My preferred pronouns are .. ..

My preferred pronouns are .. ..

I read a very interesting article by Rachel Mankowitz on the problems that languages have with the changed views we now hold about gender in society. This an interesting read about language, religion and gender focussing mainly on Hebrew and it is well worth a read. It certainly made me think about the muddle we have created for ourselves with the issue of pronouns.

There are areas that I think have been clearly problematic with pronoun use. This I when they have been used to promote gender roles inappropriately. Sentences like “The nurse felt her heart race as the doctor raised his scalpel to make the first incision” are potentially harmful to society, as they portray, and foster, job stereotypes – nurses are women and surgeons are men. As a society we have really progressed from the idea that a certain chromosome mix, or specific genital anatomy, is important for a job or a task (other than the realms or childbirth, breastfeeding or possibly types of prostitution). We should be careful when we use gendered pronouns to relates to large groups as they create assumptions we may not intend.

However, most of the time we use pronouns it is to try and use a shorthand to identify an individual by reducing the options but without unnecessary specificity. The sentence “Alan left Alan’s clothes in Alan’s house” sounds far too hectoring or emphatic compared to “He left his clothes in his house”. Describing gossip or arguments with “he said, she said” is much easier than “Mr. Smith said, Mrs. Smith said“. We use pronouns to reduce the likelihood of errors in communication often by using one of the most basic of differences we notice about people. Often apparent gender is enough but sometimes not (e.g. “Her, her on the left with the red hair”). If one was to look at a group of 10 men and be asked “Who took the ball ?” to answer “he did” will not be adequate. We all use pronouns and adjectives instinctively like this; we use words to convey what we want to communicate as clearly as we can.

This not where the problems lie. The problems occur when people feel the need to select their pronouns. The statement “My preferred pronouns are ..” is problematic.

The first problem is minor. This problem arises when someone expressed this statement completely unnecessarily. Someone, often a stale white guy in a position of authority or a celebrity with falling ratings, will announce “My preferred pronouns are He/Him” as if there had been any prior doubts whatsoever. There was no need to advise us, we knew what pronouns to use, and the only reason this statement is made is to attract positive attention. The hope is that we will now think “He is a cool and aware dude not the boring old fart I had thought“. This actually rarely works in any event, most people can see through this, it is about as effective as a elderly vicar wearing jeans and a Limp Bizkit T-shirt saying ‘Yo ! I’m gettin’ down with the kids‘. Unless people have transitioned, or are in the process of doing so, there must be relatively few times this is necessary. I don’t like this but it is a minor irritation.

It is often felt that this statement is used to avoid hurt and insult during future conversations. Thankfully most of us have no intention of being insulting or disrespectful to others and in our conversations we will try and be polite and friendly. I am sure that if I met Trump or Boris I’d probably have a conversation that didn’t use the terms buffoon or egotistical maniac even once. Even when we disagree, we rarely insult people face to face; it is counter productive. But even if one actively wanted to be hurtful pronouns are not the issue here, because in English the first and second person pronouns are not gendered. If you refer back to the statement “My preferred pronouns.. ” it is clear that my pronouns are “I / Me” and the second person pronouns are “You / Yours“, so in any conversation there is no need to use a gendered pronoun at all. Unless you are unpleasant and nasty enough there is unlikely to be any accidental misgendering or insult – “Shall I pass you your clothes ? When did you start your job?” – you would have to work at being unpleasant to do it through the medium of pronouns. This statement about pronouns is rarely to prevent hurt or insult.

The real reason behind this request, and the reason for my objection to it, is that it is compels others to speak in a specific way about a third party. This is the insistence that, when a first person speaks to a second person about a third person then, the first person must use specific pronouns. This compulsion is rarely necessary ; if somebody looks as if they are living in the female gender role, or have told us they are, then we will probably use “she/ her”, and apparent occupant of the male gender role will likely be referred to as “he/him”. If the situation means we don’t know the gender , or feel that the situation is ambiguous, then we will probably use non-gendered terms such as “they / their” or “person/ people”. We are lucky in English that the third person “they/ their” can be used in the singular and plural. This is not always easy in other languages, in Welsh for example ‘they/their’ ( nhw/ eu) is always plural and requires plural noun forms. But again there are non-gendered placeholders that can be used.

