Ever since the use of inclusive language became an important element of writing in English – that is, in the last thirty years or so – there has been a huge number of ideas for gender-neutral pronouns.
Originally, a writer could refer to man and mankind with impunity. He (and, invariably, he was referred to as he) was safe in the knowledge that nobody could complain about that generalisation. The late Neil Armstrong’s ‘one small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind’ is possibly the most famous usage.
As using inclusive language came into style, a number of awkward constructions arose. Replacing man and mankind with human and humankind was simple enough. But then the writer must come to talk about… himself. Or herself. How to proceed? How to refer to the human writer without assuming their gender? Or, at the very least, how to include the possibility that the person being referred to could be another gender?
And so we come to the rather clumsy constructions of he/she, his/hers, or the especially awkward s/he. These are cumbersome in written language, and even more so when spoken.
But wait! one exclaims. Can one not simply use one as a pronoun, rendering all of one’s problems moot? Certainly. But as one sees, the use of one as a pronoun can rapidly get out of one’s control. This is not to mention the archaic tone which arises from its use, certainly not suitable for one’s academic or corporate documents.
In Australia, the Style manual for authors, editors and printers suggests that it may be suitable to use the ‘singular they’. This simply refers to replacing the cumbersome he/she (or similar) construction with they, allowing that word to function as a neutral pronoun, as in ‘When someone is happy, they laugh’.
The use of the singular they is not embraced by all writers of English, however, and so we arrive back at the usual problem in this language: competing standards. The United States, which produces a great deal of the language we read each day, generally prefers the use of he or she or similar.
A huge number of pronouns have been invented in an attempt to fill the gap. A few have entered common knowledge, including zhe, co, and my personal favourite, thon – though none have actually reached common usage. As before, each attempt to create a standard gender-neutral pronoun simply adds to the long list of alternatives. Illinois English professor Dennis Baron has compiled a (long, long) list of such failures.
Most recently, news of an organically-generated gender-neutral pronoun surfaced in the US. According to the article, linguistic researchers in Baltimore investigated claims that children of the area were using the word yo to refer to themselves and each other, regardless of gender. After performing a battery of tests, the researchers concluded that young people indeed used the word in that sense.
Whether invented specifically, like thon, or evolving naturally, like yo, gender-neutral pronouns are an interesting case of speakers and writers trying to adapt their language for modern needs. It remains to be seen whether any of these useful, inclusive pronouns catch on in any significant sense.