‘He,’ ‘She,’ ‘They’ and Free Speech
Pronouns have taken on a social and political position they never had before. Some people prefer newly made-up pronouns such as xe, xir, xem. Others want to be called “they.” If I agree with the statement that “Sally is smart,” I’ll have to echo with, “They is smart,” even though “they” is plural but Sally denotes a single person.
Conservatives often say this is wrong because it violates rules of language. That’s not so interesting to me, though. Using plural pronouns or nouns on a singular entity is not a new thing, and it’s not always wrong. What interests me is the way it has come about in this case.
Plural Pronouns in Specific Contexts
Sometimes using plural pronouns for one person can be perfectly acceptable. It even happens in the Bible. In the Hebrew scripture, many nouns and pronouns in the plural form have singular meaning. The word, “elohim” is morphologically plural: It means “gods.” Yet the Bible uses it for the One God of Israel.
Genesis 1:1 states, “In the beginning, God, ‘elohim,’ created the heavens and the earth.” The noun elohim is plural, but in Hebrew “created” is a singular verb. Some call this a Plural of Honor, expressing majesty, power, royalty and exclusivity. In other words, to apply the plural form to the only God shows utmost respect.
The Chinese culture I grew up in has similar practices. Chinese may use plural pronouns for a singular person. Often this indicates an intimate relationship. When my daughter was a toddler, I primarily spoke Chinese with her. I often used the plural “we” when normally I might have used the singular “you.” I did it to identify myself with her and show the affection between us. I also used the plural “we” to replace the singular “I” to include her in a situation with the same purpose.
Creating Confusion and Misunderstanding
This practice is not the norm; it is used only in specific contexts on rare occasions. However, my daughter learned it as the standard expression. When my mom came to visit us, this created confusion and misunderstanding. One time my mom asked my daughter if she liked a certain Chinese snack, and if so, my mom promised to bring some from China when she came to visit again.
My daughter answered in Chinese, “Like, but we have.” She intended to say, “Yes, I like it, but I still have some.” The plural pronoun, “we,” changed the dynamics of the conversation, however. For a sensitive ear, the plural “we” separated the family into two groups, the Americans and the Chinese, sending a subtle signal that my mom was not part of us. She felt hurt, especially when it was uttered by a 4-year-old grandchild.
I know that this subtle insinuation is lost when this incident is translated into English. In any event, I had to hastily correct the misinterpretation. And in order to prevent future unpleasant incidents, I told my daughter to abandon “we,” and use “I” instead. Gradually, my daughter learned to use pronouns in the normal way.
Language Always Evolves
Language use differs from culture to culture, and it also changes within a culture and within a language. Before I came to the U.S., I had spent many hours on the Oxford English Grammar published in the 1920s. When I first arrived in America, I was surprised to find that many English grammatical features had changed. Some even had become obsolete and vanished from daily use.
I later learned that this is normal. For a variety of reasons, language always evolves, especially in a free country like the U.S. In order for communication to go smoothly, however, people must hold an unspoken consensus to the changes. The process will winnow out changes that fail to pass the real life challenge, as in the case with my daughter’s use of “we.” It is a natural course of selection and elimination.
Free Speech Persuades. It Doesn’t Coerce.
That’s all very normal. What makes the current singular meaning of “they” different is that it does not follow the usual way of how a language evolves. It’s not through mutual agreement. It is the will of a small group of individuals imposing on the majority of our society through political correctness or legal mandates.
This contradicts the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment. Free speech means everyone is allowed to speak their mind. It allows disagreements to exist. Free speech does not mean that only the right kind of speech is allowed and that “hate” speech must be crushed. The hallmark of free speech is to persuade, not to coerce. For this reason, the latest use of pronouns and its compulsive enforcement are not manifestations of free speech, but of the lack of it.
I grew up in a totalitarian society. No totalitarian regime has ever allowed free speech, for it poses a major threat to their rule. Free speech and tyranny exclude each other. For Americans who still enjoy freedom, the challenge is how to safeguard free speech, without which our liberty will not survive.
I have no problem when someone uses, “They is smart.” They can choose to say that if they wish. Life has its own way to compel illogical and inconvenient elements to make changes. But if I’m forced to give up my voice and affirm their views, I will by no means comply. It would assist and encourage those who intend to turn our free society into a tyrannical regime. That must not be!
Chenyuan Snider was raised in Communist China and majored in Chinese language and literature in college. After immigrating to the U.S. and having studied at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary and Duke Divinity School, she became a professor and taught at Christian colleges and seminary. After March of this year, she sensed God was leading her to use her unique voice to provide a warning about various kinds of Marxist influences in our society. She lives in northern California with her husband and has two grown children.