Pronouns And Power

Ardhanarishvara, the combined form of Shiva and Parvati, both male and female. அவர்

The pronoun debate is interesting because learning one other pronoun is nothing for most people. In the Tamil language there’s different pronouns for you, you (respectful), men, women, gender-neutral (respectful), and animals.

Then there’s dozens of terms of address. On any given day I can be called 20 different names (in multiple languages) and I somehow keep this straight. Why do straight western people find one pronoun so hard?

The answer, I think, is power. Pronouns aren’t about words, gender, age, or quantity. They’re about power relations. In other languages this is more obvious (there are ‘respectful’ pronouns) while in English everything is flattened and obscure. But power is always there.

For example, while Tamil has a gender-neutral pronoun just sitting there it’s also a term of respect. You’d use it on teachers or elders. Hence the characters in a film like Super Deluxe call trans people by animal pronouns instead. Which is awful, but at least more honest about the awful reality.

Pronouns are clearly about more than technical meanings. They’re about power relations, something English certainly has but just doesn’t have words for. And so they fight.

Power Languages

In languages like Tamil or Sinhala, power is explicitly encoded into language. We have different terms based on age, ‘respect’, and these map quite directly onto class.

Servants are often called ‘girl’ or ‘boy’ regardless of how old they are. This sounds deranged when you translate it into English (“can your girl make tea?”)—especially when the ‘girl’ is 50 years old—but it reflects the actual power relations clearly. Western languages have the same power relations, they just don’t say it out loud. But power is always there.

Power Plays