Is ‘yo’ emerging as a new grass-roots, gender-neutral pronoun?

// 6 January 2008

Have you ever heard anyone use the pronouns ‘ze’ or ‘hir’ in conversation, rather than their gendered alternatives, he, she, her and him? Other than in specific, mostly online communities, the practice seems fairly unusual, albeit a potentially interesting tool in our continuing efforts to dismantle the patriarchy.

However, it’s fair to say that none of them have really caught on – with the exception of ‘they’, which I find useful but may induce annoyed grunts from grammarians and other linguistic conservatives, who often see all additions and changes as wrong (how they would properly (1704) describe this blog (1998) on the internet (1986), which you may be reading on a laptop (1984), pales in comparison to the problems (c.1382) they must face (c.1820) in flushing their speech and writing of, say, the word namesake, which was only coined (c.1590) in the late 17th century). Not to mention how they cope without the 90,000 new ‘words’ added to the English language in the 20th century alone. (Dates from Etmonline)

My amusement at language-purists aside, it has to be said that the most convincing arguments against the use of ze and hir in conversation, is that people will just not understand what you’re talking about, first of all, and it also might serve to make it very difficult to describe gender discrimination.

But Ampersand at Alas, A Blog, points to this story about how UK students are increasingly using ‘yo’ as exactly such a gender-neutral pronoun.

Researcher Elaine Stotko, a linguistics expert at John Hopkins University in Baltimore, found one in two teachers in a class she was holding used the word “yo” in this way.

She and teacher Margaret Troyer then started a probe listening for spontaneous uses of the word and judging the authenticity of sentences. They distinguished the new use of “yo” from interjections such as “Yo, Adrian!”

They carried out sentence-translating exercises which had “compelling” results.

Ms Troyer said: “They translated yo as he/she pretty consistently.

“This showed me that students are not only using a new slang word because it’s cool. They are actually aware of the meaning of what they are saying.”

Unlike “feminist scholar” Brenda Wrigley, quoted in the story, I don’t find yo crass or disrespectful, but it does sound incongruous for anyone over school age, and is unlikely to be adopted by wider society because of its association with ‘youth culture’. But, still, hope for the next generation?

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