• Star Williams

They/Them Pronouns Are Real, and Language is Not Dead


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An LGBTQ+ friend who was formerly an arts journalist once edited a piece of my educational writing. In that piece, I referred to young students as "they." My friend, who was editing my work as a favor, axed right through "they" with a red pen. In its place, he wrote, "he/she," and noted in the margin, "This is grammatically correct."


But grammar, like gender, is only a construct.


As a matter of fact, in 2017, the Chicago Manual of Style recognized "they/them" pronouns "in formal writing." The acknowledgment is an important one: They/them is grammatically correct. After all, if it wasn't, we'd erase a whole group of people from the English language. The Chicago Manual of Style also recognizes that the writer's preference should be taken into account above all during editing. By that, I assume they mean that when I write they/them in an article someone else is editing, my they/them pronouns should stand.


What and who controls language is always an interesting question, particularly for someone like me, who has been a writer, publisher, writing teacher, editor, and English teacher in their time, and is also queer. The wealthy and sociologically powerful have a lot of control over language. Geoffrey Chaucer, now studied everywhere from Oxford to Harvard, and absolutely accepted as part of the UK literary canon, was sneered at in Medieval times by upper class groups because his Canterbury Tales was one of the first texts in print that wasn't written in Latin. "You can't do that!" cried priests, knights, and other powerful people. "Standards are slipping!"


Why were they so upset? Chaucer used the language of everyday people. He, like Shakespeare in his time, refused to shut out those whose language wasn't lofty. For both Chaucer and Shakespeare, access was far more important than nursing the upper classes so they could continue believing only their constructs of language were correct. In fact, both writers included stories of servant and homeless characters in their work—a notion that surprised and shocked many.


I'm grateful to them. They gave others access.


Access is, in my view, love. And I have no problem stating that in any forum. Love expands to be inclusive. And one of the many ways we have of expressing love is through the written word. Those who exclude non-normative people and/or under-privileged people will always seek to control language, because it is often through language that thought is changed—and that scares the hell out of them. As for the language of gender, we see gender because of language. Gender has been—and continues to be—constructed by language. Hell, if we didn't speak or write, how would we know what gender was? We'd see each other, but would have no way of constructing ideas around ourselves.


I see it as no accident that the first country to accept non-binary gender on birth certificates was Germany, where gender-neutral pronouns exist for objects, along with male and female. There are female nouns, male nouns, and neutral nouns. Germany, I suppose, is used to thinking in threes.


When I was first studying at university, I learned about the mead hall. In the mead hall, everyone in one particular Anglo Saxon community gathered together to dine and drink mead. When this happened, it didn't matter what your class was, how knowledgeable you were, or how you lived your life. In the mead hall, folks were brought together by commonalities. They listened to music, drank mead, and told stories that everyone could access. Anglo Saxon society was by no means perfect, but they understood the meaning of community.


Then, many years later, a man called William Caxton created the first printing press. Not long after, Samuel Johnson wrote the first dictionary, deciding on what should and shouldn't be included as "correct."


One wealthy white man had the authority. And that's where the English language we use today actually stems from.


One. White. Man.


I feel the same about literary fiction, which has been held up as the "right" genre—many people treat it as genre-less, and therefore the "non-alternative" genre, by setting up binaries (e.g. "Are you writing literary fiction or genre fiction?). Several years ago, I was teaching literary fiction writing, whilst working an editor at a literary magazine. At the same time, I was writing popular fiction and running a popular press. Wow, did I see literary constructs at work! People who believe passionately in equality will change their minds when it comes to literary fiction. There is, they will say, a "right" way to pen fiction. Fiction must be literary, they say, because only then is it pure of purpose. Literary fiction alone can elevate us, they say. Literary fiction, many believe, holds the power to influence our deepest thoughts, but only if it's done "right."


Nonsense. Not to make null and void the beautiful literary work in our world, but any genre can achieve meaning and depth in its own way. If you dig literary fiction, good for you. But love it for being itself—not for being "right."


Yet, in our day and age, Buffy the Vampire Slayer has likely saved more lives than Shakespeare's Macbeth—and by the way, though neither is perfect, I love them both. And, of course, Shakespeare was the Joss Whedon of his age, as panned as Whedon has been by those who say he isn't literary enough. Shakespeare put the drunk butler on stage, the homeless musician, the scullery maid. Suddenly, more people than ever were valid in that arena, because William Shakespeare gave them voice.


Class. It's often constructed by language—and vice versa. And fiction is language, which is why I find studying it to be so intriguing. In the west, it seems, we believe that controlling language by assigning class to it, and even ethics, has no moral consequences. "The literary way of writing is the right way!" folks cry. But why? Because a few normative white people decided it was so? And that's why we sneer at art that saves lives, and tell people to steer clear of it because, to use a phrase that I've heard more than once in my life, it's "glibly commercial."


No mead hall there.


Truth is, human beings love to push others out, to say that one language is the right language, and the language of others is erroneous or immoral. We set up binaries (literary/popular) and then do all we can to build walls around them.


When you set fire to a walled city that isn't yours, the blaze won't touch your home.


We cling to binaries, as if they establish our worth. But what would happen if we just said, "To hell with binaries! Language, like genre, is living and that means it's always changing, and I welcome change"? What if we said, "This way doesn't work for everyone, and I want it to work for as many of us as possible?" The people who respond to those questions with, "Our language doesn't exclude anyone—you're just being stupid," honestly aren't worth listening to. They're being simple, bullheaded bullies who dig the current constructs because they work for them.


So I'm glad to say that we're re-constructing the construct. Grammar may be slow to catch up, but it gets there eventually. Editorial style guides finally commit, and pop/rebel culture continues to save lives. This isn't the mead hall. But it is a place where we can educate. And it longs to be stirred up.


So perhaps all those who say the pronouns "they/them" aren't valid, aren't so dissimilar from the folks who told Shakespeare he shouldn't include homeless musicians in his plays.


Let's write the words "they/them" as often as feels safe. Let's use they/them, if it feels safe enough, to describe people we've never met and know nothing about. When it feels safe enough, let's shout they/them from the rooftops, or whisper it quietly in packed theaters. After all, we may not all be privileged white cis guys like Chaucer, but we can still learn from what he did.


He changed language.


So will we.


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