Upon Whose Authority?
By Patrick F. Cannon
I have often wondered just who makes these decisions. Is it some government agency? Or the Associated Press? Perhaps it’s the University of Chicago and the folks who do their famous Style Book. Or could it be one of the eminent dictionary publishers, like Oxford University or our own Merriam-Webster? In France, it would certainly be the Académie Francaise, but the English language has no such authority.
Someone must be in charge, when suddenly an individual person demands to be referred to with the pronoun “they” — when it’s clear they are demonstrably either male or female – and the news media and many others immediately comply. Just the other day, in the Chicago Tribune, the subject of a front-page article was a single mother “who identifies as pansexual, bisexual, queer,” and “whose pronouns are she/they.”
Since I wasn’t yet familiar with the term “pansexual,” I looked it up and discovered it was someone who was attracted to anyone, including (but presumably not limited to) straight men and women; gay men and lesbians; bisexuals; transgender people of both sexes; queers; and folks not interested in sex with anyone. Admittedly, I’m not entirely up to date on these things, but would not “pansexual” include “bisexual,” making the latter superfluous?
Of course, it doesn’t pay to be too much of a stickler these days. When you point out that nearly 100 percent of humans are unambiguously born male or female, you risk being considered hopelessly unwoke. The younger generations are also surprised when they discover that they didn’t invent the numerous ways in which humans express their sexuality. They just invented new words to describe them, as if the old ones just weren’t doing the job to their satisfaction. And, whether we like it our not, they’re happy to shout their sexuality from the rooftops!
I suspect the majority of my fellow English speakers will continue to use the pronouns that were developed over the centuries. As a writer, the thought of writing a sentence like “Nancy came into the room and they decided to sit on the couch,” is anathema, and needlessly confusing. If the Chicago Tribune and New York Times wish to re-invent the language, they’ll have to do it without me.
I mentioned the Académie Francaise above. One of the members was the French novelist Jean Dutourd (1920-2011), a hero of the Resistance and the author of dozens of books in his long life. I actually read one of them in the mid-1950s. Titled A Dog’s Head in its English translation, I can still recall being drawn to it at the McKeesport, Pennsylvania Carnegie Library by its cover. On it was a dapper fellow dressed in suit and tie, with a pair of horned-rimmed glasses on his face, a lit cigarette in his hand. Oh, it wasn’t any of that that caught my attention. It was that he had the head of an adorable spaniel.
He wasn’t the result of bestiality (I wonder if that’s included under pansexuality?). His mother and father were just a normal French couple of the bourgeoisie class. As I recall (and I wasn’t really then educated and sophisticated enough to fully understand it) the point was that most people weren’t prepared to accept someone different than themselves. In its French way, it was a plea for tolerance. A valuable lesson then and now.
If such a creature appeared among us today, what pronouns would we use? Strictly speaking, non-human animals are described as “it” in the singular. Since we tend to be goofy about our animals, most people use “he” or “she” as if they were human. But what of someone with a spaniels head? Using “it” as the base, can I suggest ‘heit’ for males and “sheit” for females? But perhaps you have a better idea?
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon
P.S. I was suddenly reminded of the late cartoonist Walt Kelly’s character, Pogo. He was a possum who lived in a swamp with assorted characters. For Earth Day in 1970, Kelly did a poster, in which little Pogo laments “ We have met the enemy and he is us.” I’m sure the editors of our famous newspapers would now change it.