Wednesday, 23 May 2012

Gender neutral pronouns make for a confusing read!

The Swedish have proposed a new gender-neutral pronoun for their language, the word 'hen'.  The Swedish National Encycolpaedia defines this word as the: "proposed gender-neutral personal pronoun instead of he [han in Swedish] and she [hon]." See here.  The idea of introducing gender-neutrality into language is to reduce gender stereotyping.

The promotion of gender-neutrality in all aspects of life is, I guess, so that people can be whoever or whatever they want to be without pre-conceived ideas about the norms of gender getting in the way. The idea is (hypothetically) that a boy would be happy dressing in a pink dress, being called Jemima, and growing up to become a nanny; a girl would be happy wearing combats, being called Bruce, and growing up to be a lumber-jack - and I presume because everyone was so genderless and un-indoctrinated by gender stereotyping, not a comment would be made and no eyebrows would be raised, everyone's happy.

Well, not everyone is happy - the old nature/nurture argument begins...I'd go with mostly nature, but that's a whole other post.

Now this isn't universally accepted in Sweden, but some have adopted this new word. Gender neutral books have been written, using this new pronoun; thus the gender of the characters are not identified.

It isn't a new idea, over the years all sorts of suggestions have been made for a gender neutral pronoun in the English language, one such idea was introduced by Michael Spivak in 1983 - but even then his wasn't an original idea.

I wondered how it would work if all literature was rewritten with all gender references and distinction removed.  What would the Bible look like, for instance?

So for a test I had a go at a well-known Bible passage - where Abraham's servant is sent out to find a wife for Isaac.

I have used Spivak's pronouns:

He/she = E
Him/her = Em
His/her = Eir
His/hers = Eirs
Himself/herself - Emself

For other gender specific words I have used gender-neutral language:

Brother/sister =  sibling
Man/Woman = person
Husband/wife = spouse
Master/mistress = overseer
Son(s)/daughter(s) = child(ren)
Lord/lady = boss
Father/mother = parent

I've only made the changes for people, I have left the gender-specific terms for God as they are, though a truly gender-neutral Bible would change the pronouns (etc) for God also.

12 Then E prayed, “Lord, God of my overseer Abraham, make me successful today, and show kindness to my overseer Abraham. 13 See, I am standing beside this spring, and the children of the townspeople are coming out to draw water. 14 May it be that when I say to a young person, ‘Please let down your jar that I may have a drink,’ and E says, ‘Drink, and I’ll water your camels too’ —let Eir be the one you have chosen for your servant Isaac. By this I will know that you have shown kindness to my overseer.”

15 Before E had finished praying, Rebekah came out with Eir jar on Eir shoulder. E was the child of Bethuel child of Milkah, who was the spouse of Abraham’s sibling Nahor. 16 The person was very beautiful, a virgin; no person had ever slept with Em. E went down to the spring, filled Eir jar and came up again.

17 The servant hurried to meet Em and said, “Please give me a little water from your jar.”

18 “Drink, my boss,” E said, and quickly lowered the jar to Eir hands and gave Em a drink.

19 After E had given Em a drink, E said, “I’ll draw water for your camels too, until they have had enough to drink.” 20 So E quickly emptied Eir jar into the trough, ran back to the well to draw more water, and drew enough for all Eir camels. 21 Without saying a word, the person watched Em closely to learn whether or not the Lord had made Eir journey successful.

22 When the camels had finished drinking, the person took out a gold nose ring weighing a beka and two gold bracelets weighing ten shekels. 23 Then E asked, “Whose child are you? Please tell me, is there room in your parent’s house for us to spend the night? ”

24 E answered Em, “I am the child of Bethuel, the child that Milkah bore to Nahor. ” 25 And E added, “We have plenty of straw and fodder, as well as room for you to spend the night.”

26 Then the person bowed down and worshiped the Lord, 27 saying, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of my overseer Abraham, who has not abandoned his kindness and faithfulness to my overseer. As for me, the Lord has led me on the journey to the house of my overseer's relatives.”

28 The young person ran and told Eir parent’s household about these things. 29 Now Rebekah had a sibling named Laban, and E hurried out to the person at the spring. 30 As soon as E had seen the nose ring, and the bracelets on Eir sibling’s arms, and had heard Rebekah tell what the person said to Em, E went out to the person and found Em standing by the camels near the spring. 31 “Come, you who are blessed by the Lord,” E said. “Why are you standing out here? I have prepared the house and a place for the camels.”  (from Genesis 24 adapted from the NIV 2011).

Confusing eh?

Can you imagine how confusing a romantic story would be?  Instead of 'he said - she said' it would be 'E said - E said' - and we would be none-the-wiser.


  1. Kind of like thinking there is no absolute truth. I think it's kind of silly, very ambiguous and confusing and unnecessary.

    1. Yes. My personal view is that a woman is different to a man; not less-than, just different. I believe there is nothing wrong with rejoicing in our differences. :)

  2. For some people (unfortunately) such a romantic story would be completely satisfying...

    1. For me, the differences between men and women are all part of God's beautiful creation.

      I suppose it is of course possible to write a genderless story though, just as it is possible to record a conversation between two men or women without causing confusion.

      But I do believe that great swathes of the Bible would lose all meaning.

  3. I'd like to try this with one of my Georgette Heyer romances. I think gender neutrality thing is actually quite a dangerous concept, particularly for women. But that's a whole other rant.

    1. My Mum loves Georgette Heyer - there was an online gender neutral translator that I came across, I've no idea how to locate it now.

      I agree, I don't think that it is good for either men or women.

  4. I read your post and seriously confused myself LOL So I read it again.

    And I have to agree with you, I don't understand why the need to change. I don't think that a man or a woman are better than the other, just simply different and there's nothing wrong with that.