Pronouns

David Cowles

Jul 23, 2021

Today, we are all about our pronouns. This incidental part of speech has suddenly replaced the noun and the verb as the focus of popular, and linguistic, attention.

Growing up in the ‘60s, we were accustomed to asking one another, “What is your sign?” Now, 55 years later, “What are your pronouns?” has become the ice breaker of choice. Even some business colleagues of mine have embedded “my pronouns…” into their electronic email signatures.

Today, we are all about our pronouns. This incidental part of speech has suddenly replaced the noun and the verb as the focus of popular, and linguistic, attention.


Growing up in the ‘60s, we were accustomed to asking one another, “What is your sign?” Now, 55 years later, “What are your pronouns?” has become the ice breaker of choice. Even some business colleagues of mine have embedded “my pronouns…” into their electronic email signatures.


100 years ago, someone else was focused on pronouns. Jewish theologian and existentialist philosopher, Martin Buber. His seminal work, “I and Thou”, understood the world as a network of relationships. He divided those relationships into two categories: ”I – it” and “I – Thou”. I – it relationships are all about the I, the subject. The it is pure object. We usually have an I – it relationship with the canned goods on a supermarket shelf. Unfortunately, we often extend that relationship to the human beings who work in that supermarket.


Imperialism and colonialism are paradigms of I – it relationships. Derek Chauvin had an I – it relationship with George Floyd.


An I – Thou relationship, on the other hand, eliminates the subject-object duality. It posits the absolute equality of the I and the Thou. In fact, it requires that we see ourselves in the other and that the other sees him/herself in us.


Buber made a great contribution to Western philosophy, but I would go much further. “My pronouns” are it and Thou…not I or me. That’s because when I enter into an I – it relationship, it immediately becomes an it – it relationship. The object of the relationship (e.g. canned goods) transforms the subject of the relationship (me) into an object, into an ‘it’. Conversely, when I enter into an I – Thou relationship, I am immediately transformed into a Thou.

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