“He”, “she”, “they”: what does science actually say?

They are among the shortest words in the German language. However, there is always a lot of excitement around them. We’re talking about personal pronouns: “Er,” “sie,” and “es” are known to many as “Vorwrter” from German lessons, but things get very political when we talk about “they/they.” Non-binary gender identities can also be expressed with pronouns like these. For many young people in particular, the correct term is an important concern, while right-wing politicians regularly get angry at “gender pronouns”.

In Bielefeld, scholars have now devoted an entire conference to seemingly blurred personal pronouns. Mona Kart, professor of literature and organizer of the conference says: Personal pronouns: Changing the rules?. Anyone who takes a closer look at texts about employees from Humboldt to the Grimm up to the twentieth century will see “that these theoretical texts do not help contain the phenomenon at all, but on the contrary create confusion. And this interests us very much.”

critique of binary hierarchy

In recent years, it has become common, especially among young people, to include their personal pronouns in email signatures or social media profiles. The movement originated in the USA. For many non-binary people, “they/they” have established themselves there. But many CIS members also say “she/it” or “she/it”. They want to show that they respect the gender identity of others. This is to take the pressure off non-binary people from having to keep explaining themselves.

Explaining the movement’s beginnings, Tomki Koenig, professor of sociology of gender at the conference, said: “Increasingly many people are facing demands to meet the compulsion to conform to the binary system as rudeness.” The more diverse the way of sexual life, the more criticism of the ancient binary hierarchical system. “Boycott the binary plot!” This is how Drangsal puts it into the text of a song.

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Pronouns have been a problem for a very long time

Personal bonoons, says Karti, are “highly politically charged”. “We take the political discussion as an opportunity to actually come to an academic understanding about these interdisciplinary approaches.” In addition to linguistics, philosophy, biology, sociology, and animal ethics were also represented at the conference on Wednesdays and Thursdays. It was about “identity construction in the ancient Roman world” or the use of pronouns in animal encyclopedias.

Kurt is sure that framing and historicalizing the topic is good for political debate. She says science hardly plays a role there. “Our conference is an approach and an attempt in this direction.” It is interesting that “science does not contain and calms pronouns.” Instead, she explained, pronouns in their variety, shades, and nuances have been a problem for far too long.

Why do few people feel provoked?

In English, the pronouns ‘they/they’ have become quite well established, while in German there are hardly any proper forms of titles except for the generally understandable masculine and feminine forms. “I’ve noticed that the naming is more common,” says Knig. “And I think that’s a very good solution, because then we don’t have to invent any new words.” Example sentence: “Steve brushes her teeth before Steffi goes to bed.”

Koenig dismisses concerns about ‘distortion of speech’. “It would be more important that no one be discriminated against,” she says. It is not only about representation, but also about “the responsibility I have to treat my peers with respect and appreciation, to treat each other with respect.”

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But why is using pronouns like “they/they” so provocative? Gender sociologist Koenig explains that anger is not surprising. These debates are not just about maintaining or overcoming gender difference, but about the ways of life that have been fundamental (foundational) to our society hitherto, and above all the division of labor between the sexes. (cw/dpa)

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