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

Updated 3/27/23

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.  The average person can distinguish between about a million colors even though most languages have less than a dozen words for colors.  The myth that language determines thought is so pervasive, John McWhorter wrote a book to refute it, called The Language Hoax.

Part of the effort to change how we use gendered pronouns is motivated by the Sapir-Whorf idea that that will change how people think about transgender people, but pronouns have approximately zero effect on how well 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, 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 Spanish grammar.  To add gender neutrality into Spanish will require changing all adjectives, articles, and pronouns!  Although Spanish is an extremely gendered language, transgender people in most Spanish-speaking nations have had a much easier life than in China where the language has no grammatical genders.

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 identity is important for people and pronouns are important for one’s identity which is one reason why many nonbinary people have recently been using ‘they’ as a gender-neutral singular pronoun.

Words reflect what we think and the fact that women use the words “I,” “me,” “we,” and “mine” a lot more than men is because the genders tend to 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 speakers would invent a new gender-neutral singular pronoun because using ‘they’ is not particularly cognitively kind.  ‘They’ is traditionally a plural pronoun and it becomes less specific to also use it as a singular definite pronoun that overlaps with the meaning of ‘it’.  People who claim ‘they’ has always been used for singular references are mistaking a definite pronoun for an indefinite pronoun.  ‘They’ was only used for indefinite references which could be referring to multiple different people because the reference is indefinite.  Thus the indefinite ‘they’ is cognitively plural even when it is referring to an unknown singular because that individual could be many different possibilities.  Changing ‘they’ to mean a definite singular individual makes English a wee 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 who my friend is” and the “they” was to avoid revealing the friend’s gender to help conceal their identity.  An indefinite they never means that a person is nonbinary.  It erases gender entirely.

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 nonbinary person that IS eating.

The whole point of having multiple pronouns is to make references more specific which makes them more useful.  Nearly all languages have both singular and plural pronouns and even when a language doesn’t have separate words for both, speakers often create modifiers to distinguish between the two kinds of pronouns. 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 a gender-neutral singular pronoun, we are going to need to create a new plural pronoun such as ‘they-all’ or ‘those guys’ to distinguish from they-singular. Lots of languages, like Chinese, have no gendered pronouns, but plurality is ubiquitous because it is particularly useful for communication.  Reducing the specificity of ‘they’ reduces its usefulness, so we will need additional modifiers to make English accommodate a ‘they’ that means singular-nonbinary.

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, but they have all failed, so it is hard to change such fundamental units of language as a pronoun.  Plus, I suspect one reason why nonbinary people prefer the pronoun ‘they’ over alternative gender-neutral pronouns 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 becoming a term of abuse too. As long as ‘they’ is an ambiguous pronoun, it cannot be turned into a term of abuse because it is too much of a linchpin of the language to be converted into an insult.  But if ‘they’ becomes specific to nonbinary people, then we will  invent another word that will be specific to plural 3rd-person and ‘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 honorifics towards respected individuals of status, so perhaps human brains tend to associate plural pronouns with status. Calling a singular person by a plural pronoun is known as the majestic plural. 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. In many languages honorific pronouns derive from 3rd-person plural pronouns, so the new singular-definite ‘they’ might be seen in this light.

Furthermore, linguistic difficulty is also a sign of status which is why elites often have longer, more complex names and titles than commoners.  For example, honorific speech in Japanese is much longer and more complex than speech between equals.  The additional complexity of new grammatical genders also helps confer status upon those new categories which may feel somewhat equalizing for traditionally marginalized groups.

Again, contra the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, there is no evidence that honorific pronouns like the royal we cause other people to feel more respect toward the object of the pronoun, but the pronouns you use certainly affect your own identity.  You can try it for yourself.  Use the majestic plural pronouns (like ‘we’ and ‘us’) when referring to yourself for an hour and the change in pronouns will make you feel differently about yourself (uh, sorry, I mean, about yourselves).  The importance of pronouns for expressing identity and status is why Japanese has 18 different pronouns for the word “I” plus at least 10 additional pronouns for “I” that are no longer common, but are part of the literary tradition.  Pronouns are part of our identity and identity has a big impact on how we feel.  Other people may also feel differently about you, but not necessarily in a good way.  

Another evolving tradition in gender identity is how people announce their gender identity beside their name.  English speakers used to use gender specific honorifics like Mr., Ms., and the married-female gender, Mrs.  This has been going out of fashion and English speakers have increasingly been writing multiple different grammatical cases of the same pronoun such as “he/him/his”.  It is odd that multiple cases are used when gender is communicated perfectly well with a single pronoun case such as just “he”. Writing multiple pronouns 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” rather than “we/y’all/they”?  If we are going to use the plural “they”, then why not also  use plural first/second/third-person pronouns too.  Making all the pronouns exclusively plural could augment a feeling of respect because, as mentioned before, numerous linguistic traditions use majestic plural pronouns to signify high social status for someone so big that singular just seems too small.


Adjectives are words that are designed for describing more details about nouns whereas pronouns are words that are designed for hiding some details about nouns, so it makes more sense to write an adjective to identify gender rather than a trio of pronouns as is current practice. Instead of a woman writing ‘she/her/hers,’ someday she will probably just use an adjective like ‘female’ or perhaps a gendered honorific like Ms. lists adjectives for 68 different kinds of genders whereas we only have three common pronoun genders (so far), so our adjectives are already much more descriptive because they encompass dozens of different kinds of gender identities.  And an adjective is a more natural grammatical structure than a trio of pronouns for specifying classifications like gender.

Right now people prefer to identify gender using “they/them/their” rather than an adjective because the point is to change the English language more than to identify gender.  Once everyone gets the pronouns they want for their genders, we will probably use adjectives to describe our genders instead of pronouns, or perhaps we will go back to using gendered honorifics next to our names. That was the traditional way to announce the gender of an ambiguous name like Mr. Robin Hood or Ms. Robin Wright.  The most common gender-neutral honorific is Mx. which is pronounced various ways.

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 foreign languages with ‘he’ and ‘she’ into written Chinese.

Posted in Philosophy and ethics
One comment on “The campaign to change our pronouns is partly caused by the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistics
  1. […] ok to use?  When can the word “Negro” be used and when is it offensive?  What pronouns should you use when talking about a new […]

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 92 other subscribers
Blog Archive