The limitations of language

Catherine Hyman, Assistant Editor

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By definition, languages are limiting. We cannot speak about things if the words don’t exist to allow us to do so. Sometimes, this makes us unaware of concepts others are able to discuss, other times, this limitation renders us incapable of speaking about things of which we are aware.

One limitation of the English language is a lack of a genderless pronoun. We have “he” for boys and men and “she” for girls and women but no good pronoun that does not identify gender. English has the word “it,” but this is not used to refer to people because it has been used to dehumanize others.

One proposed solution to this absence is the singular “they.” The word “they” is traditionally used to refer to a group of people, but the singular “they” is used to refer to one person and avoids revealing the gender of that person.

This is a necessary concept not only because it allows for people to choose their own pronouns but also because it doesn’t reveal a person’s identity as a victim of a crime or in other situations. Language is always changing, and this is a concept for which we absolutely need a word.

The singular “they” has grown in prevlaence recently, even being used by the Associated Press in some cases.

However, the use of the singular “they” brings with it concerns for people such as writers, news editors and readers alike. Personally, when I am editing news articles, I get confused about whether a sentence is referring to one person or many.

At first glance, I assume a sentence using the singular “they” is about a group of people, so I change the meaning of the sentence. Grammatically, this is the way the sentence appears to make sense.

Now, I believe that it is important to have a word for a genderless pronoun, yet we don’t currently have one. There is no reason, however, that English speakers cannot simply create a word for this concept.

Most new words come into existence naturally and gradually, but there have been instances in which words have been created more consciously.

A podcast called “Lexicon Valley,” which focuses on many different aspects of language, discussed how the term “Ms.” came to be. According to the podcast, there was a need for a term that did not specify a woman’s relationship status, so the new title was created.

A gender neutral pronoun could be created in much the same way. If this was done, we could avoid the grammatical confusion of the singular “they” while also becoming a more inclusive language providing security to individuals.

This solution seems so simple that we might wonder why it hasn’t already been done. Of course, determining what this word should actually be is difficult and getting it to catch on is even more so.

Overall, the intent behind the singular “they” is wonderful. I do, however, believe that it is possible to solve this issue without the problems created by the use of the singular “they” in certain situations. Creating a new word that would solve this problem but would also prevent the concerns the singular “they” creates seems to be a very logical and ideal solution in which concerns are eliminated for everyone.

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The limitations of language