Book chronicles history of gender-neutral pronouns, from Shakespeare to email | 1/8/2020 | Staff
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Email signatures are almost as likely to include the preferred gender pronouns of the senders as they are their names and titles. The declaration of preferred pronouns is a contemporary cultural issue, but people have been searching for gender-neutral pronouns since at least the late 18th century.

In his just-released book "What's Your Pronoun? Beyond He and She," linguist Dennis Baron (he/him/his), a University of Illinois professor emeritus of English, writes about the history of pronoun use and the role pronouns have played in establishing our rights and identities.

Book - Focus - Interest - Pronouns - Perspective

The book has a mainly historical focus and puts the present interest in pronouns in historical perspective. While the masculine pronoun has long been used as a generic pronoun, it excludes women and many people don't like it because it doesn't agree with its antecedent noun in gender, Baron said.

"The debate has been reenergized in the last 15-20 years because of awareness of nonbinary gender issues and transgender and gender-nonconforming people," he said.

Pronoun - Honorific - Title - Baron - Significance

"The pronoun is becoming like an honorific, like a title. This is how you refer to me," Baron said. "It's got this extra-special significance once again in the context of new gender issues. It's not just women's rights; now it's trans rights and nonbinary rights. We see a revived interest in both coined pronouns and the singular 'they.'"

Merriam-Webster chose "they" as its 2019 Word of the Year based on the number of dictionary lookups, and the singular "they" was added to its online dictionary in September.

Baron - Interest - Pronouns - Language - Reform

Baron's interest in pronouns began when he was researching language reform in the early 1980s. He came across a number of coined pronouns from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and he published an article about them in a linguistics journal. More recently, he started looking at digitized 19th-century newspapers online. His list now contains more...
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