Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"He" = a man, or gender neutral pronouns make their appearance

I’ve posted before about how my children view gender neutral words such as “firefighter” or “police officer” as the norm. (Actually they don’t say “police officer” they say that someone is a “police,” and so do all their friends. Apparently, we’re in the process of creating a new noun.) Recently, I’ve noticed that my kids’ use of gender neutral language has gone beyond simply accepting gender neutral nouns. They insist on gender neutral pronouns as well.

Sometimes, when we’re driving home, I will complain about the other drivers. Maria will often ask, after she hears me mutter, what I just said. Not wanting to increase her vocabulary of taboo words, my usual response is:

“Oh, that car isn’t being safe.”
“Why?” she responds.
“Oh, maybe he’s just not paying attention,” I’ll say, not wanting her to think the world is full of crazy people.
“How do you know it’s a he?”

She catches me on it every time! I don’t know it’s a “he,” but apparently, I unconsciously use “he” as a generic pronoun. It’s nice to know that my 4 year old doesn’t have that unconscious bias toward male pronouns. For her, “he” is definitely male. And “she” is definitely female. When I respond, “Oh, they’re not paying attention,” she doesn’t bat an eye. Clearly “they” can be either male or female, singular or plural.

Equally heartening was Tommy’s response to the original text of Harry the Dirty Dog. We have an ancient copy of the book, printed in 1956. Last winter, Tommy was reading this book aloud to me as part of his evening reading homework. We got to the page of the book where Harry, having changed from a white dog with black spots to a black dog with white spots, was trying to convince his family that he was really Harry. After Harry had done all of his old tricks, the text reads: “Everyone shook his head and said ‘no, that couldn’t be Harry.’” Tommy stopped at that point and exclaimed

“His head?! It shouldn’t be “his”!”
“What should it be?” I asked.
“Their head,” he promptly replied. And then he thought for a moment, “Or his or her.”

Once again, clear evidence that for my children, “his” is not a generic pronoun, but a specific male one. “They” and “their” are the generic pronouns for my kids. At 7, Tommy recognizes that “his or her” is an option, but it’s definitely a less preferred option. Even so, ‘his or her’ is preferred over ‘his’ alone. Every time we read this book, he stops and complains about that pronoun!

The only reason that we were ‘supposed’ to use ‘his’ as a pronoun was because scholars tried to impose rules of mathematical logic to language. 'Every' is singular, and therefore 'should' have a singular pronoun associated with it. But in English, ‘his’ clearly has a male quality to it, one that my children recognize. ‘They’ on the other hand, because it’s plural, has the quality of ‘unspecified’ gender . If there is more than one, you don’t know if the people are male or female, or a combination of the two. So extending the plural pronoun to refer to a single person when you don't know the gender, is a natural extension. Using it to refer back to 'everyone' when the group is clearly a mixed group of males and females, also makes perfect sense. It’s nice to see the triumph of the function of language over so-called logic.

It was also nice to look up a modern rendition of the story and find that this page, after Harry has failed to convince his family of who he is, now reads “Everyone shook their head...” Sometimes publishers do indeed edit for the better!

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