This weekend turned into a language double header. Sorry about that. But my rambling about “cis” yesterday reminded me that I also wanted to talk again about “ou,” which readers have probably noted is what I use when I need a gender neutral pronoun.

Pronouns are a huge problem in the English language. At this point, there is no gender neutral pronoun which people can use comfortably. “It,” is, of course, technically gender neutral, but it has become a pretty loaded term, and is generally used in reference to things, not in reference to people. When it is used in reference to people, it is generally viewed as a form of ungendering.

Thus, we are presented with several problems.

The first is that when you write a generic sentence and the gender of the subject is not known, you have the choice of using some awkward circumlocution such as “he or she” or “s/he”, or going with the time-tested “he” for generic. Or, as some people do, using “she,” or alternating between “he” and “she” to give both pronouns equal air time. Strenuous protests have been lodged against using “he” as a generic pronoun, for reasons which I’m sure are fairly evident. So, there’s a clear need for a gender neutral pronoun so that people can have a comfortable word to use for a subject of unknown gender.

As someone who writes for a living, this is a problem I encounter all the time, and as someone who also edits, some of the creative solutions people come up with drive me up the wall. Using “they/their” as singulars, for example, although I have read scholarly defenses of this practice (some of which have the audacity to cite bowdlerized texts which have been modified to appear more gender neutral). And, of course, using “one” or carefully constructing sentences to avoid having to use a pronoun for the subject at all. These struggles clearly illustrate that people really want to have a better word to use.

The second problem, of course, involves people who fall outside the gender binary. I, for example, have been in the habit of using female pronouns to refer to myself, even though they don’t really fit, for lack of better pronouns to use. In this case, we need a gender neutral pronoun because we want to avoid gendering the subject of a sentence from within the structure of the gender binary. People may also use gender neutral pronouns when they know the gender of a subject, but wish to conceal it, as when people in same sex relationships want to conceal the gender identities of their partners to avoid being outed.

So, what’s an English speaker to do?

Well, I use ou in spoken and casual written communications (I guess this website isn’t exactly “casual,” but it is a personal website, rather than a professional publication). I use ou because it has an established English language usage. But, it’s important to note that ou is archaic. If numerous people started using it, it might experience a revival, which is what I have been pushing for, because I like “ou” and it feels comfortable and unpretentious (you may well disagree on one or both of these points). I don’t usually use ou in works for professional publication, however, mainly because editors usually think I mean “you” or are just deeply confused.

Other people use invented pronouns. There’s a whole army of them: ze, xe, ve, etc. I have a really difficult time with invented pronouns, and have spoken out pretty dismissively on them in the past, because they generally annoy me. They feel extremely contrived and I find them very jarring when I encounter them. But, you know, a lot of that obviously comes from the fact that I personally think that English already has a perfectly good gender neutral pronoun (even if it is archaic). And it’s clear that people who use those words are doing so in good faith, and out of a genuine desire to address gender bias in the English language, so I try to be less snotty about them these days. (I won’t, for example, edit comments which use them to replace them with “ou.”)

English is a language which is constantly changing and evolving (like any language), and, growing up in the house of an English professor, I was very exposed not only to English in general, but to the history of English. My father and I have talked a lot about word origins and why things like “womon” for “woman” or “herstory” for “history” annoy us, as well as the inherent difficulties involved in trying to talk about the complexity of gender issues when you don’t even have a well accepted gender neutral pronoun to use.

I think that much of my resistance to invented pronouns is that people can’t seem to agree on them. If we were all going to settle on using one system, I would stop using “ou” and start using the agreed upon system and would encourage others to do the same. But because people apply gender neutral pronouns highly inconsistently, it seems like we are never going to agree on a common usage which would normalize a particular pronoun or set of pronouns which eliminate gender bias. And, sadly, the inconsistency looks flaky and pretentious to people outside of the discussion.

Because English is evolving, I think it’s important to avoid falling into the trap of defending traditional/archaic/historic language usages, and I say this even though I have adopted an archaic gender neutral pronoun. For example, “man” was a gender neutral term at one point, and it obviously isn’t now, so people who defend its use as generic are clearly wrong, even if they are being historically accurate.

