Salvo 06.10.2021 10 minutes

What’s in a Pronoun?

They/them pronouns name badge in grass and daisies

Trans activists want to control language as radically as any totalitarian.

The little pronoun has emerged as the hottest part of speech, driven by trans-rights activists who demand that all of society participate in their power game of announcing—in place of normal greeting and introduction—what “their pronouns” are. This new convention has been described as simple, harmless, and kind, and refusal to play along is now, in many professional contexts, an indication of heresy to the dogma of gender.

As a multilingual linguist and language therapist, I have spent more time than most contemplating the nature of pronouns. We learn pronouns early and use them often, which make them—wrongly—seem trivial. I grew up speaking both English and Spanish. The pronoun differences between the languages were such that I often resolved English sentences in a way that appeared to invert the pronouns, as that was the correct order in certain constructions in Spanish. (This was interpreted as a regression by English-only adults.)

Often a child will come to me who can list the locations of each state park in each state that begins with an M, but cannot tell me to whom he is about to throw a ball. I have also worked with adults who have experienced traumatic brain injuries and acquired Broca’s Aphasia and agrammatism. Such patients will have significant difficulty using function words, including pronouns, articles, auxiliary verbs, and prepositions, but have little to no difficulty naming content words, like spoon or cow. Such disabilities are often invisible, especially when mild, but they are pervasive and will impact the person’s ability to use “their” pronouns.

Grammatical Basis of Pronouns

The classic theory of grammar—which is the interaction between speech sounds (phonology), word shape (morphology), word order (syntax), and word meaning (semantics)—derives from linguist Noam Chomsky’s generative grammar model. In this theory, one can use predictive grammatical models to explain why words appear where they do in the sentence, and to explain the observed behavior of language. George Lakoff expanded this theory by recasting it in terms of our experience as embodied movers in a co-constructed conceptual space. Rather than a grammar module forming ex nihilo, generating sentences out of nothing, in other words, embodied grammar generates sentences that derive from and are actively applied to our memories and mental representations of ourselves as beings interacting with other beings in a space.

This is a long-winded way of saying that we use words to describe an experience we imagine, that what we imagine may happen in the future is based on what has happened already, and what we think is happening is based on what we think could be happening. All of this is happening in real time alongside the demands of language formulation—deciding what exactly you want to say and how to say it in response to stimuli and your own intentions—speech production (the motor movements of speech), and often simultaneous social reasoning in spontaneous conversation. This is all cognitively demanding and made more difficult in the context of neurological impairments from depression, brain injury, dementia, chemotherapy, ADHD, and other trauma.

In order to communicate, a person must first imagine their intended communication. Then they must imagine what the listener would need to hear for the listener to understand what the speaker intends to communicate. Then, holding that image stable, they must plan and formulate language, and then apply that language to the embodied language virtual reality simulator in a real time, dynamic fashion, so as to maximize signal clarity and efficiency while minimizing unnecessary information and deviation. This is cognitively tasking. The Chomsky and Lakoff phenomena occur in different areas of the brain. Sometimes, my patients come to me because the Chomsky generative grammar language area has been damaged, such as in an impact, leaving the Lakoff embodied grammar language module intact

It’s So Easy

To simulate the cognitive demands here, try some of the following tasks, which tax attention, working memory, and executive function (the ability to plan and make decisions including prioritization):

  • Count backwards from 100 by 7s, stopping before 38.
  • Replace “the” with either “vka” or “vko” depending on if the noun is made of wood. (It usually isn’t, so this should not be difficult.)
  • Every time you would say “have,” just say “mazh.”
  • Go into a restaurant and order food while pseudostuttering.

The Chomsky language area is designed to be minimally cognitively tasking so as to maximize the amount of cognitive processing power available. These two systems are forced to run simultaneously. The way this is accomplished is by having a separate module that rapidly translates an infinite variety of nouns into a very limited number of pronouns, which are then fed into the Chomsky language area like little gears hooked into a larger machine. The gears are spun very fast, and out pops the completed sentence.

Reverting Pronouns to Nouns

If the cogs are replaced with new pronouns, these new “gears” are no longer pronouns. They are actually still nouns. In fact, they are the worst kind of noun: they are names. They are names that happen to look very much like actual pronouns, with none of the actual neurological advantages of pronouns. People attempting to use them just can’t think very well and conclude that they must be doing something wrong. They have been convinced it should work. Yet, it doesn’t. It can’t.

Language processing can be negatively impacted by a wide range of disabilities, including, but not limited to depression, AD/HD, autism, expressive language disorder, traumatic brain injury, cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and so forth. Any condition which negatively impacts the brain is likely to impact a person’s ability to memorize and consistently utilize an infinite number of personal pronouns. Combine that with a language disorder—a condition that means even the best gears will work poorly—and you have invented a policy that punishes people with invisible cognitive and language disabilities.

Differences in third-person pronoun use across languages adds another level of complication to the subject of preferred pronouns: discrimination on the basis of national origin. A person who learns English as a second language, who started in a language that did not differentiate pronouns or differentiated them differently than English, will have significantly greater difficulty utilizing sex-specified pronouns at all, much less in a way that is unintuitive and with no visual clue. As a person who learned Turkish as an adult, I have had many interactions with Turkish-English bilinguals. As a rule, they struggled to assign accurate pronouns and articles (e.g., the) in normal conversation. As errors on pronouns are now stigmatized, people of with national origins that speak foreign languages without third person pronoun sex differentiation are now stigmatized—a colorable violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

Misgender Me Once…

Since proponents of pronoun proscription have minimal understanding of what they are asking people to do, they incorrectly believe that explaining the issue and forcing people to recite other people’s pronouns should solve the problem. When this fails, it is then grounds to assume that the error signifies intention, aggression and hate.

Additionally, many cultures and religions have taboos, restrictions, and prohibitions on interactions with the opposite sex. These culture-specific beliefs are critically import to members of that culture, and cannot be extracted from the culture’s value system without creating chaos and confusion and otherwise undermining the ability of that culture to reproduce itself, which is another way that genocide is currently defined. We are creating a requirement that members of faith traditions effectively renounce their faith by participating verbally and actively in a lie. By legitimizing the idea that some males genuinely are females, and that radical amputation of children’s sex organs is the only answer to gender non-conformity, emotional turmoil, and teenage angst and alienation, we create the pretext for sexual predators to contact children via the internet, persuade them to seek emancipation to get around their parents’ “medical neglect,” or otherwise trigger the courts in removing your child from your home so that a stranger can drive them to their mastectomy or castration appointment.

Of course, when males are allowed to define themselves as females, we lose the right to measure discrimination against women in education and athletics. We then create an environment where playing sports – or even participating in gym class – means that girls are required to disrobe and shower in front of males. This will impact certain women and girls more than others, based on other protected traits, such as religious preference. Muslim girls lose access to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) if Muslim parents cannot send her to school due to knowing she will effectively be required to eat pork at lunch.

Activists promoting this ideology do not pause to consider or care how the policies will impact groups other than trans people. They are so preoccupied with their own wants and needs, and likely so in the throes of mental illness and associated cognitive dysfunction, that they are not considering that this will create an illegal environment of discrimination and harassment towards women and girls, individuals with disabilities, people of faith, gender atheists, and people who come from countries and languages other than the United States and English. We must oppose this at all costs, or the rights of many other protected classes, in addition to women and girls, are threatened.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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