Fifteen weeks: A brief observation on the difficulties of language

29 Feb

(I know this post is super short, but I don’t really have any meaty observations for today. So this is what you get.)

One of the irritating things that I’ve run into in trying to talk about the baby is the fact that the English language just isn’t equipped to deal with persons of unknown gender in a way that isn’t incredibly awkward. Most of the time we don’t really think about it, until we’re confronted with a situation in which gendering isn’t an option. But as its still (sadly) too early to find out the sex of the baby, it’s a problem I’m confronted with on a regular basis. I’ve made a point of avoiding gendered pronouns, even if it does increase the awkardness; calling the baby “he” just falls into the patterns of dogs and smurfs. Especially since a few times in conversations about the baby I’ve noticed that other people have defaulted to the male pronoun. (And thankfully didn’t complain when I pointed out that the baby could just as well be female.) And while I could opt for a White Wolf-style solution and use female pronouns as the assumed default, that feels weird too. I don’t want to get too used to the idea of the baby being one or the other and then find out that I was wrong.

So for now the baby will have to remain “the baby” or “the kid” or even “the octopus” (long story). But I can’t help but wish that English was better at coping with persons of indeterminate gender. That would make all of this a little easier.

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12 Responses to “Fifteen weeks: A brief observation on the difficulties of language”

  1. Andrew February 29, 2012 at 9:45 pm #

    I agree, the English language totally needs a gender-non-specified first person set of pronouns.

    Now, Imay light a storm with this question since it’s grammatically horrible according to some, but what are your feelings on ‘they’ in place of ‘she’ or ‘he’ and ‘their’ instead of ‘his’ or ‘hers’? Another option I’ve heard about is ‘ze’ and ‘hir’. Personally I’d rather redefine grammar to allow ‘they’ and ‘their’ as singular (relying on context to make things clear), but I’d be up for either solution.

    • wundergeek March 1, 2012 at 2:46 pm #

      There is a bit of a historical precedent for using “they” as a singular. And honestly, I prefer to use a word that already exists rather than something like “ze” and “hir”. (Also, “they” sounds a lot less awkward, especially when spoken.) But yeah, I’m definitely a grammarian but not one of the ones who objects to “they” as a singular.

      • Andrew March 1, 2012 at 9:38 pm #

        First, just realized I had a missing-space typo in my first post.

        Second, I’m glad to see that others agree with me that there’s historical precedent for ‘they/their’ to be used for a singular entity. I have gotten into (mostly polite) debates about it with English majors, resume readers, and others.

  2. Yotam February 29, 2012 at 10:42 pm #

    This reminds me of reading “Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. Le Guin. She wrestles with the issue for the entire book. Such a great book…

    And I read it for the first time in Hebrew, where the problem is intensified.
    In Hebrew EVERYTHING is either male or female, even inanimate objects. There’s no “it” in Hebrew.

    So obviously this means the word for male baby is slightly different from that of a female baby. There’s no solving it, so the rule of thumb (and grammar) is that when you speak about something without knowing it’s gender, it is automatically male, at least as far as language is concerned.

    It’s kind of funny when I think of it. Asking in Hebrew if you know your baby’s sex translate literally to “Do you know your male baby’s sex?”
    English is so much more comfortable in so many ways…

    • Almulhida March 28, 2012 at 5:58 am #

      Yeah Arabic is the same way. Everything is conjugated for sex, and the male is the default in both mixed plurals and when you don’t know the gender. At least in English you can get instruction booklets that are gender neutral; there’s very little ambiguity about what’s considered women’s work when cooking recipes printed in Arabic assume the reader is female.

      • Yotam March 28, 2012 at 6:43 am #

        Heh, that reminds me: If you use google translate to translate “Clean the kitchen” to Hebrew, you’ll get the female version of “Clean”. If you do the same for “Change the tire” you’ll get the male version of “Change”.

        Just sayin’…

  3. Ivan March 1, 2012 at 5:22 am #

    In Serbian if we want to we just use the gender neutral singular ono dete which translates into English as it child, which is ridiculous since it has a connotation of something inanimate and/or without a consciousness (what is it with you Germanic peoples and your long words?) and ono does not.

    Of course if you go with the word baby my language has the opposite problem from yours since the default gender for beba is female.

  4. Harrow March 1, 2012 at 9:18 am #

    Personally it makes me cringe whenever I hear someone refer to a baby as “it”. There’s nothing wrong or ungrammatical about the singular “they”; it’s been used like that forever. It may sound odd and disconcerting, but the more people use it, the more natural it will sound. I’m trying to use it in all situations where gender is unknown or irrelevant, not just for munchkins.

    • wundergeek March 1, 2012 at 2:50 pm #

      Agreed. I don’t even refer to my cats as “it”, so referring to babies as “it” seems doubly cringe-worthy.

  5. Cluisanna March 1, 2012 at 1:20 pm #

    I’d just say “it”. After all, if it’s to early to find out the sex of the foetus, it isn’t even a baby yet. In German we have gendered articles (der, die, das – for male, female, neutral), and it’s called “das Baby”, so I’d go with “es” (it), too. It’s also “das Kind” (the child), so I guess one can use this to raise a child gender neutral.

  6. tornadogrrrl March 3, 2012 at 11:54 pm #

    I just used “it” but I understand that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I have a good friend who scheduled alternating months for gender pronouns throughout her pregnancy. (“OK, it’s December, the fetus is a she this month.”)

    • wundergeek March 4, 2012 at 5:47 pm #

      Alternating pronouns is actually pretty awesome. No way would I be able to keep the months straight, though.

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