Nobody has the right to insist that others talk about them in a specific manner. No minister of religion can insist on being called “reverend”, no politician can insist on being termed “the respected”, no one can insist on any particular adjectives or pronouns. Unless we threaten or slander or libel others we are free to communicate as we wish. Thankfully nearly all of us speak clearly and kindly. However, we would be foolish if we thought that the answer to racism, misogyny, homophobia, or any other hateful idea is to ban the speech that people can use. These ideas will die when they are confronted and exposed not when words are banned or specific pronouns are demanded.

A final irritation I have about this trend is that it appears a further step on the road to defining ourselves by a very limited aspect of ourselves. This statement tends to say that “The most important thing about me is where I fit in the current range of genders“. Now, unless I am thinking of wooing you to capture your sexual favours, this may be the least important aspect of you to me. I might prefer to think of you as “the vet” or “the lawyer” rather than as “Xi / Xim” or “She / Her”.

If I can see the gender role you present I’ll probably use the apt gendered pronoun, on the other hand it if it is very ambiguous I’ll probably be cautious. The third person, under discussion, by their words and behaviour will be able to help me choose. Conversations let us navigate these difficulties and find ways to talk to each other civilly. It is better to find this out together than to think we can prescribe what language other can use about us.

I could imagine that if I heard my overheard my neighbours talking about me and saying “Have you seen the state of the sheep on dickhead’s farm ?” then I might be upset. I would have two strategies I could consider. I could try to stop being a “dickhead” or I could insist that they called me “the wise one”; I know which strategy might have some hopes of success.

Smaller is often better.

Smaller is often better.

A small group of folk in the town had arranged a rather unusual concert for Friday night. They had organised a fusion of Welsh Cerdd Dant and Jamaican dub poetry. This may sound an unusual mix but there was a reason for this; the group organizing the night were researching the historical links between the local wool trade and slavery.

When I lived in Scotland I was aware of the strong link between the tobacco and sugar trades and the slave trade and there were very many reminders of this in my home town. The street names, statues and buildings all bore witness to this shameful period. I had not been aware when I moved that this was also the case in North Wales, though perhaps I was rather naïve to think there is anywhere in the country, the hub of old Empire, which doesn’t have reminders to squalid aspects of our past. In any event I looked forward to this evening as it promised something different and I had little familiarity with either of the cultural forms.

But as we gathered for the evening I started to realise something was amiss. The night was cold and wet and there had been weather warnings of rain and flooding. We had noted that the town was rather quiet but, as my wife and I sat in the bar, we realised the only others there were either the performers or the theatre staff. Quarter of an hour after the due start time only three other people had joined us – we were hardly a throng being swollen. By the start of the show the audience was outnumbered by the staff and performers by a ratio of 2 to 1, but the show had to go on!

The main act was Yasas Afari. He is a well know poet but he also is a tall, handsome, striking man who has a great deal of charisma. This was a man who was not going to be intimidated by a poor turnout and was still intent of giving his performance. He delivered his poetry with gusto and verve. There was a powerful physicality to his delivery. This was made all the more potent by the fact that at times there were literally only inches between ourselves and the performer.

This evening clearly threatened ‘audience participation‘ and I was not sure my usual strategy was going to work on this occasion. Usually I adopt a pose of studiously looking at my feet, putting a glower on my face and trying to radiate an aura of “Don’t even think about choosing me, it would be more trouble than it is worth” as a protective shield around me. This usually works, but when I comprised fully 20% of the audience I anticipated that this was not going to be successful and I was correct : I had no option but to join in.

Yasus took an evening which could have been awkward and turned it into something quite special. He had us on our feet (all ten of them), we took part in the chorus, we made pledges and said oaths, we even danced along to some of the poems (Though shuffled may be a more appropriate verb than danced). He transformed an a difficult concert into an intimate gathering and we had a great night. We discussed language and culture and the links between language and political power. He made the links between the Welsh Language and Jamaican Patois clear and obvious.

We also discussed Rastafari and whether Yasus realises it, or not, he is an obviously a preacher. By the end of the night I had a much better understanding of this religion than I ever had expected. My knowledge of Rastafari had been limited to knowing some famous names associated with it (Marcus Garvey and Bob Marley) but I knew very little of the beliefs that it contained. Much is very similar to Christianity which, I am ashamed to say, I had not realised. I enjoyed his descriptions which were vivid and clear, and was struck when he said that he though many of our current problems stem from a modern mistake. The mistake, in his eyes, is to view ourselves as bodily entities having spiritual experiences rather than spiritual entities having bodily experiences. I thought this an interesting echo of the old view of the Cathars and early gnostics.

