For years Facebook has allowed users to mark their relationship status as “single,” “married,” and “it’s complicated.” They could identify as male or female or keep their gender private. Now, acknowledging that gender can also be complicated, the social media giant is letting users choose among male, female, and 56 additional custom genders, including agender, cis, gender variant, intersex, trans person, and two-spirit.
Facebook users now have so many gender choices that a single drop-down box can’t hold them all. And they’re free to pick more than one. But to refer to this set of 58 genders Facebook offers only three tired pronouns: he, she, and they. A Facebook user can now identify as a genderqueer, neutrois, cis male, androgynous other, but Facebook friends can only wish him, her, or them a happy birthday.
A Facebook user can now identify as a genderqueer, neutrois, cis male, androgynous other, but friends can only wish him, her, or them a happy birthday.
The persons at Facebook are enlightened enough to acknowledge gender as fluid, but when it comes to grammar, their thinking rigidifies into masculine, feminine, and neuter. Mess with gender words and Facebook might get a few emails from bible thumpers reminding them about Adam and Eve or from godless humanists complaining, “Hey, you left my gender out.” But deploy a string of invented pronouns to match the new genders and at best there’s a Distributed Denial of Service attack, at worst the server is struck by thunderbolts from the grammar gods, because gender may be socially constructed, but grammar is sacred.
The linguist Mark Liberman lists Facebook’s new custom gender options on LanguageLog, and I copy them below:
Agender, Androgyne, Androgynous, Bigender, Cis, Cis Female, Cis Male, Cis Man, Cis Woman, Cisgender, Cisgender Female, Cisgender Male, Cisgender Man, Cisgender Woman, Female to Male, FTM, Gender Fluid, Gender Nonconforming, Gender Questioning, Gender Variant, Genderqueer, Intersex, Male to Female, MTF, Neither, Neutrois, Non-binary, Other, Pangender, Trans, Trans Female, Trans Male, Trans Man, Trans Person, Trans Woman, Trans*, Trans* Female, Trans* Male, Trans* Man, Trans* Person, Trans* Woman, Transfeminine, Transgender, Transgender Female, Transgender Male, Transgender Man, Transgender Person, Transgender Woman, Transmasculine, Transsexual, Transsexual Female, Transsexual Male, Transsexual Man, Transsexual Person, Transsexual Woman, Two-spirit.
But where are all the pronouns? Facebook may play fast and loose with our private parts, but they’re reluctant to tinker with the parts of speech. Fortunately, grammarians have no such scruples. They have repeatedly proposed new pronouns to fill linguistic gaps. They even beat Facebook in the race for new genders.
In 1792 the Scottish grammarian James Anderson argued that English would be better served if we sorted our words into more than the traditional masculine, feminine, and neuter. Anderson added ten new genders: indefinite, imperfect (or soprana), matrimonial, masculine imperfect, feminine imperfect, mixt imperfect, masculine mixt, feminine mixt, united, and universally indefinite.
In 1792 James Anderson proposed 13 genders for pronouns instead of the conventional three. [“Grammatical Disquisitions.” The Bee. Oct. 10, p. 198]
And that’s not all. Currently only the third person singular English pronouns have gender: he, she, and it. Anderson wanted all of our first and second person pronouns, both singular and plural, and the third person plural, to express all of the thirteen genders (so, seventy-eight pronouns instead of the current 8), and he preferred each pronoun to have two alternates, for the times when the same pronoun must refer to different people. In his example, shown below, the first male referred to would be he, the second, hei, the third, ho. That makes 234 pronouns (and that’s just counting the nominative case; if you add the possessives and accusatives, which every pronoun needs, well, you do the math).
James Anderson felt the more pronouns, the merrier. He wanted at least two pronouns for each gender for cases when the same pronoun must refer to different people, for example, the first male would be he, the second, hei, the third, ho.
Anderson thought up some minor genders as well, but fortunately he kept them to himself “to avoid the appearance of unnecessary refinement.”
Anderson also suggested that we need a true common-gender pronoun, one equivalent to he or she, his or her, him or her. But he offered no examples. Other grammarians have been less reticent. Some eighty common-gender pronouns have been coined between 1850 and the present. Two of them, thon and hesh, even made it into dictionaries. Subtracting duplicates coined multiple times by different people, the list shrinks to fifty-five:
ae, alaco, de, e, E, em, en, et, ey, fm, ghach, ha, han, hann, he’er, heesh, herm, hes, hesh, heshe, hey, hi, hir, hizer, ho, hse, ip, ir, ith, j/e, jhe, le, mef, na, ne, one, ons, po, s/he, sap, se, shem, sheme, shey, shis, ta, tey, thir, thon, ton, ve, ws, xe, z, ze.
But if we add the current he, she, and they to the fifty-five coinages above, we get one pronoun for every Facebook gender. 58 genders, 58 pronouns. It’s uncanny. It’s irresistible. It’s pictures of cats. Of course, Facebook could go in the opposite direction and slash the pronoun choices down to one. Sometimes it's better to simplify language than complicate it.
But whatever Facebook does about pronouns--and my guess is it will do nothing in order to avoid those grammar-god-hurled thunderbolts--I’m keeping my Facebook gender private, and my pronoun choice is thon. Or maybe ip. Or E. I don't know. It's complicated.
Further reading: For a comprehensive historical database of nonbinary pronouns, click here.