Language should evolve as society does

Danielle Zukowski

My Anthropology of Language class was presented this discussion prompt in the early days of the semester. We were asked what we use versus what’s most grammatical. Being a linguistics lover and a huge fan of singular ‘they,’ I knew my pick right away.

In the past, it was commonly considered grammatical to use the word ‘his’ in formal academic essays. ‘He’ was believed to be representative of all genders. It was considered the appropriate pronoun. However, this didn’t go down too well with, oh gee, I don’t know, the people who felt excluded from this? Albeit the intention, when you hear the word ‘he’ are you immediately inclined to think of all genders? Likely not.

Some people began adding some variety of ‘or her’ to the mix. As in “every student has a right to his or her language.” More inclusive, right? But a little awkward in some situations especially when you use the ‘and/ or’ in between and writing begins to feel less like your paper and more like legal documents. It wasn’t perfect.

Some writers lashed back with ‘her’ as this omnipotent literary pronoun. If ‘he’ is hypothetically representative, why can’t ‘she’ be? Even my Speech Language Pathology textbook switches back and forth between singular use of the two every few pages as a sort of balanced compromise. Unfortunately though even that type of logic is just as problematic. It’s just not inclusive and it perpetuated false perceptions of the feminist movement, whose purpose is to aim for social, economic, and political equality for all genders but, of course, every group has their radicals.

Nevertheless, for the purposes of simplicity and inclusion, I utilize singular ‘they,’ which has actually been used for longer than you may think, although it certainly has become more popular in recent years. I try to use ‘they’ as much as I can as noting gender is sometimes,maybe even often, not necessary. I think there is a need for this term in situations where things do not have to be gendered or at least a different term that conveys the same meaning.

Despite ‘they’ being my go to inclination, I’ve recently been made aware of a hypocrisy I didn’t know I was exhibiting. It’s kind of a Michigander youth thing to approach a group and be like, “hey guys” regardless of the present genders. We were talking about it in class and I kind of shrugged it off as our culture, but then I started thinking about it. I’m not really seeing how a perceived all encompassing ‘guys’ in speech is much different than ‘he’ in academic writing. However, it’s hard to naturally and spontaneously use an alternative because I don’t know about you, but I often speak with little mental consideration although the intention is there. Even so, I’ve been making the effort to find a different phrase as I did with ‘they.’

Language as a whole is constantly evolving, but our individual speech goes through changes as we age as well. Sometimes this occurs when we meet a new friend and start picking up their words. Other times, our lexicon is expanded due to entry into a new field of work. Try to be conscious of these changes. It can be fascinating to see how a word goes from unknown to a part of our everyday vocabulary.