I am in the middle of writing a book on pronouns in English. My focus this time out is on standard English rather than nonstandard English, since one of my recent books was about Black English. However, again and again I am struck that the most dynamic, “Who’da thunk it?” developments in pronouns are in the Englishes beyond the standard.
Indeed, I increasingly think that if we are to be a linguistically informed people, our education should include instruction in how nonstandard varieties of English are often more complex than standard varieties. Although they are often presumed to be simpler — in a word, dumber — than standard English, the opposite is often true. Nonstandard variations can be sophisticated solutions to the problems that inevitably reside in English, as in any language. One example I am thinking of is a relatively new and unheralded gender-neutral pronoun that has emerged in, of all places, Baltimore.
Gender-neutral pronouns are a thorny topic in English. In Finnish, for example, “hän” is a genderless pronoun. Legions of languages have words like that. But in English, a truly accepted gender-neutral pronoun has been a holy grail for generations. Past attempts have included kludges like “heesh” (popularized by A.A. Milne), and modern proposals such as “ze.” These deliberately invented pronouns typically only catch on in limited circles, however. This is because people are especially conservative about pronouns, which are used so frequently that they are especially deep-seated in our linguistic consciousness. To accept a new pronoun is to change the way we roll, as it were. One prefers not to.
This is why the most successful gender-neutral pronoun has always been “they.” Its generic usage, as in, “Each student knows what they must do,” has been criticized as incorrect for centuries — while simultaneously being used freely by even the most prestigious writers since the Middle Ages. And of late there is the usage of a gender-neutral “they” to refer to a specific, rather than generic, person: “Ariella got straight A’s, and they’re so proud.”
As practical as this use of “they”is in giving a pronoun to those disinclined to the gender binary — I wrote about it here — it challenges many beyond a certain age. My guess (and hope) is that it will become ever more entrenched as the decades pass, especially as tweens and teens often use it effortlessly. However, I also suspect that we are in for at least a few decades of fruitless resistance against the new “they,” with many insisting that it is somehow logic incarnate that “they” must be plural. This, despite the fact that in German, “sie” means both “she” and “they,” and no one bats an eye. But I digress!
Linguists shrug that an option such as “they” is the best we can do, because our conservative nature regarding pronouns means that new usages can only come from the set of them that we already have. But this is not precisely true. Rather, this limitation operates in the standard language, over which judgments about what is “right” and “logical” reign eternally, conditioning a sense that language is something frozen on a page.
But in language varieties less policed, language change can happen the way it wants to, and new pronouns can come from the darnedest places. In the Black English of younger Black people in Baltimore, for instance, a new gender-neutral pronoun arose in the 2000s, as reported in an article by Elaine Stotko and Margaret Troyer. Of all things, the pronoun is “yo.”
Not “you,” but “yo.”
Not “yo” in place of “your,” as in “yo books.” Not “yo” as in “Yo! I’m over here!” And not “yo” as in the one appended after a sentence to solicit agreement: “That sure was loud, yo!”
This “yo” is a straightforward, gender-neutral third-person pronoun — basically “heesh,” but not as ridiculous sounding. “Yo was tuckin’ in his shirt!” is an example Stotko and Troyer documented. This “yo” did not mean “you,” because the reference was certainly not to someone tucking in someone else’s shirt. A female teacher was handing out papers, and someone remarked — not to the teacher herself — “Yo handin’ out papers.” Someone else used “Yo is a clown” to describe a third party.
Wrap your head around it, and you can see this pronoun is pretty awesome. The interjection “Yo!” has been retooled, so that what started as a way of calling someone has become a way of calling out — i.e., pointing out — someone. The new “yo” means, in its way, “the one whom one ‘yo’s.” And it applies to no gender in particular. Baltimore Black English achieved what mainstream English never has: a gender-neutral pronoun that doesn’t force some other pronoun to moonlight in a new role.
Standard English’s inventory of pronouns is actually rather impoverished compared to many nonstandard Englishes. It is this way with languages worldwide: Nonstandard variants tend to be more complicated, but the complications are processed simply as “quaint.” Black English — and not only Black English — also has “y’all,” which saves “you” from doing double duty as singular and plural. (I’ve written about that, too.) Likewise, many rural dialects of English in Britain still distinguish between a singular “thou” and a plural “you.” Standard Danish has two genders, but some dialects have three. In Western dialects of Flemish, the word “yes” is conjugated: It has a different ending depending on whether you mean “Yes, I did,” “Yes, we did” or “Yes, she did.”
Standard language unites us. But with nonstandard language, nothing — no dictionaries, no tut-tutting by experts — pulls it back from doing what it wants to do. It tends to be built out compared to standard language, “buff” as it were. It should be common knowledge that such variations are of interest not merely because of the cultures they represent but also because of their sheer grammatical intricacy.
Standard English has to settle for stretching limited resources, with “you” referring to any number of people and “they” increasingly called upon to do the same to an extent it never had to before. Modern English gives “you” and “they” a workout unknown in all but a few of the world’s languages. But if you want to know what human speech is typically like, with pronouns sharing duties among a good bunch of alternatives, you have to look to the nonstandard Englishes — that is, the ones we are told are “not the real language.”
John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He is the author of “Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter: Then, Now and Forever” and, most recently, “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”