A Gender-Neutral Pronoun (Re)emerges in China

Lexicon Valley
A Blog About Language
Dec. 26 2013 12:52 PM

A Gender-Neutral Pronoun (Re)emerges in China

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The Beijing skyline.

Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images

One of the first things a student learns when studying Mandarin is the third person pronoun, tā. This was originally written 他 , with "human" radical (a radical is a part of a Chinese character that imparts some semantic or linguistic information), and it stood for feminine, masculine, and neuter—"he," "she," and "it." During the early 20th century, however, some bright folks—undoubtedly in emulation of European languages—thought it would be a good idea to introduce gender into the Chinese writing system, so 她 (with "female" radical) came to be used for the feminine and 它 (with "roof" radical) for the neuter. I always thought that rather odd, because no attempt was made to differentiate the three forms in speech, only in writing, hence 他, 她, and 它 were still all pronounced tā.

Well, it's not quite right to say that no attempt was made to differentiate the three forms in pronunciation, since there was a half-hearted effort to introduce yī for feminine and tuō for neuter, but it didn't catch on.

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In any case, beyond 他, 她, and 它, there is also 牠 (with "bovine" radical) for animals, a character with a "spirit" radical, for deities, and so on. All of these were, and still are, pronounced tā.

In recent years, however, there has been an attempt to get rid of the gender distinctions for the third person pronoun and go back to a genderless stage. What is most curious, though, is the manner in which this is being done, namely through Pinyin, the system by which Chinese characters are transcribed into the Roman alphabet. In other words, 他, 她, 它, 牠, and others— all pronounced tā—are now being replaced by the actual letters "ta"!

As an example of how this is being done, let's look at this interesting notification from the Renren Network, one of a few Chinese Facebook clones that have been more or less popular with younger Chinese.

Here's a screen shot from Renren:

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It's noteworthy that some native speakers feel the need to resort to Pinyin in order to avoid indicating gender. My guess is that they do so, rather than simply junking all the concocted gendered forms of the third person pronouns and going back to genderless 他 ("he, she, it"), because the characters seem somehow to be palpable and eternal. Once they come into existence, it's hard to let go of them. Which is why dictionary makers and font designers have to contend with tens of thousands of characters, even though the vast majority are completely obsolete.

A version of this post originally appeared in Language Log.

Victor Mair is a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

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