'What your language tells you': How gender-neutral pronouns can shape our worldview

Adinne Schwartz and Reese Simpkins are raising their child, Emry, using they/them pronouns, rather than he or she. They're part of a movement of people and institutions in support of gender-neutral language that's growing around the world — though not without some pushback.

Growing number of parents are raising their kids using they/them pronouns

Adinne Schwartz and her husband are raising their child, Emry, in a gender-open way, by using they/them pronouns. (Colleen Ross/CBC)
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Adinne Schwartz and her husband Reese Simpkins are raising their child, Emry, using they/them pronouns, rather than he or she.

"We wanted to give Emry the choice and the freedom to be who they are from the get-go, and to define their own gender and sex rather than us assigning something that may or may not fit who they grew up to be," Schwartz said.

When asked, Emry likes being called "they," and recently, prefers both "they" and "he." 

The five-year-old enjoys playing with plastic drills and dolls, and wearing shirts with butterflies and spaceships.

"I generally don't say things like ... 'Wow, you're such a big boy' or 'a big girl' or 'a pretty girl' or 'a handsome boy,'" said Schwartz, who lives with Simpkins and Emry in Toronto.

We wanted to give Emry the choice and the freedom to be who they are from the get-go.- Adinne Schwartz

She says the words impose both gender and stereotypes.  

    Parents like Schwartz and Simpkins are part of a growing movement in support of gender-neutral language.

    It's also gaining momentum in schools, workplaces and governments around the world — though not without some pushback.

    Language shapes the way we think

    Language around gender influences how we think, and how we see our world, says Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego.

    "If it's obligatory to choose he or she, you ... tend to think, well, that's what's available," she explained.

    "You're fooled into thinking that things are that simple just because that's what your language tells you."

    In English, pronouns are often used to mark the gender of people and animals.

    Lera Boroditsky, an associate professor of cognitive science at the University of California, San Diego, says language shapes the way we think. (Submitted by Lera Boroditsky)

    But in languages like French, Spanish, and German, all nouns are assigned a gender — often randomly. The moon is male and the sun is female in German, for example, but the reverse is true in Spanish.

    Boroditsky finds that even arbitrarily assigned gender has an impact. She referred to a 2003 study that found if bridges are feminine in your language (like German), you're more likely to say they're beautiful and elegant.

    If they're masculine (like Spanish), you're more likely to say they're strong and towering.

    Language sea change

    Some Indigenous languages have long included gender-neutral terms. But in English and French, they're going more mainstream.

    Vincent Mousseau is a francophone non-binary activist and educator in Montreal. (Zev Torres)
    For francophones like Vincent Mousseau, who identifies as non-binary, that inclusion is important.

    Mousseau is an activist and educator in Montreal, and uses they/them pronouns in English, and iel in French. It's a combination of il (he) and elle (she).  

    Grammatically gendered languages like French "force you into a much more interesting conversation around [questions like] what does it mean to be masculine [or] what does it mean to be feminine?" said Mousseau. "It's a lot more deep than just a pronoun."

    Still, Mousseau says Quebec is more progressive than France when it comes to gender-neutral language.

    The Office québécois de la langue française consulted with people in the trans community when coming up with guidelines for gender-neutral languageOntario, too.

    In France, the Académie Française only recently ruled the feminine forms of professions will now officially be allowed.

    In January, Germany became the first EU country to offer a third gender on birth certificates: divers (diverse).

    The ability to use they/them allows you to not mention gender when it's irrelevant.- Lera Boroditsky

    The German city of Hanover recently introduced inclusive language guidelines, foregoing salutations like Herr and Frau (Mr. and Mrs.) in emails, media statements and brochures.

    Other languages are also grappling with how to become more gender-neutral.

    Twenty years ago, Sweden's national curriculum required all preschools to work against gender stereotyping.

    At Egalia pre-school in Stockholm, staff don't say "boy" and "girl;" they call kids by name, use "friends" or the gender-neutral pronoun hen, a blend of hon for she and han for he.

    The school says such language helps steer kids away from gender stereotypes.

    Shifting our language can, in part, shift how we think about gender, according to Boroditsky.

    "The ability to use they/them allows you to not mention gender when it's irrelevant, or when you want to focus on something you think more relevant about the person," she said.

    Pushback to gender-neutral language

    The growing awareness of gender-neutral language has its detractors, however.

    Critics like Swedish psychiatrist and author David Eberhard have said gender-neutral language like hen ignores boys and girls' biological differences.

    University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson made headlines when he publicly refused to use alternative pronouns like they/them, arguing it tramples free speech.

    His protest was partly in response to Bill C-16, which passed in 2017 and gave new protections for transgender Canadians.

    Emry is being raised with they/them pronouns in Toronto. (Submitted by Adinne Schwartz)

    Schwartz says her Facebook support group Parenting Theybies: Using They/Them/Their Pronouns For Kids From The Start has been targeted. 

    She's had to deal with trolls who send malicious messages to the group, accusing the parents of child abuse, even saying they should kill themselves.

    Schwartz finds that most people, however, are trying their best to learn and adapt.

    She says people sometimes refer to Emry as "he," or get confused, like when she's making a doctor's appointment on the phone.

    As the final segment in our gender neutral series we spoke with Lee Airton, author of "Gender: Your Guide -- A Gender-Friendly Primer on What to Know, What to Say, and What to Do in the New Gender Culture." 8:11

    "I'll say I need to bring my child because they have a cold. And the person there will say, 'Oh you have two?' I'll be like, 'What? Oh no, sorry. I have one child and I use they/them pronouns.'"

    Schwartz doesn't get offended if people don't use they/them when referring to Emry, as long as they're well-meaning.

    She says the point of using gender-neutral language is to give her child a choice.

    "I think it's the right thing to do."

    "But I don't judge families for making the decisions that they make. In our culture, doing something like this is really challenging."

    The radio documentary Pronoun Shift was written and produced by Colleen Ross. (CBC)

    About the producer

    Colleen Ross is a senior producer for CBC Radio national news and has covered stories from across Canada and around the world.

    She has lived in Europe, West Africa and East Africa. Colleen created the CBC Radio program Babel and has written extensively on language.