April 24, 2019

Horse 2535 - Ou Said, Ou Said - On Genderless Pronouns

Speaking as someone who works in a field where writing letters is often fraught with the possibility that someone else wants to be litigious and sue the pants, shirt and hide of you, I have long come to the conclusion that all Mr, Mrs and Ms titles should be dropped from correspondence. It is my experience that you are guaranteed to offend someone at some point and so it is simply not worth the hassle. Titles like Dr, Prof, and Sgt. should on the other hand be retained as titles of rank, honour and/or valour are almost always earned through very hard work.

Just before the Easter recess, we had the problem of writing a report for a family law case in which the two antagonists were called Jo and Sam. We weren't told of the gender of either of them; so making an assumption was impossible. Our report was written with their names as much as possible and of we did need to refer to someone obliquely with a pronoun, we used the catch all terms "they", "theirs" and "them". Nevertheless one of the two parties still complained and demanded that we use "Xe" and "Xyrs" pronouns. We refused. We refused not only because this sounded like a deliberately vexatious request but also because those pronouns are so non standard that running them through a spell checker seemed like an equally vexatious request. In essence we refused because this was an unnecessary make work task.
This as you would expect caused that party to fly into what can only be described as the most elegantly controlled rage in history; as though Jacob Rees-Mogg and Brian Sewell were having an argument over the parsing of a Latin verb. We however found an equally elegant solution to this, and fought velvet with ermine.

I don't mind the argument that we shouldn't use the usual cisgender-specific pronouns for non-standard gender identifying people because if we don't respect someone's preferences, we deny their humanity but at what point is this just ridiculous? I understand that it is wrong to use pronouns that deny someone's identity and that should be enough to see why we should use gender-neutral pronouns for non-binary people, but at what point is this just being used as a minefield?
I am officially declaring that I have have enough of this whole box and dice. Put it on a balloon to the moon. Put it in a box, then put the box in the bin, then fire the bin into the sun, then hurl the sun into a black hole. Stick a fork in me, I'm done.

Somewhere in the mists of time and between time immemorial¹ and Samuel Johnson's dictionary², that bastard child we call the English language, had its own gender tantrum and started to throw off all the genders for things which the Normans had imposed upon it. To be fair, that is a sensible course of action in my opinion because there is no inherent reason why a table, a bag, a house, a tree, a book, or a banana, need to have a gender assigned to them. I don't see what the net benefit to either the language or society actually is.
As for the gender of people, that's a different kind of question.

From a cold biological standpoint, there are either animated creatures that are male, female, or those which don't fit nicely into the first two categories. Of course I realise the incredible difficulties that people face if they are different and I don't want to diminish what is a very serious set of lived experience, however, everything in the world can be fit easily into the three categories of this, that and the other. What people quite reasonably object to, especially people who suffer as a result, is that the category of other results in the othering of people.
The English language which was perfectly adept at throwing off the gender of objects, already arrived at the solution of what to do about the gender of people in about the 12th century from what I can gather.

There appears to be a dialectal epicene pronoun, of the singular "ou": "'Ou will' expresses either he will, she will, or it will. I think that it works very well:
Ou went to the shops and bought some carrots.
Ous car broke down and ou had to ring roadside assistance.
It works so well because it sounds like it is derived from the same source as the word 'you' and we already have no problem at all with the word 'you' already being genderless. You are reading this and I can address you without needing to care what gender you are. It also doesn't sound particularly cold either because there isn't any sense of othering when it contains all of you.

I don't think that I'm likely to change many people's opinions on the subject of dropping cisgendered pronouns from everyday speech altogether but it seems to me to be the better solution than trying to invent a multitude of pronouns for small cases. The English language which is adept at accepting big solutions to solve problems, already solved this one for us.

In the end we went with the solution that the English language had given us oh so many years ago. The clients were fine with that and the report was presented not with
"Xe" and "Xyrs" and pronouns but with "Ou" and "Ous" pronouns and they were fine with it, whoever ou was.
I took this one step further and wrote a letter to the Law Society of NSW but they've politely told me where to go and how to get there. Their solution is one of deliberate inactivity which considering that is the Law Society is completely in keeping with their usual modus operandi. I on the other hand have to live in the firing line of complaints; which in family law cases may or may not be vexatious.

¹after 6 July 1189
²before 15 April 1755

Note: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ou
Pronoun (third-person singular, genderless)
(obsolete or dialectal) he, she, it

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