The campaign to change our pronouns is partly caused by the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistics

If people used the pronoun ‘ki’ when referring to the earth, would that make people treat the earth more environmentally? That is the hypothesis of Robin Wall Kimmerer the author of Braiding Sweetgrass. She doesn’t like calling the earth an ‘it’ nor a ‘she’ because she doesn’t think those pronouns are special enough and she thinks that we’ll respect the earth more if we invent a special new pronoun for the earth.

This idea is a product of the theory of strong linguistic determinism, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  This theory claims that “language determines thought” and “linguistic categories …determine cognitive categories.” Sapir-Whorf is wrong and it is easy to see evidence.  For example, this theory created the bizarre myth that “Humans Didn’t Actually See Blue Until Modern Times” based on the idea that people couldn’t see blue because most languages didn’t have a word for it.  Language has zero impact on the ability to distinguish colors and the average person can distinguish between about a million colors even though most languages have less than a dozen words for colors.

Similarly, pronouns have approximately zero effect on how people treat others. Consider spoken*  Chinese.  Chinese has no gendered pronouns for the Earth nor anyone else.  That hasn’t stopped China from causing more pollution than any other nation on earth today. Similarly, Chinese culture is not less sexist nor it is friendlier to transgender people than cultures with extremely gendered languages.  In a survey of 1,640 Chinese transgender people, nearly 100% reported experiencing violence from their own parents (or guardian)!  A UN report found that transgender people in China experience more discrimination than any other minority group.

In contrast, things haven’t been as bad for transgender people in most Spanish-speaking nations.  Spanish is extremely bi-gendered because every noun and adjective is either male or female.  Nothing is gender-neutral in Spanish.  Every book is male and every table is female and even adjectives like ‘red’ and articles like ‘the’ have to be either male or female in traditional Spanish grammar.  To add gender neutrality into Spanish will require changing all adjectives, articles, and pronouns!

Inventing a new gender-neutral pronoun for the earth isn’t going to make people treat the earth differently any more than gender-neutral pronouns will end transgender discrimination. But language does affect how individuals think about our own identities, so a gender-neutral pronoun for people can help them feel differently about themselves.  Identity isn’t important for the earth, but it is important for people and pronouns are important for one’s identity which is one reason why many people have recently been using ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun in English.

Words do reflect what we think and women use the words “I,” “me,” “we,” and “mine” a lot more than men because the genders think differently.  Men use more articles like “a” and “the” partly because men talk more about things and women talk more about people.  Some cultures are more communal and use the word “we” more than individualistic cultures that focus more on “I”.

I wish English would invent a new gender-neutral singular pronoun because using ‘they’ is not particularly cognitively kind.  It is confusing because ‘they’ is a plural pronoun and it is not traditionally used as a singular definite pronoun.  People who claim ‘they’ has always been used for singular references are mistaking a definite pronoun for an indefinite pronoun.  They was traditionally only chosen for singular when the reference was indefinite and could be multiple different people.  Thus the indefinite ‘they’ combines both plural and singular thinking.  “They” was only used for a singular person when there was more than one possible person being referred to.  Changing ‘they’ to mean a definite singular individual makes English a bit less specific and more confusing.

Sometimes people want to make their language more indefinite such as: “I have a friend and they are eating.”  Traditionally, this meant that, ‘I don’t want you to know their gender,’ not that the person is nonbinary.

We could clarify things if, when ‘they’ is used as a singular pronoun, we would conjugate the verb as a singular to demonstrate that ‘they’ is singular.  For example, if ‘they’ is a singular nonbinary person, then it is clearest to say, “I have a friend and they IS eating.”  Unfortunately, that isn’t current practice.  People say “They ARE eating,” even if there IS only one specific person that IS eating.

The whole point of having multiple pronouns is to make references more specific and nearly all languages have both singular and plural pronouns. Even when a language doesn’t have separate words for both, speakers often create modifiers to distinguish between the two. For example, the plural form of you in English was ‘ye’ and when some English dialects lost that word, people created new plural versions of the pronoun like y’all, you guys, yinz, yous, or you people. So if ‘they’ becomes the standard gender-neutral singular pronoun, people are probably going create a new plural pronoun such as ‘they-all’ or ‘those guys’. Lots of languages, like Chinese, have no gendered pronouns, but plurality is ubiquitous because it is particularly useful for communication and reducing the specificity of ‘they’ reduces its usefulness.

