A set of gender-neutral third person singular pronouns created by Michael Spivak, a mathematician who used them in his textbooks, which include Comprehensive Introduction to Differential Geometry and Calculus on Manifolds. They are used in a generic setting when someone's gender is unknown - "the reader" is an example. Spivak pronouns are sometimes used online by individuals who do not wish their real life gender to be known.

            First Person  Second Person  Third Person

Subject          I             you            e

Object           me            you            em

Possessive    my/mine       your/yours     eir/eirs

Reflexive      myself       yourself        emself

Spivak pronouns can bite my ass.

"Whoa," you say. "That's unnecessary!"

I'll begin with a small anecdote. Today, I was reading a writeup on E2. It was a good writeup. It was an interesting writeup. It was a thorough writeup. I thought to myself, "I know many people, E2 users and others, who will be interested in this." In the end, I did upvote the writeup.

The writeup had a few typos in it, it seemed, and one of them was a link. I was about to message the author telling him that a link of his was mistyped, when I realized it was a pipe link to the present node.

"CURSES! Spivak pronouns have struck again!"

When viewed in a table, as at the top of this node, Spivak pronouns look decent. The pronouns look somewhat plausible, based on the words they replace, and fit in nicely next to the first and second person pronouns already in use in English. And, certainly, the notion of having a set of true gender-neutral third person pronouns is a great boon to English - no more assuming a persons gender, no more odd awkward phrases like "(s)he" or "his or her." (spivak pronouns)++, no?

Well, no. (spivak pronouns)--, in fact. And again, (spivak pronouns)--. Once more. (spivak pronouns)--. Spivak pronouns fail on one account above all others, but it's enough to completely destroy their usefulness.

They're awkward.

More awkward, in fact, than all the linguistic kludges they try to replace. A document that uses Spivak pronouns looks like one that is poorly edited and rife with typographical errors. The more common ways around the problem Spivak pronouns claim to solve are superior for the sole fact that they use real words. When a writer writes "his or her," he or she may cringe at the awkwardness of the phrase, but can content himself or herself with the knowlege that the intended reader will know exactly what he or she means. If that same writer writes "eir," people unfamiliar with Spivak pronouns, which can be assumed to be most of the population, will be confused.

Leaving awkwardness aside, Spivak pronouns feel artificial. New words that become commonplace in English, or any language, are words that feel natural in the flow of the language. Spivak pronouns, however, flaunt their artificiality for all the world to see.

Besides, isn't attempting to control language vaguely Nineteen Eighty-Four-esque?


From #e: <jm> WE'VE GOT "IT" AND "ITS", FUCKERS
This node intentionally void of Spivak pronouns.

The world could use another opinion.

Before I attempt a refutation of the accusation that Spivak pronouns are awkward, let me give you some of the reasons why I will personally use a Spivak pronoun, if I am put up against the wall. I will reiterate many ideas already found in the gender neutral pronoun node. You may want to begin by reading that node instead, and perhaps follow some of the softlinks therein. Come back whenever you're ready.

Let's begin. As the cliché goes, sexuality is fluid. There are many reasons why not to specify the gender of a person with language. First and foremost, because it is not important. Think about just how irrelevant gender is for almost anything but sexual intercourse (and even in that case, there are various work-arounds). Girls are more sensitive than boys? Boys are more self-assured than girls? Girls prefer creative arts; boys prefer rational sciences? Girls love boys who love them back? Hogwash! Counterexamples abound. Any such perceived boundaries are artificial and arbitrary.

It is not true that language shapes a person's thoughts, but it certainly expresses some of her perceptions. Is "he" really ungendered? The female pronoun "she" could be just as ungendered, right? Well, then why did you notice that I replaced "his" by "her" in the first sentence of this paragraph? The implications are there, very subtly, but always in the back of your mind. Doing something as natural as conjugating a verb in the past tense, you are reminding yourself that the action was done in the past. Using a gendered pronoun you will think of a generic male or female, a stick figure with or without a triangle skirt below the waist. You will very inadvertently form one image or another in your mind, and then attribute certain characteristics to that image that most likely do not apply at all! What if our language did not reflect gender, but say, the colour of our eyes? Think of what it would be like if every time you referred to someone, you needed a different pronoun depending if that person had dark or light eyes. Perhaps it makes a difference in certain situations, if you were writing a poem about kissing said person with both pairs of eyes open, for example, just as eir sex might be an important factor if you're writing an erotic story. For almost anything else, it doesn't make an iota of a difference! Gender is incidental.

So suppose you accept that modifying our language is a good idea, or at least to be careful about the phrases we pick in order to avoid specifying a gender. The most comfortable situation is when we can avoid using pronouns altogether. This avoids the necessity of making any choice at all. Unfortunately, this is only possible for so long. We are up against the wall, and we must use a pronoun in order to reduce the redundancy of English somewhat. No alternatives are evident. The next word must be a pronoun, if our sentence is to make any sense at all. Pick an ungendered pronoun, now! The accepted possibilities are:

  1. Giving both gendered pronouns with a delimiter between them. Examples: he/she, him/her, his/her. There are several variants on the usage of the slash as a delimiter, such as "he or she", "he and/or she". It seems most common and accepted to put the male pronoun before the female pronoun, oh, for no reason whatsoever, really. We just like it that way, but we mean nothing by it.

