Longing for the Third Person Non-Gendered Pronoun

I enjoyed writing this for an english course. I thought I might share it with those of you interested in some casual reading.

I discovered prejudice and it’s various incarnations—racism, sexism, ageism, partisanship, and bigotry—at the age of 12. Until then I had been blind to these social realities, these hindrances. It was really quite a sudden experience. I had travelled to British Columbia to visit my family. I found the west coast to be as divers in its natural beauty as it was in it’s inhabitants. If only the people got along as well as the trees and mountains did.  All at once I was exposed to every form of prejudice and, when my visit ended, I was thrown back into my natural habitat. Suddenly it was everywhere: in my school, on my street, at the stores, in the movies, my friends were racist, my teachers were racist, and the principal was sexist! Was this the world I was living in before? I was so confused.

You may wonder why it took me so long to become aware of this ever-present social reality. Well, its not that I didn’t know about it, I just never realized that people in my own community looked at me differently because I was Iranian. Growing up in a Bahá’í home I was always taught that I was part of a global community, “The earth is but one country and mankind is it’s citizens.” Racism is a disease for goodness sake; that’s what I understood. “Men and women are like the wings of a bird, without one the other is useless”; this was a token phrase from my childhood. It was hard to accept that the men I respected were sexist and that women regarded my gender as chauvinistic.  Slowly but surely, however, I learned to be prejudice.

My new, divisive perspective made even the most seemingly benign, complicated. Such is the case with the third person non-gendered pronoun. I can’t remember when this became an issue to me, but I remember how. I remember reading a passage like this one from the Bahá’í Writings:

The true seeker hunteth naught but the object of his quest, and the lover hath no desire save union with his beloved. Nor shall the seeker reach his goal unless he sacrifice all things. That is, whatever he hath seen, and heard, and understood, all must he set at naught, that he may enter the realm of the spirit, which is the City of God. Labor is needed, if we are to seek Him; ardor is needed, if we are to drink of the honey of reunion with Him; and if we taste of this cup, we shall cast away the world. (Bahá’u’llàh)

Then the thought came to my head: I wonder how this is read in the original Farsi (Persian)?  I attempted to translate the words into my mother tongue, naught…object…his? His! There is no word for his in Farsi! I tried to think up some Farsi third person pronouns: well, I could use “u” or “eeshoon,” but what would that be translated into? I thought carefully about this, checked a dictionary, ran a search on Wikipedia…nothing. Then I looked up “he” in the Oxford American Dictionary:

Pronoun [third person singular]
–    used to refer to a man, boy, or male animal previously mentioned or easily identified.
–    Used to refer to a person or animal of unspecified sex (in modern use, now chiefly replaced by  “he or she” or “they”)

What? At this point I was terribly confused. I couldn’t believe that my native tongue, an ancient and old fashioned language, had the foresight to create a third person non-gendered pronoun; yet, English, the native tongue of women’s rights and liberty, still lacks this most-necessary word. This became a point of great frustration for me. When I would introduce people, especially women, to the Bahá’í Writings I found myself explaining why we refer to God as He: “well, you see, in the languages that these words were written in there is a third person non-gendered pronoun, but in English everything is translated into the Biblical ‘He’.” Holy non-gendered God! Is this absolutely necessary? Can’t we come up with an appropriate pronoun and get Oxford University to standardize it?

This frustration prompted me to do further research. I was relieved to find that I wasn’t the first person to notice this obvious void in the English language, in fact, Williams (1990s) describes how language authorities have “campaigned against pronoun irregularities” since 1795. Women’s rights movements during the late 19th and 20th centuries drew further attention to the need to re-write government legislation and legal documents with more gender inclusive language. This eventually led to the popularization of he/she, himself/herself, his/her as the standard third person neutral pronouns. Early arguments for gender-neutral pronouns, such as those of linguistic-determinists (Sapir, 1929 & Whorf, 1940), were that one’s worldview is shaped by the language one uses; therefore, a language lacking gender specific pronouns should be less sexist. However, there are a number of examples of languages that are genderless—Chinese and Iranian for example—that are far from being free of gender inequality.

Interestingly, there have been a number of attempts to invent or supplement gender-neutral pronouns in the English language. In a study by Foertsch & Gernsbacher (1997) it was demonstrated that “the increased use of singular they is not problematic for the majority of readers” when used as a substitute for gender-specific pronouns. Another study by Stotko & Troyer (2007) at James Hopkins University claimed that students in certain city schools were “using yo in place of he or she”; their research concluded, “the use of a gender-neutral third-person pronoun (yo) is clearly a part of the casual conversational language of certain Baltimore middle and high school students.” You can even find a list of invented pronouns sourced and listed on Wikipedia; these include co, spivak, hy, thon, ve, xe, ze, hir, and mer. Still, there is a only a modest chance that any of these words could make their way into the English lexicon.

In her article, Pennycook (1994) takes a different approach to this issue. She argues that instead of looking at the pronoun as a problem we should consider it as “always political.” To try and look at language as “reflective of social relations,” to finding meaning in the context of “discourses” rather than the linguistic descriptivist approach of viewing language as a “simple reflection of reality.”

Currently, it seems like my generation has taken a more passive stance on the issue. Inclined toward political correctness, Canadian youth are apt to use he/she, him/her, himself/herself in their writing and speaking. Not realizing that they’re potentially disrupting the natural evolution of a language that must inevitably embrace the third-person non-gendered pronoun, they have acquiesced to the status quo. Yet, to some degree, I have to agree with Pennycook; maybe this whole issue has been taken out of context. Maybe we should just use the vocabulary at hand and define meaning by context rather than being offended by the Bible’s use of He.

To tell you the truth, I wish I had never assumed this divisive paradigm. It all became complicated from that point onward. I miss the days as a child when God was a truly mystical power: non-gendered, non-racial, eternal in age, and universal in influence. Trying to believe in a white, male God, who’s very old, and concerns himself only with the affairs of our planet is so confusing.


  1. I like your style. This is a question that’s come up with my feminist mother on a few occasions. Though my thinking was in line with Pennycook’s, I was unfortunately unable to communicate clearly enough, and my mom remained frustrated.
    I wanted to say about your last paragraph: You forgot to mention, the whole “my God is better than your God” disease. I can only hope you’re joking about having assumed such a divisive paradigm. Although, if not, then rest assured that the journey back to a less limited vision of the Divine will be a good learning experience. It may even help you to guide others through the process if you pay attention to the steps along the way.

    If I were to give any advice I’d say, listening to people and studying can only go so far. The trouble with people is we only see what we want to see, and only understand what we already know. The best teacher is God – ponder and reflect on life, meaning and God. Then God will help you to follow your reason and intuition, and God will unravel God’s mysteries.

    Be well, and thoughtful.


    1. Thanks for the wonderful comment Evan. Indeed, many of the comments I made in this post were satirical and at times exaggerated. However, as much as I would love to believe myself an accepting and understanding person, a lover of all creeds, races, and peoples; in reality, I would be kidding myself. I feel more like a tea bag steeped in boiling water hoping to stay dry.

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