CNN: It’s INSULTING to use the words “He” or “She” to refer to a person because….

CNN columnist John McWhorter is a linguist and a professor at Columbia, and – this may shock you – he’s decidedly to the political left in his leanings.

McWhorter is often lucid, however. He has railed against the sloppy poisoning of English that texting is causing, and has decried the damage hip-hop music has done to black culture.

Unfortunately, McWhorter’s latest offering doesn’t rise to that level. It’s a defense of the idiotic new politically correct pronouns, and it’s hard to square with his critique of nonsensical language texters have concocted…

We are opening up to the idea that binary conceptions of gender are unnecessarily rigid and don’t correspond to the self-image of a great many people, and even that people’s sense of their gender may not correspond to their biological sex. In this new world, a bland opposition between “he” and “she” seems increasingly antique, and even insulting, to many.

However, doing something about that is going to be a challenge. We are dealing not with merely giving new names to new things or actions, which is easy, but with using new pronouns, which is very hard.

This is hard because human cognition makes some parts of language more resistant to change than others. Nouns, verbs and adjectives, for example, are like software. It feels natural to add them, subtract them, revise them.

We expect them to change from era to era — of course we now have blogs and twerking when we didn’t 20 years ago; of course young people now call “fierce” what their equivalents long ago called “keen,” “neat,” “wicked,” “rad,” and so on. They are what linguists call open class words.

Pronouns, however, are closed class words. As shorthand for any thing or concept, pronouns are used so often and so unconsciously that they are more like hardware. A new object or practice is one thing — but a new “you” or a new “him” or “her”?

It’s harder to wrap our minds around changing something so cognitively fundamental, just as one does not pop up with new prepositions: You might wish there were a little word to indicate “on as in upside down on a ceiling, rather than on a wall or floor.” But if you made one up it wouldn’t catch on — nouns and verbs are lightbulbs; prepositions are the wiring inside the walls.

All of which is somewhat reasonable, if a bit crunchy for normal tastes, but here comes the punchline…

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Now, I would hope that pronouns like “ze” would not be imposed with the knuckle-rapping and contemptuous indignation with which the Billy and I rule has been promulgated. However, there is room for presenting “ze” as a matter not of fashion, but of basic civility — people must think of new pronouns as the proper thing to do, not as a stunt.

To the extent that societies change their pronoun usage, it tends to involve recasting old pronouns, or even expressions, into new functions. European languages like French, for example, use the plural “vous” to address a single person with respect. Spanish’s respectful “usted” began as “your mercy,” “vuestra merced,” not as a brand new little word imposed by fiat. In this light, our own “they” could be handy as a new way to address people gender-neutrally. Many have called for exactly this.

And not just recently — English speakers have been using “they” in the singular for eons. In starchy old “Vanity Fair,” William Thackeray writes “A person can’t help their birth.” Today, we spontaneously use sentences such as “Tell each student they should hand in the paper on Tuesday.” However, this is another of those things that we are told is a mark of ignorance because “they is plural.” However, our new times may require that we get past that notion, which shouldn’t be a problem because it has always been absurd.

The problem with McWhorter’s logic is there is no popular groundswell in favor of using nonsense words like “ze,” and there is no large-scale movement among the public away from classic male and female genders. Those are nothing more than cultural aggressions emanating from a radical fringe in American academia and being given outsize influence by a bored and insubstantial media.

Common usage is what changes language, and nobody is using “ze.” In fact, McWhorter’s theory that language is always changing, which is not incorrect, applies much more to the dumbing-down of the language through texting – LOL, SMH, the use of “U” rather than “you,” et cetera – than some cooked-up politically correct pronoun.

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