Jayce's Gender-Neutral Pronouns

I decided I, like many other people in the world, would take a crack at making gender-neutral pronouns in English. I contemplate it every time I seek an alternative and end up unsatisfied. I commonly fall back on substituting plurals with an implication toward a singular actor because it sounds okay phonetically. Yet it's grammatically incorrect and it fails terribly when you're also referring to a group (for example, "They came toward me. One stepped forward and they shook my hand.") Likewise, using "one" and "it" is frustrated by either grammatical clumsiness ("A child stepped forward and one gave me a flower.") or emotional and social distance ("A child stepped forward and it gave me a flower.")

Starting from how the "th" sound of "they" and "them" is phonetically similar to the "zh" sound, I considered substituting "zh" for "th". But I had adopted "Zhust" as my "Playa-name" for Burning Man in 2010, and although it should be pronounced like "just" with a more z-like "j" sound, most people pronounced it "zu'hust" instead (even if I spoke it first). As such, I'll simplify things and go straight to substituting "j" in the various "they" forms. I made a table to summarize, and in doing a bit more research, I found the work of Micheal Spivak which looked promising, as summarized in this Wikipedia article. (And while there, I decided to steal from the Wikipedia article "Gender-neutral pronoun" for my descriptions.)

Description, Masculine Example Masculine Feminine "They" "One/It" Spivak Jayce
Nominative (subject), "he ran" he she they one ey ("A") jee
Objective (object), "go to him" him her them it em jem ("gem")
Possessive determiner, "this is his ball" his her their ones eir jeir ("jair")
Possessive pronoun, "the ball is his" his hers theirs its (or ones) eirs jeirs
Reflexive, "talked to himself" himself herself themself oneself eirself jemself

So to take a sentence like, "He went to the store and bought himself a coffee with his own money.", my gender-neutral technique yields "Jee went to the store and bought jemself a coffee with jeir own money." I realize that "jem" is a homophone for "gem" and "jeir", a shortening of "Gerry", but that doesn't lead to the kind of pronoun confusion of the common substitutions — even "I gave jem a gem" (which sounds clumsy because of newness) is really no worse than, "he took on the airs of his heirs."

I think Spivak and I are on the same page regarding rationale (familiarity, pronunciation, starting from the plural forms), but I really don't like that "them" is often abbreviated "'em", and that logically the reflexive should be "emself" but it sounds like "himself" leading to "eirself". You can read a lot more about it in this lengthy and informative case.

So from now on, I'll start using these terms whenever necessary, probably to the consternation of all my friends.

[Edit 2017-Jul-10: fix possessive determiner from "hers" to "her".]

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Seeing Alison Bechdel Speak at RIT

Although I also wanted to go see Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars at the Dryden, I opted for the irreproducible Caroline Werner Gannett Project lecture at RIT (One Lomb Memorial Dr., campus map) with Alison Bechdel. In all honesty, I know practically nothing about Bechdel, instead relying on my faith that the lecture series draws interesting people (perhaps TEDx Rochester could learn a few things.)

Anyway, she's a cartoonist — a self-described not-very-good writer and not-very-good artist that combine to form a rather excellent cartoonist. Her lecture was titled Drawing Words, Reading Pictures. If you had heard of her before, it's likely as a "lesbian cartoonist" with a long-running strip called Dykes to Watch Out For, or perhaps the misattributed Bechdel test for movies (conceived by her friend Liz Wallace and documented in a strip in 1985 … or so Wikipedia says).

She went into great detail about how she constructed one strip and quipped that you just need to repeat that a thousand times or so to make a book. She spoke a lot about her childhood, dovetailing into her most recent book, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. She spoke about her journal as a child where she began to realize that words alone were not adequate to relate an idea, adding small "I think" bubbles in sentences wherever meaning could be ambiguous. Later she started using a large caret-like gesture (^ only bigger) through words, and eventually discovered she could "protect a whole page" with one overlying notation. This eventually led her to using the comic form as a way to reduce ambiguity.

