Opinion

They is a problem

They is a problem

It’s perhaps because their power is such a mirage, a well-perpetuated fraud, that kings and priests have always understood the importance of pronouns. Royalty, and even minor nobility, never call themselves “I” or are addressed as “you” — “hum khush hue”, they will say, as if inherited privilege represents a collective.

In 2015, Sweden decided to adopt the term “hen”, a gender-neutral pronoun to be used alongside “hon” and “han” (she and he) in the Swedish language. A study conducted over three years by Efrén Pérez of the University of California and Margit Tavits at Washington University published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that gender-neutral depictions like the one in Sweden helped combat pro-men biases and even increased sensitivity towards LGBTQI people. The study simply confirms what many gender and queer rights activists have long argued, that the bias towards heterosexual men in particular, and gender binaries in general reinforces inequality. But is fighting to change words, and grammar, the best battle to engage in the war for equality?

For some time now, there has been a search for a gender-neutral pronoun in English as well. The latest candidate, “they”, is gaining some popularity among enlightened (or “woke”) young people. But syntax is a hard thing to change, the plural pronoun does not roll off the tongue nor sit well on a page. Sample: “They is happy about their new shoes.” Language does, of course, evolve — just look at the number of Indian words in our erstwhile coloniser’s dictionaries. But it does not evolve as and when we please. In the meantime, faced with the fact that words do indeed oppress, it is important to endeavour to ensure that the limits of language are not the limits of decency.