As a side note, however, I must that it annoys me when language activists ignore the complexity and history of English, sometimes erring on the side of overcorrection in their zeal to address gender bias. Gender bias is a very real problem in English and it’s something which should be addressed, but it’s important to strike a middle ground to be taken seriously. Fighting for a gender neutral pronoun is important and should happen. Trying to eradicate the letter groupings “his” and “man” from words where they don’t have gender connotations? Not as important.

Furthermore, as a private note of amusement, I can’t help but note that many language activists continue to use words like “hysterical,” which are in fact rooted in gender bias, apparently because they don’t realize that the word comes from a Greek word meaning “womb.”

For now, I’m sticking with ou, for all its obvious flaws.

8 Replies to “Ou”

  1. I’m personally fond of my very own invented set of pronouns for persons whose gender is unknown, doesn’t fit into the male/female binary, or is irrelevant, but I’m aware that my preference is unlikely to become the prevailing one among English speakers. My wildly unscientific guess at the way the current trends are going, singular ‘they’ is going to come out as the winner.

    I mostly agree with you on it not being very important to remove ‘his’ and ‘man’ morphemes from words where there isn’t a strong gender connotation. I do, however, think substituting occurrences of ‘his’ for ‘her’ and ‘man’ for ‘woman’ can be a very useful exercise in exposing just how strongly male-gendered English is. Not that it’s necessarily going to change how people use language, but it can be an interesting bit of consciousness-raising.

  2. Hi,

    Thanks for that wonderful explanation of ‘ou’. I have been reading your blog for a while now and wasn’t quite sure if you had just dropped the ‘y’ or if it was something else.

    I have seen other gender neutral pronouns, as you mention in your post but never seen ‘ou’. I like ‘ou’. In my opinion it flows with less obstruction (in my internal voice) than some of the other pronouns.

    How does ou pronounce ‘ou’? I’m saying it my head like yOU but without the Y. Is that correct? Does it matter?

  3. Pronunciation-wise, there’s not a lot of clear guidance. I say “oo” like the trailing vowel in “who,” and that may well be wrong. There’s another archaic gender neutral pronoun, incidentally: a. I decided not to use a because I suspected that people would get confused.

  4. Ou is just an Old English gender neutral pronoun, as is a. I’m not quite sure when it fell out of use, but it’s safe to say it hasn’t been seen out in the wild in a while.

    I’m not quite sure where my obstinance to hir, zie, etc comes from. They look like typos, but so does ou, so that’s not a good reason to hate them. They feel contrived, but trying to revive a word that hasn’t been used in hundreds of years is also pretty contrived. They just…really…jar me. I find it hard to focus on texts which use them. I guess I could get used to them in time, but right now I find them tremendously distracting. (Some people might say the same of ou!)

  5. I recently asked this question on Twitter, and where I have seen “hir” as the gender-neutral possessive article (and pronoun?) and was told “ze” or “zie” was the gender-neutral subject pronoun. My German is very, very poor, but I thought maybe “zie” had a German root? (I know “Sie” is the formal 2nd person pronoun… maybe I’m getting that confused?)

    The advantage I see of “hir” and “zie” over “ou” is that the former sound like the words we already use, so they’re easier to insert into the language (and easier for people to infer the meaning, if they are not familiar with the new versions).

    What is the history of “ou”? I’m a word nerd and a wanna-be linguist, so this kind of stuff fascinates me…

  6. I had never heard of “ou” before. My dictionary says it’s “a fruit-eating Hawaiian honeycreeper with a stout bill and green and yellow plumage.”

    It’s frustrating not only that we live with a legacy language that is difficult to reform to modern sensibilities, but also that it seems like there has been a slide backward toward less gender-neutral language in the last 20 years. I remember when even my favorite all-boy punk rock band, the Ramones, wrote a song called “Humankind.” But nowadays people are back to saying “mankind.” I hear it on PBS nature specials and from elementary school teachers.

    I think you might find my reverse-gender essay amusing.

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