“Hie thee hither, that I may pour my spirits in thine ear.” If you’re not sure what Shakespeare meant by that, it’s because languages change. Whether it’s a decade or hundreds of years, languages mold and evolve alongside us, and with the industrial revolution and today’s Tech Era, we’ve seen these changes more noticeably, and more frequently.
Our ability to communicate across vast platforms has allowed languages to not only conform to technology and develop because of it, but it’s been able to allow seemingly niche linguistic developments to spread like wildfire, often transcending the imaginary boundaries of state and culture. Language is how we communicate, it’s how we define ourselves, one another, and the world around us. It’s how we categorize, share, and make sense of existence. What makes language so unique is that it is inherently dependent on reality but also structures the way that we see that very reality.
Sometimes these changes can seem mundane such as relaxing the hyphen for compound modifiers such as first-quarter, most often – and this happens hundreds of times each year – we’re changing language by adding new words or phrases to our vocabulary. Examples such as LOL, bae, fake news or COVID-19 are recent developments. Occasionally formal changes to language are met with strong public reaction and discontent amongst which the most complicated tend to be those that are deeply rooted in the social values of the respective country.
Neopronouns, specifically the singular they, are at the forefront of linguistic developments and societal acceptance. They, them, their, alongside other neopronouns, such as xe, xem, xyr have risen in popularity, especially amongst the LGBTQ community and allies as a way to identify those that do not identify within the societally prescribed gender binary and/or those that do wish to be identified. Although the search for a gender neutral singular personal pronoun has been ongoing since the 1400’s, the need for one by the LGBTQ has excellerated its usage in modern society.
Facing a strong backlash, neopronouns have been commonly rejected as grammatically incorrect. Besides this being utterly false, the more disturbing truth is that most people reject neopronouns, whether overtly or not, because they do not accept a gender neutral or non-binary identity as it defies social ‘norm’.
Just like humans, languages evolve. Recently, scientists Louis-Jean Boë and Thomas R. Sawallis pushed back the commonly accepted emergence of the vocal tract for language in Homo sapiens from 200,000 – 300,000 years ago to more than 27,000,000 years ago. In an article, Boë and Sawallis explain that the key ingredient to this massive inclusive push came down to vowels.
The Laryngeal Descent Theory has long explained language development within humans and not apes due to our ability to vocalize vowels because of a lower sitting larynx. Boë and Sawallis use a video of Jane Goodall’s observations of contrasting vowel qualities in the vocalizations of chimpanzees to support their claim. The footage indicates that Chimpanzees are able to create rising intonations even though their larynx sits far higher. Goodall’s observation alone didn’t unanimously refute the Laryngeal Descent Theory, but it did bring it into question.
Boë’s study of baboon “vowel space” used 1,300 baboon calls to show that certain calls were equivalent to known human vowels. This ultimately proved the Laryngeal Descent Theory inaccurate and that it inherently restricted language’s potential beyond humans. Boë and Sawallis concluded, “Apes and monkeys can “talk” in the sense that they can produce contrasting vowel qualities. In that restricted but concrete sense, the dawn of speech was not 200,000 years ago, but some 27 million years ago, before the time of our last common ancestor with Old World monkeys like baboons and macaques. That’s over 100 times earlier than the emergence of our modern human form.”
History of English
Modern English developed from Middle English starting in the 15th century during the Great Vowel Shift, a time period – as the name so graciously depicts – when the way that Middle English speakers pronounced their vowels began to shift. Strong anti-french sentiment, mass migration due to the Black Death, and middle class hypercorrection all played a role in the shift.
Modern English is also largely indebted to two men, Samuel Johnson and William Shakespeare. Johnson wrote the Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 which became widely used amongst a growing class of literate citizens. Simply by producing this dictionary, Johnson became responsible for much of the word usage and spellings of the English language.
Starting in 1590, Shakespeare created well over 2000 new words for English, such as anchovy, domineering, gloomy, investment, and stealthy. Interestingly enough Shakespeare even used the singular they for the first recorded time in Hamlet, when he referred to his mother.
“Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech.” Shakespeare, Hamlet (1599)
After 1755 and the end of Middle English, the Industrial Revolution began to gain speed and pummel its way towards our current era. Technology advanced, globalized communication became standard, and more people had the opportunity to take part in the national conversation making changes in language more easily noticeable. This also allowed us to see more minute changes to language such as surveys, reactions, and specific events that, prior to this time period, were usually overshadowed by major developments. Shakespeare may have been able to create thousands of additional words but as the industrial revolution progressed a significant amount of changes occurred due to technological advancements.
Technology needed to be defined but it also allowed us new ways to express ourselves. In 1640, a computer was simply a person who calculated, then in 1945 it became the programmable digital electronic computer we all know and love, even while human computers were in use as late as the 1960s, as demonstrated in the movie Hidden Figures. In 2015, the emoji was officially added to Merriam-Webster, not because we hadn’t been able to communicate emotions or recognize facial expressions, but because for the first time our written language allowed for them to be expressed digitally.
Controversial Changes and backlash
People have been worrying about the decline of English for almost as long as it’s existed and yet it lives on, YOLO (you only live once) and all. Changes to language aren’t always accepted with open arms partly because of these worries. When YOLO came to be in 2012, it wasn’t generally accepted as much more than an acronym, and yet in 2016, it was added to the OED. Because dictionaries base their entries upon historical usage, they are highly susceptible to what society allows to gain traction. The power to develop language inevitably lies within those that use it, and those that control what information is spread. Other milder changes to English post-1950 that have received backlash or a negative initial reaction was the phrase, to grow your business or the word to prioritize. Other examples are the changes in meaning for words such as for gay, shipshape, and nice.
