Author Interview: Dennis Baron On 'What's Your Pronoun?'

Jan 26, 2020
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It's a seemingly simple question with a complicated history and many possible answers. It's this - what's your pronoun? And it's a question Dennis Baron has wrestled with a lot. He's professor emeritus of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois. And he's written a new book on the issue called "What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond She and He." He joins us now from our member station WILL in Champaign-Urbana. Welcome to the program.

DENNIS BARON: Hi. Great to be here.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is such a timely topic. We see so many people - right? - putting their personal pronouns at the ends of emails and other places. But before we go there, personal pronouns, you write, are an issue in the English language because we have something that's missing.

BARON: Right. We have a missing word. There is - for the - to get technical - third-person singular personal pronouns, we have the masculine he, his, him. We've got the feminine she, her, hers. We've got the neuter it and its. But we don't have a neutral pronoun to refer to people that doesn't mention gender.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. And you talk about the very long discussion to make up for this deficiency. There have been all sorts of attempts, including one that I hadn't heard of, ze - sort of made-up words, as well.

BARON: Exactly. There are words borrowed from other languages. As early as the end of the 18th and early 19th centuries, people suggested, how about a dialect word? How about borrowing something from French or Latin? How about making up a word, coining a word? And a few people even said, well, what about the singular they? People use it. Grammarians tended to say that was ungrammatical. But then the comeback was, you is both singular and plural. Why can't they be both singular and plural?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why did this debate happen as far back as it did? We tend to see this debate as a symptom, perhaps, of the discussions happening in the modern world, in the current political climate. But you write that this has been a very long search.

BARON: It started, as far as I can tell, around the 1780s, when people began noticing, hey, I can't quite say what I want to say, which is to refer to a generic noun - like person or everybody or the writer or the speaker - without referring to a specific gender. What if I want to include all genders? Or in those days, they really were thinking about both genders. They were pretty binary in their thinking. What if we won't have both men and women writers, both men and women somebodies? There's no word that I can use that will do that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a really important point because now this issue is about maybe nonbinary people. But back then, this was about gender inclusivity. It was about essentially saying, there are women, too, not just men.

BARON: Exactly. The generic he, which had been the sort of go-to pronoun - people started to realize it's not doing the job. Too often, he means only men. It doesn't include women. And so they said, we've got to have a word. And interestingly, the combination - the phrase his or her, him or her, he or she - nobody ever liked that. They said it's too long.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, it's kind of cumbersome, yeah?

BARON: Cumbersome, awkward, repetitive. If you have to say the pronoun more than once, it gets really involved. And today we'd add to that criticism. It's also very binary. So it doesn't include people who are gender nonconforming or who are trans or who are - somehow don't considers themselves on that sort of stereotypical binary spectrum.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As a watcher of language, do you think we're at a tipping point now where things have moved in the direction of using they - or at least having it be acceptable of defining your pronouns - that we now might be entering a new era where this will be much more common and much more accepted?

BARON: I think it's already more common. And it's becoming increasingly accepted. I think we will continue to have multiple solutions to the pronoun issue. He and she are not going away. Singular they is here to stay. And a significant number of people - not a huge number but a significant number - are using invented or coined pronouns. And that's fine. There's no reason why we have to have a one-word solution. One size does not fit all in the English language. We have multiple synonyms for all kinds of words. We can have multiple pronoun uses, as well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dennis Baron is the author of "What's Your Pronoun?" Thank you very much.

BARON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.