  2. Merging both gendered pronouns into a single word with parentheses. Example: (s)he. This only seems to work for personal pronouns, as the morphology of the possessive pronouns varies too much between the two genders to make this a viable alternative for the other pronouns.

  3. Using the plural pronouns. They, them, their, theirs, themselves, themselves. These pronouns are already ungendered, but whatever verb is conjugated with them, must be conjugated in the plural. Sample sentences: "Chris sunbathes in the lawn. Their hair streams down their shoulders. The cold beer is a welcome sensation in their hand." Now it sounds as if we were talking of more than one Chris.
  4. Randomly alternating between the male and female pronouns. Sample sentence: "Chris loves her body, since it gives him great pleasure to watch herself in the mirror when he is fully naked and without her inhibition." Clear as mud, is it not?

  5. Using it, its, and itself. So now we would have "Chris loves its body, since it gives itself great pleasure to watch itself in the mirror when it is fully naked and without its inhibition." Mind you, nobody is objectifying Chris here.

I am obviously not being unbiased in my presentation of the orthodox alternatives. Some people attempt to salvage the above alternatives by introducing additional rules. For example, the silly sentence I made up for alternative 4 could be made more readable by picking only one pronoun for Chris, thereby failing to fulfill our purpose of assigning Chris a gender at all. Options 1 and 2, besides being long-winded also require you to put one gender in front of the other, precisely the sort of thing we are trying to avoid. Option 3 seems awkward, and gramatically leads to strange sentences. It seems clear that if you already accepted that the need for a modification of our language is not trivial, then you should also acknowledge that the not-so-tacit complaints to the standards above are not trivial either. These possible accepted solutions are as unnatural as making up new words. The next alternative to our gender quandary: make up some words!

Yes. I have to concede that Spivak pronouns are artificial. They did not arise naturally. However, we are making an effort to make them as natural as possible. Attempts to use the current English lexicon leads to awkward phrases, so might as well have an artifical lexicon with familiar phrases. It seems natural to require that a set of artificial pronouns should be

  1. ungendered and singular.
  2. mindful of English morphology and phonology.
  3. easy to remember.
  4. easy to understand.
  5. inconspicuous.

I claim that the slightly modified set of Spivak pronouns ey, em, eir, eirs, emself satisfies the above requirements, unlike competing sets of artificial pronouns. By construction, the first requirement is trivially satisfied. Take an already existing set of pronouns that some suggest as a plausible orthodox alternative, and simulate a consonant drift by removing a few fricatives. By etymology, this set of pronouns satisfies conditions 2, 3, and 4. Spivak pronouns do not require semantic explanation. When most people encounter a Spivak pronoun, they often confuse it with a typo, but the meaning of the pronoun in the sentence is clear (except, of course, for the gender). Spivak pronouns can go completely unnoticed were it not for the helpful pipelinks.

Spivak pronouns have been accused of not being "real words". Pray tell, then, what IS a real word? A word is a linguistic unit that conveys a meaning or an idea, one or more morphemes that can be moved around in a sentence. Spivak pronouns convey a meaning that is very easy to guess without a whole writeup to explain their meaning. They are words. So is greyberry, if you ever run into such a thing, because you know exactly what to expect, even if you never saw it in any dictionary.

Spivak pronouns have also been censured for being distracting, awkward, and artificial. The last of these adjectives I have already conceded. As for the first two, all I can say is that it just takes a little while to get used to. Eventually, the awkwardness just goes away. Think about it like learning a piece of technical vocabulary. With a little practice, it may well become second nature.

Wait a minute... after all this mindless propaganda for Spivak pronouns, why did I begin this writeup by saying that I resort to Spivak pronouns only when I am up against the wall? Here comes an ideological apology. Spivak pronouns are still not accepted but (come the revolution!) some day they may be, and they already are in certain academic circles. For the rest of the time, there are certain ways to avoid them and still remain true to their spirit. In a fight-or-flee scenario, I believe that you many either avoid using a pronoun altogether, or use a Spivak pronoun. Certainly beats making any artificial choice of gender. Look at the intrinsic. The general. What lies within. Not at any particular accidental features of a person.

By the way, Spivak pronouns are not about sexism, feminism, racism, or any other ism I can think of. In particular, they are not about political correctness. Perhaps the pronouns are about this for other people, but not for me. 1984? Give me a break. Nobody is forcing you to modify your language into doublespeak. This is just an offer on the table you may accept or reject. I'm a mathematician by vocation (much like Michael emself), and like to look at the most general and most natural truths. This I seek to understand independently of the prejudices and choices we humans sometimes have to make in order to see the deeper meanings. Spivak pronouns let me do just that.

Right. All my radical ideas about gender neutral pronouns have already occured to others. But the world could use another opinion indeed.

Log in or registerto write something here or to contact authors.