Backlash is common because there are standards to uphold and people tend to embrace those standards. For the sticklers among us, perhaps even the academics, there are rules to our language, and it’s up to us to preserve them. Unfortunately, society doesn’t work like that and history has shown that once new words or phrases, or nowadays pronouns, begin to gain traction there is very little that can be done to stop them. It’s the awareness of the continuity of change that English (and all languages) go through that confirms the notion that grammar is simply a suggestion that can be, despite what the grammaticians think, molded and changed – and rightfully so.
Neopronouns and the singular they are uniquely controversial. They provide an alternative to our typical gender specific binary options, he and she. Being a major grammatical change to English, neopronouns find themselves in a difficult situation because they instigate reactions that are often rooted and stirred by social issues such as anti-LGBTQ resentment. Arguments against non-binary and/or gender neutral pronouns tend to involve some sort of grammar based rationale for why they aren’t acceptable. Upon examination, however, these arguments quickly fall apart and a far darker truth surfaces.
Many people simply do not believe that other people should have the ability to decide their gender. People often equate gender with sex, and as something that solely exists as only two options, male and female. This article is not here to discuss the inherent complexities of gender, sex, sexuality, the LGBTQ community and the abhorent hatred and discrimination that they face, but it is important to discredit any belief that the singular they, or other neopronouns, are just an inconvenience to those that have never used them, or worse, that they shouldn’t and can’t be used.
We constantly use the singular they especially when we don’t know the gender of a person. The need for a gender neutral pronoun has long existed within English. They has been around for about 600 years but it has continually faced backlash and been seen as exclusively plural. There have been several attempts to solve the need for a gender-neutral pronoun, such as the not-so-brilliant idea to use the generic he. If the influence of the patriarchy wasn’t so strong I would ask you to imagine using the generic she within the walls of Congress. The generic he became unpopular and was replaced by he and/or she, he/she, or (s)he, all clunky attempts to satisfy the need for an all encompassing way to speak about someone. All of these attempts fall within the binary realm and exclude anyone that doesn’t identify with them, they’re also just simply not grammatically tasteful.
The singular they is destined to become the standard. Whether it’s to protect the identity of a witness or because we don’t want to assume the gender of a student named Winter. It comes down to moving beyond the habitual assumption that everyone is a he or a she, and evolving our language and our minds to not automatically assume one’s gender. Perhaps we can even eventually move away from the odd compulsion to identify the gender of those around us by their assumed genitalia.
They is already being used whether you know it or not. Sentences such as, “They cut me off!” or, “The candidates thanked their spouses” need a singular they because the gender is either not known or one pronoun doesn’t reflect all the subjects. In grade school we’re taught that all sentences have a subject and the best subjects are he, her, it, and they – they always being plural. We’ve had this idea ingrained since day one, but it’s high time for the singular they to be formally established as the respectful norm.
The future of language
When we think of our futuristic space travels we tend to think of alien communications, telepathy, multi-year slumbers in strange womb-like water chambers, and time travel. What isn’t often contemplated are changes that may occur to language once we leave Earth. In a paper written by two associate professors of Linguistics, Andrew McKenzi and Jeffrey Punske, Language Development During Interstellar Travel, they outline what may happen to language as we begin to isolate groups of people for months if not years or generations during space travel.
Using examples such as the Polynesian Island explorers, McKenzi and Punske discuss how the concept of language and its uses, vocabulary, and grammatical structuring will develop specific to a group of people traveling together for extended time periods. They use uptalk as an example of how widespread language change has occurred in just the past forty years. “It is increasingly common for speakers to end statements with a rising intonation. This phenomenon, called uptalk (or sometimes high rising terminal), is often mistaken for a question tone by those without it in their grammars, but it actually sounds quite distinct and indicates politeness or inclusion. Uptalk has only been observed occurring within the last 40 years but has spread from small groups of young Americans and Australians to most of the English-speaking world, even to many baby boomers who had not used it themselves as youth.”
Although it’s unfathomable to imagine, the authors discuss being on a vessel for ten generations at a time, a reality that for all aboard the ship would simply revolve for future generations. Aboard such voyages, social issues would arise, people would discuss them developing new verbal behaviors and concepts, and new vocabulary specific to the ship would be created. “The connection to Earth dwindles over time. And eventually, perhaps, we’ll get to the point where there’s no real contact with Earth, except to send the occasional update.” Eventually, if English is the determined language, there would be vessel English and Earth English. Over 10 generations even Earth English would change and by the time the Vessel would arrive at its final destination the English they left with and used aboard the ship would be vastly different than the English that would then exist on Earth. Lastly, the two authors contemplate what sort of discrimination these intersteller immigrants may face when they arrive at their new planet speaking a slightly or completely different language as those that reside there.
C.S. Lewis may have said it best, that “day by day nothing changes, but when you look back everything is different.” English – and all languages – is still changing and morphing, and following along with culture as we as a species, as a country, city, community, and household, change our habits and our ways of expression. Even in just the past twenty years, we have seen substantial changes that the younger generations will grow up with, without the awareness that things were once different. And as time moves on and more and more people are raised with these norms, the oddity of these new aspects of English will fade and the cycle will continue.
For some, using they, them, their, feels odd because they haven’t done so before, for others it strikes a nerve, and for many, it simply doesn’t phase them anymore. But neopronouns and the singular they go beyond simply being a new development of English, they are an assertion of the basic human right to identify. They allow those that do not identify with the construct of gender to not be confined to the binary construction of the English language. History has repeatedly shown us that social movements tend to have their way and that it comes with the fading of older generations and the closed mindedness of how things should be, based on how they once were, that new, more inclusive developments can and will occur, whether here on Earth or elsewhere.