Mr. Afari really deserved a much bigger audience. If you ever have the chance to hear him deliver his poetry give it a go, you will enjoy yourself and find yourself thinking about a variety of issues. However, I am partially glad that this night was a “flop” and had such a small audience. It delivered a great deal more than it would have with a crowd and I would otherwise never had a chance to high five the poet!

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi.

Dwy frân ddu, lwc dda i mi or Two Black Crows good luck for me was the idiom in the diary this morning. I lead me to think about the diversity of bird imagery in folklore and also how it differs in different national cultures. This latter aspect has become important for me as I now live, rather hesitantly, bilingually and the symbolic significance of birds, or other animals, in one language may be very different in the other. Birds have quite different connotations in English and Welsh.

Crows, with their association with carrion, are often related to death and bad omens in English cultures. Early cultures would have soon learnt that where there is death there are crows. This is also seen in Norse mythology where these birds are seen as a bad omen of death and doom. Although Odin’s ravens were also messengers of information. In Scotland the “Corbie” (the Scots word for the crow derived from the latin corvus) was associated with the hag Cailleach who feasted on dead mens’ bodies. In Irish folklore Morrighan the goddess of war was often present on the battlefield in this bird’s form. The collective nouns, in English also reveal this negative set, being ‘an unkindness of ravens‘ and ‘a murder of crows’.

However, as the motto above suggests, in Welsh the crow and raven have had much better publicists. The early king, Brân the Blessed, was associated with his namesake the crow (Crow is Brân in Welsh) . When he died he ordered that his head be cut off, and kept, so he could continue his gift of prophesy and protect Britain. His head is said it is buried under the Tower ot London and is the reason the ravens are there. The prophesy states, if the ravens ever leave the Tower of London then Brân‘s protection will be lost, and for this reason the ravens wings are clipped – just to be sure.

This complex mythology about the crow is shared with another bird of this genus – the magpie. In both cases to see one is unlucky while seeing a pair is lucky. The ‘rule’ for crows is

Two crows mean good luck ,
Three means health,
Four means wealth,
Five is sickness,
Six mean death.

and this is reminiscent of the old tale for magpies where the earliest version was :-

One for sorrow,
Two for mirth
Three for a funeral,
Four for birth
Five for heaven
Six for hell
Seven for the devil, his own self

The owl likewise if very different. In most English speaking cultures the owl receives a good press. Its wisdom and sagacity are stressed and it is usually a positive figure in any folk tale. Most people think that seeing an owl is associated with good luck. However, in Wales, and in older English stories, the owl has a much darker meaning and an owl passing the window of a sick person was held to presage imminent death.

The owl plays an important part in Welsh mythology particularly in the story of Blodeuwedd in the Mabinogi. In the last book of the Mabinogi the hero, Lleu Llaw Gyffes , was under a spell so that he could never have a human wife. To get around this problem his magicians created a wife for him :-

from..” the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured up the fairest and most beautiful maiden anyone had ever seen. And they baptized her in the way that they did at that time, and named her Blodeuwedd. “

Unfortunately, despite her beauty, Blodeuwedd behaves very badly cheating on her husband and conspiring to kill him. As punishment she is turned into an owl, the bird that is hated by all other birds :-

‘You will not dare to show your face ever again in the light of day ever again, and that will be because of enmity between you and all other birds. It will be in their nature to harass you and despise you wherever they find you. And you will not lose your name – that will always be “Bloddeuwedd”‘

adding

‘Blodeuwedd” means “owl” in the language of today. And it is because of that there is hostility between birds and owls, and the owl is still known as Blodeuwedd.” ‘

You may not consider these mythological differences important but sometimes they can make a difference. Just as the French may compliment their partner by calling her their ‘petit chou it is unlikely that I will garner the same success by calling my partner a ‘small cabbage’ no matter how fond of cabbage I may be. So while you might feel on safe ground choosing a bird loved the world over, for example the dove, it is not as simple as this. In Welsh an old dove (Hen glomen) is the term for someone who may dress finely outside but keeps a dirty house at home ( Gwraig sy’n ymwisgo’n wych, ond yn slwt yn ei thŷ). It may also be better that I don’t even translate another old bird as it is too rude for WordPress. If I were to venture that somebody was an ‘old pigeon’ I could just have well used the word for a female dog as my description – best avoided.

