Part of the campaign to change how people use pronouns is caused by Sapir-Whorf

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 if we invent a new pronoun just for the earth that we’ll respect the earth more.

This idea is a product of the theory of strong linguistic determinism. This theory is also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis which claims that “language determines thought” and “linguistic categories …determine cognitive categories.” This theory 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.  However, the average person can distinguish between about a million colors even though most people only have about a dozen words for colors.

Similarly, pronouns have no effect on how people treat others. Consider Chinese which has no gendered pronouns for the Earth or anyone else and 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 bi-gendered languages like Spanish in which every noun and adjective is either male or female and nothing is gender-neutral. Nearly 100% of 1,640 Chinese transgender people surveyed reported experiencing violence from a parent or guardian and a UN report found that transgender people in China experience more discrimination than any other minority group.

So, inventing a new gender-neutral pronoun for the earth isn’t going to make people treat the earth differently any more than pronouns will end transgender discrimination. But language does affect how people 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 self-identity which is why many people have recently been using ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun in English.

I wish we would invent a new gender-neutral pronoun because using ‘they’ is not particularly cognitively kind.  It is confusing because 99% of the time ‘they’ is a plural pronoun and traditionally when it is used as a singular pronoun it was chosen because individuality was indefinite and multiple different people could have been the indefinite person. Changing its usage to singular for a clearly defined individual makes English a bit more confusing.

Nearly all languages have both singular and plural pronouns. Even when a language doesn’t have separate words for both, speakers 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 we are going to stick with ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, we are going to switch to a new plural version such as ‘they-all’ or ‘those guys’. Lots of languages don’t have gendered pronouns, but plurality is quite ubiquitous because it is particularly useful for communication.

I’d prefer to create a new 3rd-person singular gender-neutral pronoun to reduce confusion, but I suspect one reason why nonbinary people prefer the pronoun ‘they’ over some 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 can have insulting connotations, and 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.

Plus, many languages have a 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 honorifics are usually limited to 2nd-person pronouns 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 let me know if I’m wrong.

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 name or on a biography, they recently 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 only makes to list different grammatical forms of a gendered pronoun if it is possible that some people’s preferred gender changes with grammatical case such as, “they/his/her”! A more grammatically consistent set of pronouns would be exclusively plural pronouns such as “we/ye/they” for first/second/third-person pronouns. Making them all plural could also augment an identity of feeling respected because numerous traditional linguistic patterns use plural pronouns as a signifier of social status.


I predict that someday people will write a single adjective to identify their gender rather than a set of pronouns as is current practice. Instead of a woman writing ‘she/her,’ she will use an adjective like ‘female’ instead. There are a lot more adjectives for different genders than pronouns, so adjectives are more descriptive and they are a more natural grammatical structure than pronouns for identifying classifications like gender.

Someday pronouns will flow naturally from gender and it will be interesting to see how gender norms evolve regarding infants too.  A traditional question people have commonly asked parents about new babies is, “Is it a girl or a boy?”  Oddly, the pronoun ‘it’ has not been insulting in this context. But some parents may dislike this question because it assumes a binary conception of gender.  As norms change, parents might prefer to identify their baby as some other gender.  So perhaps the polite way to ask the question will become, “What gender is they?”

Posted in Philosophy and ethics

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