Derek Tillotson


When speaking Mandarin, the words for he, she, him, her, and it are all pronounced the same: "ta." And while the words differ in written form, the fact that they're all pronounced the same presents potential issues when speaking, right?

Coming from an English-speaking country, one would assume that's the case. When I think back to my high school English and Spanish classes, they had one thing in common: We were taught that "he" is the default pronoun when the gender of a third person isn't known. In English class, we were also told that "they" is only to be used when dealing with more than one person.

But in spoken Mandarin, those rules don't apply. One pronoun accompanies all third-person singulars. And you can add the syllable "men" to make pronouns plural. But again, would this cause problems in English? The more I think about it: Probably not. The only real difficulty is that gendered pronouns are an established part of the language. Still, if we're talking about a mutual friend named Sam and I refer to Sam with "he," "she," "they," or even "it," are you going to magically not know who I'm talking about? Of course not! Context is what makes the conversation intelligible--in all languages.

Right now, English speakers are starting to move away from some of the classic pronoun rules, especially opting for "they" as a singular when the person is unknown or their gender isn't stated. Like all things with language, it's indicative of a cultural shift that will either fade away or become more of the norm over the next few decades. But if I've learned anything about my own native tongue from casually poking at other languages, that would be an elimination of redundancy.

Written January 31, 2020

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