From time immemorial, people have changed their religion or changed their names in the pursuit of historical justice.
“They were there
You thought — always in your care
But they grew up and drifted away
Even as my hairs grew grey.
And they in turn will find
That it’s all we proudly leave behind.”
From Go Down to the Godown by Bachchoo
I have now received two communications from normally sane people with sentences in which they include inappropriate pronouns. Instead of writing “he” or “she” when referring to a man or woman, these communications use the pronoun “they”. And instead of his or her, they would use the plural possessive pronoun. This conceit — and I am sure it will pass — is an attempt to eradicate references to gender from the English language. The attempt is prompted by the canard that human beings need not acknowledge the gender which their chromosomes determine at conception.
One can agree that if a man wants to be known as a woman, he (or should I say “they”?) have a right to assert the belief. It doesn’t follow that anyone who, however casually, doesn’t believe that the said man is a woman because they says (sic) so, is a reactionary or a fascist. Gender fluidity is an individual’s business so it makes no sense to demand that the world accept and acknowledge such fluidity, even though it would be polite and good manners to so do.
I have no intention, gentle reader, of modifying the way I use pronouns in English. Neither do I agree that identifying Mr or Master Joe Bloggs or Janadhan Bholaram as “he”, or writing about Miss, Mrs or Ms Jane Bloggs or Janky Bholaram as “she”, is wrong or in any way a denial of their rights. In continuation of such a thought, if a man asserts that he has changed his gender and is now a woman, I am absolutely prepared to refer to her as “she”.
From time immemorial, people have changed their religion or changed their names in the pursuit of historical justice. The “lower castes” of Hindu society followed their leader B.R. Ambedkar and converted to casteless Buddhism. Black Americans abandoned the European names that they had been christened with as a consequence of their slave ancestors being branded with their masters’ surnames. So we had Malcolm X in the US and Michael de Freitas, a Trinidadian in Britain, becoming Michael Abdul Malik and then Michael X. The world knows that Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr changed his name and won worldwide fame and respect while using his new one. Calling yourself one thing or the other, for whatever purpose, is legitimate and has been universally tolerated. Legislating for, or imposing language or linguistic quirks on others, is more convoluted — motivated in many instances by attempting to signal that you are more socially meticulous and virtuous than others.
Of course, there ought to be restrictions, social and even legal, on insulting language. Though such restrictions can be ironically flouted, they are generally accepted. One may not use the N word as a form of abuse, though some black Americans, ironically, do constantly throw it about.
In Britain, an MP called Jacob Rees-Mogg was elevated by Boris Johnson, the new Prime Minister, to the Cabinet position of Leader of the Commons.
On assuming office, he issued a bizarre, patronising memo to his civil servants and employees in his ministry. The memo bans certain words and alludes to grammatical practices which Rees-Mogg objects to.
For instance, he doesn’t approve of the word “hopefully”. I agree with this snob that the word was not invented to mean “I hope that such and such happens.” It is (or was?) an adverb: so if one said “I travel hopefully” it means I travel with hope in my heart and not that my train will not be cancelled.
However, with language, practice is all and usage establishes it. “Hopefully” has now become part of universal English and means something wished for. I humbly accept but don’t expect Jacob to follow. He has other words in his list such as “very” but doesn’t specify the context in which he objects to its use. He points out, quite mistakenly, that “and” can never be followed by a comma. It can and, given the opportunity, I can prove it!
But back, gentle reader, to gender. English has three of these. Apart from creatures with a biological gender, nouns are deemed neutral and become “it”. In French, German and the Sanskritic languages, objects are ennobled with gender, though Sanskrit itself has three genders.
The intriguing thing is how the classification of objects, in any language, as male or female came about. Learned texts tell me that in Sanskrit the sound of the common or proper noun determined its gender. So a river is feminine and a cloud is masculine — and this from the sounds of Sanskrit, Hindi or Marathi names for river and cloud.
Then how do new nouns acquire a gender? Why is “Internet” male? And one wouldn’t say “e-mail bheyji” — one would say “aapka e-mail mila”… And Twitter?