The Pronoun Game

In Chasing Amy, by U.S. filmmaker Kevin Smith, the lead character in the film makes an unexpected switch in her relationship preferences and decides to tell her friends, all of whom are lesbians, that she is going out with “someone.” Her friends, without missing a beat, start to interrogate the character named Alyssa, played by Joey Lauren Adams, about her new partner.

All of the questions that start raining down on her contain personal pronouns that lead to believe that the people asking the questions assume it’s a woman. Beset by what she considers to be the imminent chiding of her peers, Alyssa resorts to the full ambiguity of the third person plural (which in English is not gender-specific) and plays what is referred to in the movie as “the pronoun game.” That is to say, the use of certain forms of pronouns – specifically “they” rather than the singular (and gender-specific) “he” or “she” – which do not identify the gender of the alluded-to object.

In Hebrew, for example, the pronoun game would be much more complicated to engage in effectively as even verbs are in agreement with the subject’s gender. Therefore, I couldn’t help but wonder, could someone feel more comfortable speaking a language with a greater propensity for gender ambiguity and that does not demand identity to be defined? It just so happens that when we speak of marginalized minorities, falling short of full identification may often be the key to avoiding discrimination since language can end up communicating more than we would like.

In a recent post we dealt with the debate about how languages have the capacity to embody, without the least ambiguity, gender inequality in their morphology, resorting, for example, to the masculine gender to collectively refer to nouns of both genders, and about different initiatives, some more sensible than others, to disarticulate this rather one-directional conditioning. It bears mentioning that diverse languages manage on the one hand to reflect inequalities that are present in society, and, on the other hand, to highlight those lifestyles that depart from the most broadly accepted norm.