The Vancouver School Board has done something really dumb. Which is nice, because most of the dumb school board things you hear about are from the US. They decided that they wanted to let students choose the pronouns used to refer to them: he/him/his or she/her/her. So far so good. They also wanted to give students a third, gender-neutral option. Also admirable.
This is where things start to go wrong. Their gender-neutral option consists of xe, xem, and xer. Now, a lot of people have tried to introduce gender-neutral pronouns in the past, none of which have stuck, probably because their suggestions were typically almost as dumb as this one. I mean, seriously, these don’t even look like they’re trying to be English words. And it seems to me that if you want a new word to be used, maybe make sure it’s obvious how to pronounce them.
According to the story in the National Post, the new pronouns are “pronounced to rhyme with the genderless plurals, they, them, and their, only starting with the ‘z’ sound.” Here’s an idea. If you want your pronoun to be pronounced with a z sound, spell it with a fucking z.
But here’s the thing that drives me nuts. We already have a perfectly good set of gender-neutral pronouns. No, not it. The singular they. Sure, there are a few circumstances where it sounds clunky: When Elvira got to the restaurant, they ordered a glass of wine. But is it really any worse than When Elvira got to the restaurant, xe ordered a glass of wine?
But, on the other hand, the singular they is the norm when referring to a non-specific individual, as in Someone left their penumbra in the cloak room, or Anyone who orders a marmot from a catalog shouldn’t be surprised if they get a second-rate marmot.
The National Post story includes a number of interesting comments about the history of gender-neutral pronouns from Dennis Baron, of the University of Illinois, ending with this:
Prof. Barron is skeptical, however, of the longevity of xe, xem and xyr, given the failures of their predecessors.
“It’s very hard to inject a word into the language,” he said. “The pronouns that do arise tend to arise naturally. Obviously somebody has to come up with them, but it’s not a campaign to get a word adopted, it’s something that just sort of catches on by word of mouth, literally.”
Arise naturally, like they.
(via Boing Boing)