I was thoroughly excited by this notation. A growing panic and frustration develops inside me whenever I begin to discuss the utter inadequateness stemming from the bleeding ambiguity in language. I mean, "the sky is blue" makes perfect sense even though there are clouds that are part of the sky, or it might be the night sky, and blue … wow … I assure you it's not blue like my old Ford Escort which was also blue. So, stealing Bechdel's notation in typographic form, "the ^sky^ is ^blue^" makes much more sense to me. I had to ask if she finds that ambiguity relieved by cartooning (which she did) but I was more surprised at her surprise that I felt that way too. They had microphones up front, and when I was addressing her she probably took two steps back when I relayed essentially what I just wrote.

As such, I felt a kindred connection. I deduced who she was prior to the lecture (an easy task even though I'd never seen her photograph) and had felt that a bit already. I was warmed by the way she stepped partway up the auditorium to observe how the stage and computer projector were set up. And I was amused at a male crew-member gingerly adjusting her lapel microphone as if he were defusing a bomb.

In any case, I bought her book and had a chance to meet her and have her sign it. She even "^" notated my name and sketched her face with a cartoon bubble, "what is Jason really saying?", then with a wry smile added below, "we might never know." [Curiously, I recalled it from memory as "what is Jason saying really?", and "we may never know."]

I'm thoroughly enjoying the book. What I'm finding is that the cartoon format doesn't resolve ambiguity as much as it amplifies the ambiguous parts of the text. So like that "^" notation, it's another way to say, "this is how I think it happened, but you're never going to get it."

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The Next Revolution

I think I'm starting to see the boundaries of the next social revolution. Let me lay out a little context of recent references that I believe are related.

First, I talked last year about the "monkeysphere" idea.  The basic idea is that our primate brains can only accept about 150 people who we consider part of our clan, tribe, or village, and beyond that, all the other people are equivalent to "things" in the world.

Next is related to things I've seen in discussions about Burning Man and the idea of "community".  To me, the notion of "community" is like a lot of words: they are there to provide a spectrum upon which to measure.  So when one says, "the community", that is a reference to a specific group of people with traits that tie them together.  The thing that is important is that being "in the community" means you have the traits of the community — it does not mean that you must adapt your behavior because of your physical location.  In other words, actions cause description; description does not cause action.

Related to that, I recently found a new term: POSIWID.  According to Wikipedia at least, Stafford Beer coined the term as an acronym for "[the] purpose of [a] system is what it does".  The underlying principle is that the intended function of a system is irrelevant: its purpose (or function) is solely defined by what it does.  If, for instance, you set out to create a community of people who share art and resources, you might end up with a big party in the desert: the purpose of that system is a big party in the desert, no matter what your intentions were.

I have observed (especially in the last 10 years) that people I encounter are much more polarized by political party or political views than ever before.  It is probably most attributable to whom I hang out with, but I also believe there is a trend.  What I mean, specifically, is that I was finding prejudice in myself concerning politics: that I would judge someone favorably or unfavorably solely based on their political party affiliation.  I thought this was interesting to observe, and generally not good.

I also see the strong opinions of people concerning socialized health care. Although there many facets to it, the one I find most interesting is the debate on whether an arbitrary stranger should be cared for.  I'm neglecting any specifics because you can create straw men to support either side (i.e. abusers of a taxpayer-funded system versus a hard worker who circumstantially loses access to care).  The question is: will you help someone you don't know anything about?

So finally, what's this next revolution?: it's how we treat strangers.

I see people lining up along a spectrum.  On one side are people who are only willing to help those people they know personally (i.e. who are within their "monkeysphere") at the expense of the well-being of people they don't.  On the other are people who willing to support everyone equally, even if that means they may not have resources to help people they know personally.

I think it is more noble to lean toward helping everyone, and a testament to the superiority of humankind.  However, I also know that such civility is frail: a small percentage of people working to their own advantage can poison the whole system.  All societies have blind-spots and points of leverage for the advantage-seeker, but civility is maintained by the unspoken agreement among people that they not take advantage at those points.  And in America, there are socially-acceptable points to find advantage: that permission is specifically what allows capitalism to work.

Anyway, I find myself playing both sides of the fence for the time-being.  I have a network of friends who I help freely (with my time, skills, money, and resources) and who will do likewise for me.  I also strive for a better solution that is more inclusive because I feel better when my behavior also helps other people.

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