my own person

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P R A E S I D I U M

A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

16.3 (Summer 2016)

 

Humor

janus

 

I Want My Own Person
Peter Singleton

Everyone seems to want an individualized “gender pronoun”… but this author demands his own grammatical “fourth person” to supplement the conventional (and sometimes quite hurtful) third person. Enough of being snubbed simply for not being physically present!

A know-it-all graduate student recently wanted to “help” me rewrite some material that I had prepared for class on the topic of English grammar. She wanted to turn the whole thing into a term project. It was clearly easier to give into her than to heed the little voice of warning in my head.  Why not just humor her? Let her “follow her passion” on a special project rather than give her reason to circulate vicious rumors about me, as I had overheard her doing of others.  (When non-traditional students are women of a certain age—meaning that their age is very uncertain, and not remotely worth the risk of query—they have acquired the ability, in many cases, to undermine morale massively in an afternoon at the Student Commons.  The dormant omniscience within their DNA also seems to awaken at about this time.  I write these observations, not as a flaming sexist swine, but as a trained researcher.)

The quality of editing that resulted from this “project” is indicated by my discovering from the student’s total overhaul that the first, second, and third persons are instances of the grammatical phenomenon called “number”.  I began to understand the nature of this woman’s calling.  Number had heretofore been thought only to refer to singularity or plurality: hundreds of generations of stuffy grammarians had to be straightened out, and there wasn’t a moment to lose.

In fact, first, second, and third person refer to… well, to person.  Any of these persons can be either singular or plural, at least in the traditional view; so to claim that their numbers respond to the grammatical category of number really is not helpfully limiting (if you want to be a stdogy sexist swine about it).

But here is where my student’s challenge of the status quo began to prove fertile for me.  I started thinking about pronouns, since they have been much in the news lately.  I believe the mayor of New York is even levying fines on retailers who neglect to inquire into their customers’ Preferred Gender Pronoun, or PGP.  (I confess that I don’t quite get the nomenclature, as if a “gender pronoun” were a distinct species.  Since only third-person pronouns have a distinct gender in most languages, and only singular ones have gender in English, wouldn’t you want to say, “Preferred Third-Person Singular Pronoun”, or PTPSP?  Or what about just “Preferred Third”?  But then, why would any salesman be referring to a customer in the third person, unless he’s selling to Louis XIV?  Or if he, she, or it did so, then how would the customer know about it?  Would the law be enforced similarly to sexual harassment codes, where a violation occurs simply because a he-turned-she feels that she has been designated “he” behind her back?)

As all academics know, a move is also on to fuse “he” and “she” into something like “ze” on many campuses.  Less ambitious institutions have satisfied their collective conscience by requiring the use of “they” in all circumstances, whether the referent is singular or plural.  Since we all appear to be turning schizophrenic, anyway, there’s a certain logic to this solution.  And why does “one” have to be the only singular number in an infinite chain of whole numbers?  That doesn’t seem in the least bit charitable.  If we’re really a Christian nation, then we shouldn’t allow such stigmatizing and bullying. Numbers are people, too!

But what was stirring deep in my bowels (the inspiration being less cerebral than intestinal) was none of the above, but something quite new.  I think I must be the very first person (as in “originary ratiocinator”) to come up with it.  Here it is.

Why are there only three persons?  What if I don’t want to be spoken of as if absent, even when I really am absent?  Why should I be treated to “he” (or “she”, or “it”, or “ze”… or “kiwi”) just because I happened to step outside?  That makes me feel “talked about”, as if you were up to something behind my back.  It’s hurtful, very hurtful.  Exclusionary.  And rude, too.  I don’t think it should be allowed—unless, of course, I give you written permission to do it.  When the third person is applied to me, I feel diminished, disparaged, neglected, contemned, discounted, avoided, dismissed, underrated.  I feel colonized, in a way.  In fact, I think in some cases I might feel raped.

What we need is a fourth-person pronoun.  The fourth person would be reserved for someone not in the speaker’s presence but whom, for basic reasons of politeness and sensitivity, the speaker decides to designate as present.  Or at least not absent: semi-present, let us say. Frankly, I can’t believe that this issue has not been raised before now.  Many needless wars have probably been fought throughout history because of parties who were rudely distanced from an important conversation and got their feelings hurt.  Millions must have died.  It’s high time to set this straight.

