The Evolution of Language

Or why I’m one of the last to leave a convention

I used to be a board game publisher and designer. I used to design games, playtest them, hire artists to make them look better, assemble them myself in my tiny warehouse or eventually send them to China to be manufactured and packaged, hire salespeople, finance print runs, send out review copies, and all the other stuff you’d expect.

And yes, I had to do interviews and make promotional videos. I still may get back into game design and publishing, but that’s a back-burner project for now.

Recently I was thinking of Toy Fair and other game conventions I used to attend to try to increase my company’s sales. I remember how exhausting it was to be standing on my feet and being “on” for many hours at a time. And after being “up” for so long, it was an odd feeling of relief and depression I often felt when it ended and it was time to start packing up. I would wander through the newly empty corridors and halls and talk to those who were dallying in the process like I was. It seemed to help with the let-down.

That’s why I used to stay too long at conventions.

This post is supposed to be about the evolution of language though. And I’m getting to that. Because that, too, is about how long one should hang around a convention.

Some changes in language happen suddenly. Frequently, a U.S. President will misspeak, and then we get a new word like normalcy or covfefe.

Other changes in language happen more slowly. When an inconvenience of gendered languages–resorting to “he or she” when the gender of a person is unknown–becomes a political statement, people shouldn’t expect fast results. The evolution of they as a singular pronoun for a person of unknown gender had been a lazy refuge for less educated speakers and writers for decades. Arguments about 14th century pronoun usage are irrelevant. “They are,” like “we are,” has been the accepted standard for several centuries since then.

But in the past ten years or so, as social media has made all of us more frequent writers, the small, personal requests of nonbinary and transgender people asking people to use a particular gendered pronoun in referring to them in the third person expanded. Even cisgendered (binary) people started ending their Twitter profiles with a declaration of their preferred pronoun. It morphed into a world where it was safer to use “they” when you didn’t know someone’s preferred pronoun.

There have been all sorts of other attempts at de-gendering English, but there is a fundamental problem with changing he and she to zie. It’s already difficult writing scenes with two characters of the same gender, because we are forced to use the exact same pronoun for each of them. At least in scenes with mixed genders of speakers, one could easily identify who was speaking or doing something without being forced to use their name as the subject of every sentence. This is what I fear we’ll be left with:

“I feel like you don’t really see me,” Sam said.

Zie didn’t understand what zie meant, so zie just shook hir head.

If you thought “he or she” was odious, the somersaults we’ll have to do when gendered pronouns disappear will be even worse.

I will probably some day concede the use of singular they in limited use (when the gender or pronoun preference of the subject is unknown only):

I heard someone scream. I didn’t know who they were.

I will probably be fine when nonbinary people want to use the gender-neutral they to refer to themselves:

River stopped for a moment and looked at their hand.

But please stop telling me I have no compassion for transgender and nonbinary people simply because I won’t easily give in to their demands to get rid of he and she. I was an English major, and I’ve been a professional editor for decades. My livelihood depends on me understanding when the tide has turned in language. Don’t expect me to demand premature usage rules of my employers or give up my non-binary-ally membership card. If you can afford to push linguistic changes, more power to you.

I won’t lead the charge. I will be in the back cheering you on. Especially if you leave me with more than one non-gendered singular pronoun to choose from, so I can assign each to a different character in a scene.

2 thoughts on “The Evolution of Language”

  1. Look how long it took for speakers of unknown gender to move from a default male to at least the either-or option of he/she. We used to (only a few decades ago) write stuff like “The nurse, who seemed to know what he was doing, was never identified.”


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