How Pompous Thou Art: Of Pronouns and ‘Plain Speech’

Controlling the language is an important step towards controlling many arguments; language is, in a sense, the terrain upon which arguments are fought It’s instructive, then, to consider the current academic skirmishing along “Pronoun Ridge,” a key piece of our linguistic terrain.  

A “pronoun,” as grammar school informed us, is a word which replaces a noun. A certain tribe of modern linguistic Vandals sees great value, apparently, in seizing control of this dynamic, and subversively replacing pronouns relating to the sexes with “nonbinary pronouns” meant to obscure rather than clarify meaning, to blur the language to reflect the deliberate blurring of the sexes.

It appears that many our universities have welcomed these vandals as liberators, eagerly ceding Pronoun Ridge to their occupation.

Rather than accepting “she” and “he,” “her” and “his,” as their appropriate respective pronouns, advocates of “nonbinary” language now demand individualized sets of words associated with newly-invented identities—“xe” and “hir” being among the various examples. These “appropriate” new pronouns are neither intuitively obvious, nor amenable to deduction, but rather as elusive as sexual identity itself supposedly is.

Appropriately enough, a demeaning social ritual accompanies this innovation. This ritual is referred to as “asking pronouns.” It’s a servile interaction, in which the inquirer ascertains the linguistic preferences of new acquaintances and, presumably, commits to remembering them. (Moral questions aside, this would seem to disadvantage those of us who have enough trouble simply remembering names. Now we are expected, in some quarters, not only to internalize those proper nouns, but a set of creatively improper pronouns to associate with each!)

We ought not cede this linguistic or social terrain. We have the moral and linguistic “high ground.” Pronoun Ridge is an awfully steep one to assault, with well-established usages and centuries of literature serving as our ramparts; no attacker could hope to take it over, against any sort of determined resistance. To the revetments!

And as we dig in further on this strong position, our entrenching tools turn up a few stray musketballs from a previous engagement, a few centuries back…

A long-ago, largely forgotten battle at Pronoun Ridge involved not the third-person pronouns, but the second. The English language once had familiar pronouns akin to the Spanish “tu” or German “du.” “Thee” and “thou” were used as endearments, or toward social inferiors— servants, or children. This usage had largely declined even by the time of the publication of the “thee-“ and “thou-“ful King James Bible in 1611. However, the familiar tense enjoyed a resurgence with the early Quakers, in a particularly provocative context.

The Society of Friends was radically egalitarian in its beliefs and therefore in its language. With their “Plain Speech,” Quakers resurrected “thee” and “thou,” applying them indiscriminately—or rather, mischievously; for the familiar pronouns were aimed at the pretensions of the aristocracy, though they might wreak some collateral emotional damage on anyone who didn’t care to be addressed in a familiar fashion. As George Fox somewhat smugly asserted,

Moreover when the Lord sent me forth into the world, he forbade me to put off my hat to any, high or low; and I was required to ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ all men and women, without any respect to rich or poor, great or small . . . . this made the sects and professions to rage. But the Lord’s power carried me over all to his glory . . . .

But oh, the rage that then was in the priests, magistrates, professors, and people of all sorts, but especially in priests and professor! for, though “thou” to a single person was according to their own learning, their accidence and grammar rules, and according to the Bible, yet they could not bear to hear it . . . .

The Quakers did this without learning the grammatical rules associated with the familiar second person, so their verbs also wreaked havoc on grammatically sensitive ears. Awkward constructions, however, were more of a feature than a bug for them. Like the Quaker’s “plain dress,” distinctive language managed to draw attention while ostensibly demonstrating humility.

In retrospect, the Quaker Plain Speech campaign must be considered a tactical failure. Not only did the familiar second-person pronoun not become dominant usage in English, it quickly lost even provocative value. It became simply a quaint pattern of speech—a distinction of Quakers, who eventually ceased to maintain it. Instead, the Plain Speech ideal evolved into a focus on speech without adornment: frank, but without archaic affectation.

Still, “Plain Speech” may have helped the Quakers along the way to some of their impressive early achievements. They understood that training speech patterns also trained patterns of thought. The obliteration of social distinctions in language certainly made sense among those who hoped to obliterate them in society.

The modern translanguage assault (for the sake of symmetry, let’s call it “Explain Speech,” since its proponents must “explain” it ad nauseam!) is far more aggressive, and takes an opposite tack. Instead of the obliteration of social distinctions, it seeks to create a new one. The assorted “gender identities” indicated by pronoun assignment are not the important distinction, either. Rather, the distinction to be made is between those enlightened progressive souls who proudly and proficiently employ the latest release of Newspeak—and the benighted vulgar herd, the “he’s” and “she’s” who make up the deplorable “them.”

For there’s a coercive element to “Explain Speech,” which even the most provocative Plain Speech lacked. The old-time Quaker, while unapologetically addressing others in the fashion he deemed proper, made no demands on his own behalf; others were free to call him whatever they pleased, and often did so rather pointedly. By contrast, the postmodern pronoun activist attempts to enforce his personal speech code on the entire world—a profoundly arrogant, and logistically prohibitive, endeavor.

So, students of cultural tactics: how is the “Explain Speech” attempt to conquer the language likely to play out?

Though it has powerful cultural institutions complying with its demands to a greater extent than the Quaker language reforms ever did, Explain Speech still seems a classic example of overreach—a “land war in Asia.” Complex, pretentious and unmindful of the realities of everyday communication, Explain Speech is bound to fail—and unlike Plain Speech, it is unlikely to leave fond memories in the popular imagination or to acquire any romance with time.

Eventually, Plain Speech faded into an ideal of earnest and simple communication; with far less dignity, Explain Speech must soon retreat and its adherents disband, leaving their abandoned nonbinary pronouns strewn across the field, for some future generation to unearth and marvel at.

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