Now… how to select a pronoun?  It will have to be a whole range of pronouns; because in addition to a masculine form and a plural form, we will need a feminine form, a gay form, a transgender or gender-fluid form, and an undecided/indeterminate form.

”You” captures the idea of being present, and “I” makes me feel that I have been elevated to the all-important first-place position; so I propose the hybrid form “yai”.  The plural form could be “aye-yai”.

That takes care of the masculine… but what a sexist pig am I!  Here I’ve already gobbled up the obvious choice for my own gender, like a typical gender-imperialist.  I’ll have to do something really nice for the feminine form (but not patronizing) in order to make up for my gendrocentricism.

”Ah” is the universal vociferant of satisfaction (as in “’ah’ factor”).  The not-present-but-not-absent female will therefore be designated with “ah”, and the plural will be “ah-hah”.
For gays, of course, we can use “ay” without the “g” sound—except that there might be some confusion about how to pronounce the remaining vowels.  So the safest bet would be “hey” for the singular and “hey-yea” (both long “a” sounds) for the plural.

The gender-fluid can use “yahoo” and “yah-yoo”.  For the undecided, I would recommend “yo” and “yoyo”; but Black English has already claimed “yo” for service in other (usually vocative) contexts, and we should be sensitive to that prior claim.  The plural “yoyo” implies a ludic or playful mindset that seems appropriate for the undecided.  Therefore, we will stay with that theme and select as the singular form the pronoun “pogo”.

Let’s take our new pronouns for a test drive.

Take the sentence, “Jack, Jill, Shakondra, Blade, and Glediputt went up the hill to fetch a pail of water.” We couldn’t possibly substitute conventional third-person pronouns for these names without having a train wreck of “he’s” and “she’s” all over the place. Now, however, the sentence may lucidly (and oh-so-much-more-politely) be rewritten, “Yai, ah, hey, yahoo, and pogo went up the hill,” etc.

Now let’s say that Shakondra, Blade, and Glediputt all brought along friends of their own persuasion. Then we would have, “Yai, ah, hey-yea, yah-yoo, and yoyo all went up the hill together.” I see a rainbow!

But let’s say now that Jack and Jill have both been spotted listening to pro-life propagandists on campus and hence do not deserve the consideration of the fourth person. And let us further create a scene that challenges us to interlace our pronouns adroitly. Try this:

Jack thought Shakondra and her friends were taking too much water from him and Jill, but Blade remarked that their garden was parched. Glediputt’s comrades said that they would be glad to share their allotment with the Shakondras, if they could also have a little of Jack’s and Jill’s water. They all agreed with the Blades that their suggestion seemed fair.

I deliberately built in a mess of third-person plural forms to illustrate the insoluble ambiguities latent in our present, uncorrected system. Furthermore, in writing the paragraph above, I was forced to recognize an oversight: I have not yet created any objective or possessive forms. At this point, I desperately need to keep things simple. I will therefore go simplistic and ad the suffix “ob” onto objective forms and the suffix “poss” onto possessive forms.

Here we have the new-and-improved version, using no proper nouns at all but only pronouns:

He thought that hey and hey-poss friends were taking too much water from yai-ob and ah-hob [“h” added to keep vowels from merging: and note that the bastard Jack uses the polite fourth person of himself], but yahoo remarked that hey-yea-poss garden was parched. Pogo-poss comrades said that yoyo [that is, speaking for themselves] would be glad to share yoyo-poss {still speaking for themselves] water with hey-yea-hob [the h-marker again], if hey-yea [or is it yah-yoo?] could have a little bit of his and her [but the polite Blades would say yai-poss and ah-poss] water. Yai-hoo-hoi-yo [the all-inclusive fourth-person gender pronoun] agreed that yah-yoo-poss suggestion seemed fair.

Naturally, this will all take some getting used to. But I think it’s a small price to pay if we can thereby make the world a gentler, safer, happier, healthier place.

After a teaching career spanning three decades, Peter Singleton now lives in semi-retirement in the North Texas area, where he is a freelance writer and part-time teacher.