Changes in language are a good marker for changes in society. English is amazingly malleable. As things and ideas change, we adopt new words and phrases as readily as we do puppies and kittens, and alter or abandon them as readily as we do dogs and cats.
When things get personal, especially in a politically charged atmosphere, language changes begin to get contentious. The women’s liberation movement, arguing that a woman is, first, a woman, and, only incidentally, married or unmarried, proposed Ms. in place of the Mrs./Miss options, and eventually won (though the subservient undertones of Miz, as spoken, were uncomfortable to supporters of the concurrent civil rights movement).
Trends have changed and, though Ms. holds its place, the assumption that a woman is a woman has gotten complicated. As gender identity, itself, becomes more malleable, Ms. might be Mr., Mr. might be Ms., or a new term might emerge, (Mrs., as a logical combination of the two?).
Because pronouns express our identity, changes therein get noticed. The change from It is I to It is me once drove thousands of teachers to distraction and bloodied the nose of more than one holdout (Teacher’s Pet!). Her and me are friends, though grating, probably isn’t an existential threat to the language. And Between you and I, though annoyingly pretentious, is not a sign of Armageddon. Since word order, in English, is what identifies subject and object, we still understand what’s meant.
Some pronoun changes, seemingly simple, nonetheless express significant social change, like the still-undecided question how we avoid assumptions about a subject’s gender reference: not A doctor must be true to his calling, but … his/her calling or, substituting singular/plural inconsistency for mere awkwardness, … their calling.
The real battle is still to come, as pressure grows to avoid making gender assumptions about individuals. Those of us who don’t want to offend unnecessarily, and prefer to save offense for when it is really needed, would welcome neutral terms that make no gender assumptions whatsoever.
But English isn’t helpful. It assigns gender to anyone who is not I or you or we or they — he/him/his and she/her/hers — apparently assuming I know mine and you know yours, and we and they may be made up of both genders. Not every language ties itself in this gender knot. The Chinese third-person singular — ta — could be a he a she or an it.
Besides being politically delicate, the quest for a pronoun that bridges the gender gap has a practical dimension. Should we adapt what we’ve got, as we have with Ms., or will we need to come up with new words?
If the former, and assuming that male and female get equal weight, we have nothing but horrors: shehe? hesh? herm? himr? hisers? hersis? We might cut our losses by keeping what we’ve got and simply asking, Do you want to be known as he or as she? But that doesn’t cover all those we can’t ask.
In any case, it may be wisest and best to let gender-identity activists, themselves, propose a solution, though we might ask the Chinese if we could borrow ta (which has the added advantage of being the same, as subject or object — He hit she; She hit he — all the same, all ta).
We haven’t even touched on nouns — man, woman, boy, girl, father, mother, actor, majorette — that make controversial gender assumptions. Tackling these, we’ll need the foresight, the fine sensitivity, and the courage of the obstetrician who bursts into the waiting room and announces, Congratulations! It’s a goy!