Sunday, June 29, 2014

Solving (Kind Of) The Great Pronoun Problem

Does the language you speak influence the thoughts you think, or is it the other way around? This is the kind of thing professional linguists have been arguing about for years, while the rest of us having been raising families, eating cheese, and watching TV.

In this review of linguist John McWhorter's new book, linguist Graeme Wood tells us about the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" which, contra its name, is not the title of a Star Trek episode, but rather a once-fashionable idea promulgated by two linguists named Sapir and Whorf--an idea that is now as fashionable in linguistic circles as top hats are among skateboarders. As Wood puts it:
According to Sapir-Whorf, a person’s view of the world is refracted through her language, like a pair of spectacles (not necessarily well-prescribed) superglued to his face.
Here we come up against one of the more irksome deficiencies of the English language. Aside from not having a word to describe Charlie Sheen that does not have the words "douche" or "bag" in it, we lack a gender-neutral pronoun. It can be a tricky obstacle, and, in my hastily-formed opinion, the author in this instance, while trying to manuever around it, did a thudding faceplant.

Let's consider the options for recasting that sentence:

You could go all-inclusive, all the time--"a person's view of the world is refracted through his or her language like a pair of spectacles superglued to his or her face"--but that gets tedious pretty quickly. (And if you are even thinking of going with "his/her," I'm sorry, but you cannot be trusted at a keyboard without supervision.)

You could stubbornly stick with "his" throughout, or with "her"--and risk being thought of as either a doddering old chauvinist or someone making a conspicuously feminist statement.

You can revise the sentence to include only plural forms--"peoples' views of the world are refracted through their language like pairs of spectacles..." No, forget it--that's a non-starter in this situation.

You can try the "can't we all just get along?" approach and toggle between the two in the interests of equal time, which seems to be what Wood was going for here. But that can become distracting too, even when it occurs only sporadically throughout a chapter or paragraph. In this instance, our hypothetical person underwent gender-reassignment surgery before we made it to the end of the sentence, and that is just disorienting, even for the most LGBTQ-friendly among us.

So what's the answer? I'm going to go out on a shaky limb here and say this is one of those situations where the most natural solution is to bend the rules--albiet in a way that is becoming more and more acceptable among grammar snots who recognize that sometimes we just have to find a way around the pronoun conundrum, dammit. That's right, I'm talking about the singular "their."

To wit, "a person's view of the world is refracted through their language like a pair of spectacles superglued to their face." Sure, when it comes to usage rules, it is still the equivalent of walking across the street against the light. But in this case, it's midnight in a small town, and there is no traffic for miles. Just go for it.