Actually, Gender-Neutral Pronouns Can Change a Culture

For a question with so much riding on it—does using politically correct language actually make a person less of a jerk?—the test was deceptively simple.

Here’s what you do: Show people a sketch of a cartoon person—circle-for-head, ovals for arms and body—with a dotted line linking it to an equally cartoony thing, a balloon-animal dog. Over the person’s head loom two thought bubbles, a round one containing three question marks and a jagged one with three exclamation points. That’s it. And the test is, describe what’s happening.

Importantly, the people being tested, upwards of 2,000 of them, were all native speakers of Swedish, an old language that has learned a new trick. Like English, Swedish used two pronouns to indicate the gender of a person, hon (she) and han (he). But in 2012, a new word dropped into Swedish discourse: hen, a non-gendered pronoun that could replace either or both.

So this was the real test. Would native-speaker Swedes, seven years after getting a new pronoun plugged into their language, be more likely to assume this androgynous cartoon was a man? A woman? Either, or neither? Now that they had a word for it, a nonbinary option, would they think to use it?

And they did. Not only did the Swedish speakers use the nonbinary option to describe the, let’s face it, nonbinary human, but in other surveys they deployed hen (as well as han, but the feminine hon, too) to describe people in stories when their genders weren’t specified. Now it’s true, the researchers don’t have comparable tests from before 2012, before hen. So this result is, as UCLA political psychologist Efrén Pérez says, merely suggestive. Still, though, “this word has no biological associations. It’s from scratch. And it’s performing the way some proponents argued it would,” says Pérez, co-author of a paper describing these tests in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “These language changes can nudge people in directions some folks find normatively worthy.”

This is the implicit promise of letting people choose their pronouns, and of having some of those pronouns be disconnected from gender. Sure, it’s good to find language that accommodates people’s identities, especially if that identity doesn’t fit the binary masculine/feminine split. But more than that, new words (and maybe old words with new uses, like singular they/them, but more on that in a bit) can incept that new idea into everyone—the binary isn’t the end of the story, masculine isn’t the default, and people should be able to decouple action and concepts from gender. “Most people don’t have ready-made attitudes on most things we think are important. If your language nudges you in some direction, it should have some nontrivial effect on your opinion,” says Pérez. “You could boil it down to, how does the language you speak affect how you see the world?”

Languages handle pronouns and gender in different ways. Some avoid gender altogether, some gender just the pronouns, others inflect the nouns, too. Certain languages even use masculine words or forms as plurals or generics—like “all mankind,” for example, as a stand-in for all people. That’s called androcentrism, the idea that men also represent everyone. And over the years, linguists and other social scientists have come up with a few ideas to combat it—to neutralize androcentric terminology and concepts. You can pare down pairs of masculine and feminine words with the same meaning to just one—aviator and aviatrix to pilot, waiter and waitress to waiter, author and authoress to author. You could make up new words and terms—firefighter, mail carrier, police officer. In pronoun land, that’d be ideas like ze or e. Or you could do what English seems to be trending toward, which is to take a non-gendered, plural, third-person pronoun—they—and repurpose it as singular.

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