally believe that Arabic is the language of Allah and must be therefore preserved grammatically intact. (As the instructor informs Jan, no corner of the Arabic-speaking world — even among its non-Muslim minority — is likely to welcome a student or visitor who insists on speaking and writing — and on being spoken and written to, and spoken and written  about — with a set of added new pronouns, new nouns, new suffixes and prefixes for verbs, and new suffixes for numbers and adjectives.)
More immediately problematic for Jan (and for the instructor) is how classroom drill and conversation are impeded. Jan refuses to tolerate being referred to by any Arabic second-person or third-person pronoun — because they are all, oh horrors, gendered. So, in any Arabic class (or other Arabic-speaking gathering) that Jan attends, there is not only now no way for anyone to dare using a pronoun to mention Jan, there is not even any way to directly address Jan in Arabic unless one is willing to be despised and condemned for asking “Would you like some coffee?” or wondering “Why are you studying Arabic?”
Fed up with Arabic after a few days, but still wanting to uplift the oppressed, Jan does a little Googling and finds out that in Farsi (the language of Iran), as in hundreds of other languages around the world, pronouns are blessedly unigender. Jan’s college gives no courses in Farsi — so Jan quits college, applies to the Peace Corps, asks to be assigned to Iran, and gets that assignment: beginning with an intensive course in Farsi. Linguistic uni-gender utopia at last! Jan breathes a sigh of relief … until realizing, after a week or two of basic conversation, that being addressed by the same pronoun used to address a man — or a woman — doesn’t feel quite right to Jan, who has invested a great deal of energy and effort and self-esteem in being understood as other than a man, other than a woman. When the Farsi course is over, and the trainees are sent off to live and work where the language is spoken, how successful will be the endeavors of anyone who begins introductions with the Farsi equivalent of “Hello, my name is Jan, I am here to help you, and my pronouns are the English words ‘hir,’ ‘zie,’ and ‘hirs,’ which are to be used as follows … “
About all that could be said for such an introduction is that Jan made a smart move in quitting the Arabic class. Staying in that class, and actually leading the language, could have led to an assignment in Iraq or somewhere else that Arabic is the national language: where Jan  would have had to extend to the above introduction with ” … and here, for your further guidance, is a handy list of all my verb-endings, all my adjective-endings, and all the other bits of grammar that I have created in order to expand your language so that you can memorize these new words and endings  in order to empower us to converse in a mutually respectful and inclusive manner.”

At college, Kate was kicked out of a logicians’ club … for being (according to the club president) too logical.

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