Tuesday, April 4, 2017

THEM!

There was a classic sci-fi movie in the Fifties called THEM. I saw it when it first came out, and it still gives me a chill to think about it all these years later. It depicted an invasion by giant radioactive ants, fugitives from desert A-bomb testing that made a rampage of death and destruction across the Southwest until finally settling in the sewers of Los Angeles. I remember it starred James Arness, fresh from playing the intergalactic vegetable in my favorite monster flic, The Thing. Since seeing THEM as a child, I have never been able to hear the pronoun "them" used out of context without thinking of that movie.

Well, I heard it used just that way the other day. My step-daughter told me that one of her classmates, who was born female but identifies as male, was insisting that everyone at school not refer to her with the words "him" or "her," but rather, as "them." Now, to paraphrase Mark Twain, this is asking the English language to do something it wasn't designed for. He/she is now them, his/her possessions are now their and theirs, and, presumably, when they refer to themselves (themself?) it is as we, us, they and ours.

I, of course, suggested that the person in question be encouraged to see the movie THEM before demanding to be identified with it (at least in my mind). I mean, the giant ants were terrifying to look at, ravenously homicidal, and made a horrible screeching noise. But I don't suppose they will - look at the movie, that is. This is all by way of saying that, increasingly, social norms and political correctness are wreaking the havoc of giant ants on our language (not to mention on bathrooms, proms, marriage, and so on). History teaches us that the first victim of tyranny is always language; bullies, oppressors and self-styled victims must always attack the way we think and speak about things, which enables them to slip into a mainstream distorted sufficiently to accommodate them (us, theirs, they).

Now, I have long been a firm believer in the principle that every human being should be allowed to live his or her life as he or she wishes without interference from the outside. As far as I'm concerned you can be any gender you want and use any bathroom you please; but there are limits, and pronouns clearly are one of them. Our pronouns were designed to reflect three genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. As a language, we are fortunate to have three: Romance languages (that is, languages derived from Latin) have only two - masculine and feminine - and I have witnessed the confusion that can cause as new words enter these languages. The French, for example, have to decide whether software is male or female, requiring them to invent a new word and trace its imaginary origins back to Latin. How would the Romans have referred to a blog or a selfie? Are they masculine or feminine? What would Augustus say?

The short answer is that they are neither; that is, they are neuter, and if French-speakers would simply synthesize a neuter gender and shove all their neither-one-nor-the-other words into it, life would be much simpler for them (her, him, it). But when I once suggested at a dinner table full of Belgians that they do this, the very suggestion was met with scorn and indignation. A third gender? An "it"? Never! Why not? I don't know, but no!

Now we find ourselves (theirselves, themselves) in a similar quandary. If people refuse to be labelled by traditional English pronouns implying gender, then it seems to me they have two choices: they can either adopt the neuter pronoun "it" (which would still give them the plurals they and them and those), or they can invent new pronouns for their own use, and try to force them (it, those) on the rest of us.

Of course, referring to oneself or being referred to as an "it" would appear demeaning, so I suppose that idea is a non-starter. And so it would seem that new pronouns are demanded. When I raised this inevitability with my fourteen-year-old, he informed me that an effort to create such gender-neutral (though not neuter) pronouns is already under way, and he did a quick Google on them (is Google male or female?). What he came up with was a gloss containing among others: e/ey, eirself, per, perself, ve, verself, xe, xemself, and ze, hir, hirself. (Yes, linguists in the LGBTQ community are actually working at this.)

Well, all of those sound pretty ugly to me, more appropriate for giant ants than humans, and so I want to suggest that we just go straight at the gender-neutral pronoun problem head-on and use "gen." Gen, gen's, genself, genselves. And that we adopt a fourth gender in the language: masculine, feminine, neuter and gen. Them will then become gen, their stuff will be gen's, they can think of themselves (theirselves) as genself and genselves, and they can all get rich selling t-shirts, charm bracelets, monogrammed towels and so on to their (gen's, gens') heart's content.