Previously, I dealt with the gender challenge of a neutral word for “she” and “he” by using a slash on “s/he”, but I was never satisfied with the result. Now a young guy started using “ze” as a generic pronoun for both she and he, to also include the variations of the GLTB kind! I like that.
Gender wars are contemporary battlegrounds as humanity confronts the social biases created through the years among proponents of patriarchy and matriarchy. Patriarchy used to be the bad guy but since two matriarchs have been politically going after each other’s throat in Bangladesh, the field is getting leveled, at least, in the meanest field. Legalizing same-gender marriages is also in the ascendancy worldwide. Now that we know writing and phonetics as symbol systems are human creation, we can participate in the process without blind obeisance to gender.
We note the organic nature of language development, subject to change, with some falling on the wayside when the supplanting words are better substitutes to point to realities more clearly. There is no virtue to hanging on to dead lingo. Welcome “ze”!
Born in the Philippines shortly before the United States recognized independence, my primary language was English with Tagalog spoken around Manila foisted as the national language (wikang pambansa), much like the way Beijing’s Mandarin is the basis of China’s common tongue (putunghua). In China’s case, there is commonality in the written pictographs and ideograms, even historically used in Japan, Korea, and North Vietnam, imposed on the Zang, Uighur, Mongol, and Manchu at the geographical edges of the nation. The hanzi, however, reflects the unity of the Han culture between the mighty Huanghe and the Chiang Jiang rivers!
My father was the principal of a church-related high school in Northern Luzon so the traffic of English-speaking missionaries was constant across our dining table. Defensively assertive with no half-measure of pride for speaking the King’s English from hearing the King James version of Holy Writ, textbook for Sunday school, I graced the pews of our chapel under the tropical green, a New England white wooden framed box with a steeple and a bell under which my father delivered weekly sermons. As a young distracted boy, I’d skip the pulpit passion and climb the guava tree by the fence for its not-quite ripe fruits while mother herded the rest of the siblings.
In college, I protested against imposed Spanish, the elite’s lingua franca, a Liberal Arts degree requirement. I failed to hear the melodic tone of Cervantes’ narrative, and the rich texture of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s bold experiments. Then I found myself in the early ’80s among the Basques in Santiago, Chile and Lima, Peru, the Catalans in Guatemala, and the Afro-European creoles in Venezuela and Brazil. I realized how openly handicapped I had left myself as a consequence of a misguided exuberance in my youth.
I tell my anti-authority students that the real rebel wins. To lose from self-inflicted wounds of voluntary martyrdom, at one time a criteria for sainthood, is simply a self-centered though faint-hearted form of neurosis.
Pilipino, later changed to Filipino to distinguish it from the people, is not unlike Chamorro in its voracious adaptation of Iberian terms, adopting the spelling to the peculiar ways nationalists tend to assert their independence from their previous colonizers by being obtusely different. Spanish was the favored tongue of the country for 300 years, promoted in public education during the brief liberalization of the Spanish Cortez shortly before the American Thomasites descended at the turn of the 20th century with their English reading books.
In a sense, there is hardly anyone who is monolingual in my time. Growing up where Iloko was spoken, I would later hear of Ibanag and Itawit in the Cagayan Valley before the Cebuano, Hiligaynon, and Waray in the Visayas became familiar to our ears. We added Sama-Bajaw and a few Arabic terms when we hung out with Peace Corps volunteers in Mindanao.
Steeped in the history of Europe as a former colony, I was exposed to Latin, Spanish, Portuguese, English and German. Throw in Hebrew and Greek at the fringes of Bible idolatry and we swam in the babel of Babylon! Purists who decry the demise of old languages tend to do so to justify their academic expertise. I once consulted with an agency in D.C. that asked me to read Iloko that native speakers would not dare use. But like translators of the Bible, a language on the way to extinction is preserved at all cost.
A language survives because of use. It dies when it outlives its usefulness. Records of how a word is used make it to a dictionary but not as a prescription for eternal usage. The meaning of a word is in its use. It changes. It even dies.
“Ze” has entered my vocabulary. Ze will not eliminate “he”, “she”, and “it”; just adds to it. It might even delight my Tejas-Mejicano campesinos who will mistake my use of zee language. Ze does not matter. Now, we even have a word for the middlesex!