If you live between two languages it is best not to imagine that you can simply translate your affections from one tongue to the other. This may mean a little more learning but does mean you will have more words of affection (and abuse) at your disposal.

Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Here you go Timmy – an Iguana !

Words change their meaning over time and there is nothing we can do about it. We can’t stop it and we shouldn’t try. The original meaning of prevent was simply to come (vene) before (pre) something,  a synonym for precede,  as in “I prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried.” (Psalm 119:147). The word no longer has this meaning except in that it carried the idea of something preceding a potential event and stopping it. To use the archaic meaning today  could cause problems, what would the police make of the statement “I prevented the burglar entering the house” ? I doubt it would help communication. Words change their meanings and we adapt and use them appropriately.

However, it is important to know that these changes are taking place as sometimes they also signify a significant change in society as well as vocabulary. I though of this while watching television adverts for potato products. Adverts about families are very keen to stress that “families come in all shapes and sizes” and that the old idea of mother-father-children is archaic and redundant. I wondered if this was true. It is true that dogs come in all shapes and sizes (from chiwawas to great danes) as do cats and other types of animal.  But what is it that makes a dog a dog and and  a cat a cat ? Are they all just animals and it is unimportant ? Will Timmy, with his heart set on a puppy for Christmas, be over the moon with his Iguana – animals come in all shapes and sizes ?

What is it in a family, whatever form it takes, that makes it a family ? Why are a group of workmates not a family ? Why is my estranged brother still family even  though I don’t see him ? Why is my best friend, who I see daily and has supported me through thick and thin, not my family ? I think there are two factors.

Firstly there is the biological relationship.  We are genetically linked to our family. My brother and cousins share a genetic closeness with me that others do not. The same applies to family trees in animals. Two dogs, no matter how different, are more alike that a dog and a cat no matter how superficially similar. This relationship by blood is very important. I watch on the farm as animals maintain their family groups for life despite the hurdles that are put in their way. Humans are no different, and the maternal and paternal bonds are the most obvious sign of this blood relationship. The feelings of parents for children are very special and lead to very special behaviours which nurture and protect children as they grow. It is one of the core values of the family both to the individual child and to our society. This blood relationship is half of the answer, but only half.

Parents are not blood related, this would be a very bad idea. Their linkage is purely personal and social. It is a choice commonly described as based on ‘love’. But what makes this bond any different to any other ? I think there are clues in two common sayings. Firstly we believe “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family” and secondly we often hear crime syndicates, such as the mafia, described as the family because “nobody leaves the family”. I think the second bond that makes families different is that the bonds are binding and life-long. Once you enter into this relationship it is difficult, or impossible, to leave. I have my suspicions that this enduring closeness, this living together through good times and bad, is actually what creates love. Attraction brings people together, love develops when we travel through life with a companion, when we share our life with another person.

This combination of blood relationships and life-long commitments have been a boon to humans, and other animals, in creating stable social structures in which to grow offspring. It is true that today we feel we have evolved beyond the need for these traditional structures  but the evidence would not tend to support this belief. Our statements that families ‘come in all shapes and sizes’ is more a statement of hope that the way we live now is as effective as the old family based on consanguinity and permanent relationships. Time will tell.

Family now has a new meaning as a ‘collection of people who elect, for the time being, to live together in some arrangement’. We should be aware of this when we use the term today, as we can no longer make the presumptions we formerly did. Family no longer means we can presume constancy, the presence of parental love, the likelihood of altruistic behaviour, and so on. It is a word so diminished of meaning as to have little value (though it does help sell chips on television adverts), it might mean mum, dad and the kids or it might mean two dads and no kids or a kid with two mums and one dad. It starts to be able to include a dog, or a cat, a budgie or an iguana. Not only is it not helpful it might also impair communication as people think it still has its archaic meaning. They may make unwarranted assumptions based on their past associations of the word ‘family’.

Let’s leave family to its new meaning and try and find a new term for the families animals, and increasingly fewer humans, live within. A word to describe a unit formed for the duration of the life of the members, usually in order to  bear and nurture children. Perhaps another archaic word could be brought out of retirement and pressed into service, what about either of ‘kith and kin’ ?