I’d prefer to create a new 3rd-person singular gender-neutral pronoun to reduce confusion, and there are at least a dozen different proposed gender-neutral pronouns which have all failed.  Plus, I suspect one reason why nonbinary people prefer the pronoun ‘they’ over a new gender-neutral pronoun is that it is hard to turn ‘they’ into a term of abuse. English already has a gender-neutral singular 3rd-person pronoun–‘it’– which has insulting connotations when used to refer to a person.  It is easy to see how a new attempt at a gender-neutral 3rd-person pronoun could end up in a similar fate. ‘They’ is unlikely to be turned into a term of abuse because it is too much of a linchpin of the language to be converted into an insult as long as we don’t invent another word that is specific to plural 3rd-person.  In that case, ‘they’ may come to have the same connotations as ‘it’.

More importantly, as long as ‘they’ is predominantly used with a plural meaning, that very plurality tends to confers additional status.  Many cultures have independently invented the tradition of using plural pronouns as an honorific towards respected individuals of status, so perhaps human brains tend to associate plural pronouns with status. The one difference between the singular ‘they’ and honorific pronouns in other languages is that honorific pronouns are usually limited to 2nd-person or 1st-person pronouns like the royal we. I couldn’t find any language that had 3rd-person plural honorific pronouns, but I’m not a linguist, so please leave an example in the comments if you find one.

Again, contra the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, there is no evidence that honorific pronouns like the royal we causes other people to feel more respect, but it affects self identity for the person who prefers them and identity has a big impact on people.

Another evolving tradition in gender identity is how it is announced in writing. When English speakers announce their gender identity beside their signature, recently we have been writing multiple different grammatical cases of the same pronoun such as “he/him/his” rather than just “he”. This would seem to imply that some people have a different gender identity depending on the grammatical case! It would only make logical sense to list “he/him/his” rather than just “he” if it were possible that some people’s preferred gender changes with grammatical case such as, “they/his/her”!

Furthermore, why use “they/them/their”? A more grammatically consistent set of pronouns would be exclusively plural pronouns such as “we/y’all/they” for first/second/third-person pronouns. Making all the pronouns plural could augment a feeling of respect because, as mentioned before, numerous linguistic traditions use plural pronouns to signify high social status for someone so big that singular just seems too small.


Adjectives are descriptive words, so it makes more sense to write an adjective to identify gender rather than a set of pronouns as is current practice. Instead of a woman writing ‘she/her/hers,’ someday she will probably just use an adjective like ‘female’.  Healthline lists adjectives for 68 different kinds of genders whereas we only have three common pronoun genders (so far), so adjectives are much more descriptive.  Adjectives can already encompass dozens of different kinds of gender identities and an adjective is a more natural grammatical structure than a set of pronouns for identifying classifications like gender.

Right now people prefer “they/them/their” rather than a descriptive adjective because the point is more to change the English language than to identify gender.  Once everyone gets the pronouns they want for their genders, we will probably just use adjectives to describe our genders instead of pronouns.

It will be interesting to see how gender norms evolve regarding infants.  Traditionally the first question people have commonly asked about new babies is, “Is it a girl or a boy?”  Oddly, the pronoun ‘it’ has never been insulting in this context.  But this question assumes a binary conception of gender and we cannot ask about all 68 possible genders, so perhaps the polite way to ask the question will become, “What gender is they?”  Or as norms change, parents might prefer to not identify their baby’s gender at all, or some will say they don’t know yet because the baby is too little to choose.

*Note that although SPOKEN Chinese has no gendered pronouns, WRITTEN Chinese pronouns became gendered about a century ago.  Thus, there have been recent efforts to create a non-gendered written Chinese pronoun for nonbinary folk.  Still, all the pronouns for he, she, it, and the new pronoun for non-gendered people would still be pronounced the same way: “ta”.  But it is difficult to add written words to the Chinese vocabulary and one of the most popular proposed pronouns for the nongendered human version of he/she/it contains a fundamental symbol (called “radicals”) that doesn’t exist in Chinese:  the Latin letter X.  This seems likely to be inspired by same group of Western cosmopolitans who invented the word “latinx” which also uses “x” the way it is used in English rather than how it is used by native Spanish speakers!  Proposing to add a non-Chinese element to the language adds to the challenge of getting the new pronoun accepted into Chinese.  It would be the only word in all of Chinese that has ever adopted any part of a foreign alphabet.  Similarly, native Spanish speakers instantly recognize that “latinx” is an obviously foreign word which helps explain why it is rejected by most Spanish speakers and primarily only used in English.


Ironically, for all of Chinese history until a century ago, there were no gendered pronouns.  Gendered pronouns in Chinese writing only began about a century ago with the New Culture Movement which was partly brought about by feminist activists who wanted to celebrate female distinctiveness by adding new gendered pronouns, so in some ways, it was a similar social movement to what is happening today.  Plus, translators also wanted to have a better way to translate ‘he’ and ‘she’ into written Chinese.

Posted in Philosophy and ethics

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