Monday, March 15, 2010


Xe is, as far as I can tell, currently the most popular constructed genderless third person human pronoun in English (constructed to serve a purpose not adequately covered by it, which only applies to humans in a pejorative sense, and the singular they, which is a natural development of the language of ancient vintage, but which is pretty much only usable when the individual person being referred to is non-specific, rather than in cases of a specific person whose gender is not being specified). The pronoun is used primarily in cases where a person's gender is unknown (to replace the sexist practice of defaulting to "he") or when the person's gender falls outside of the traditional binary.
I have two kind of opposing, kind of complementary, feelings about the word.
The first is that as a construction it's incredibly awkward. "Xe" does not look like an English word, and there is no obvious way to pronounce it (I imagine that most people on seeing it for the first time would eventually come to the correct pronunciation, "zee," but only after some puzzling, and there's still a bunch of room for error). The object form of the word, "hir," isn't much better, particularly since on analogy from "sir" and "fir" most people would likely come to a pronunciation identical to to "her," which of course entirely defeats the purpose. If the intention is to eventually create an unmarked pronoun, so that people of indeterminate or non-traditional gender can be referred to as casually as people of specified, standard gender, then these are huge obstacles. It is true that familiarity can render anything unmarked; no one stumbles over Xerox, for example, though it shares many of the same problems. The difference, of course, is that a brand name has millions of dollars behind it working to shove it into our faces at all times; transgender people and default-he-avoiding linguistic feminists don't have this enforced familiarity working for them. In fact, both uses of the word are efforts to familiarize and normalize simultaneously (I think it's safe to say that most people don't have everyday experience with genderqueer people--to their knowledge, at any rate--or with considering the impacts of gendered language on thought). This is a difficult enough task without using such strange words. I haven't even gotten into how the particularly combination of phonemes in xe and hir make them both slightly more difficult (time and effort consuming) to pronounce than the already existent third-person pronouns, which I suspect might be an even larger obstacle.

And no, I don't have a suggestion for a better pronoun. Of what I've seen suggested, the Spivak system seems the most natural, although even it looks awfully weird written down, and no one seems to use it anyway. The naturally occurring yo found in some Baltimore schools seems promising, though I haven't heard any news about it since 2007.

My second feeling about xe is more of an emotional reaction than a procedural one. I'll be writing about it soon, hopefully tomorrow.

Incidentally, my Firefox spellchecker doesn't know the words xe, hir, genderqueer, or even transgender. Long way to go. Then again, it doesn't know how to spell Rhode Island, either, so I guess that really doesn't mean much.

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