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Saturday, Jan 29, 2011
by PopMatters Staff
by Maria Bustillos
The Awl (6 January 2011)

“Languages with gendered nouns require the development of an inbuilt, bone-deep sense of gender neutrality. In Spanish, for example, “table” is a feminine noun, but you don’t really think of the table as being a girl at all; it’s just a table. That brain-wired kind of gender neutrality is what Anglophones are meant to be apprehending in words like “mankind” or “citizens”; one is meant to be thinking “everyone,” even though the word itself has got some gender to it, like “table” does in Spanish. The gender is supposed to evaporate right off such words according to the sense of what is being said. Or at least this was Anne Fisher’s view, and if people didn’t want to persist in being so horrible to one another, it would work just fine.


So Fisher’s elegant prescription regarding gender-neutral “he” caught on, and long remained the formal solution of choice. This is so even though certain high-octane English prose stylists had been resorting to singular “they” for this purpose from Chaucer onward. (Singular “they” suffers from a fatal and insurmountable defect, one pointed out quite well by Mx. Justin Vivian Bond this week: namely, that “they” is plural.) But by the late 1840s, the long-fought effort to impose true gender neutrality onto “he” had collided headlong with the political realities of that socially volcanic era.”


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