Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Hello. Hola. Hey. Hi. Greetings and salutations. Howdy (because I feel compelled to be stereotypical in this instance). If your preferred the greeting term wasn’t listed feel free to pretend it was and respond accordingly. Welcome to the Southern Swattie column: your textual Venn diagram linking Swarthmore to the American South. As the title of this column suggests, I am both from the South and a current Swattie. Coming from the same state as Elvis and the law about not being able to catch a catfish with a lasso (Tennessee) is all well and good, but I needed a change in scenery—at least for the time being.
Now, I could talk about how using the remains of prehistoric flora and fauna to fuel our 21st century traveling machines is bad but I don’t have to conform to the interests of society until after my undergrad education has reached its fruition. Instead, I’m going to talk about pronouns.
Don’t stop reading yet.
Grammar: It’s fun in an overcomplicated, bane-of-any-ESL-speakers kind of way. Without proper grammar I wouldn’t be able to use colons or designate arbitrary genders to inanimate objects.
It is a bit different in the South, grammar. And no, I’m not referring to the liberal use of the word “ain’t” or the nonexistence of the letter “g” at the end of many a present tense verb. I’m referring to gender pronouns: he, she, and they for all zero of you reading this and not knowing what pronouns are. Below the Mason-Dixon line, pronouns weren’t something that you gave much mind to. A guy was “he,” and a girl was “she.” In English class, referring to one person as “they” implied they were a horrible two-headed abomination against nature. I’m inclined to blame that on the sorry lack of a gender neutral, non-plural pronoun. We have “it,” but who calls a human being “it” besides evil alien invaders from sci-fi B-movies?
At Swarthmore it’s something to be asked about, not in any obtrusive way but just to make a mental note for future encounters. It’s an odd idea to me, even though asking someone what they prefer to be called seems like a rather obvious thing to do in retrospect. I suppose it’s just because I’m used to simply assuming. Simply assuming can work just fine in most cases—chances are a girl will be okay with being referred to as “she” and “her”—but asking just to make sure seems like the difficult answer to a deceptively obvious question. How do you make a line of 100 pieces of rice shorter without changing it? You make a second line with 101 pieces of rice. What words should you use to refer to someone else? You ask them.
A friend of mine pointed out that there are an awful lot of “theys” at Swarthmore. It takes some getting used to, mainly because my brain is still hooked on the “growing a second head” idea. I’ve been here three weeks and I can’t remember how many times I’ve had the conversation, “What’s his pronoun? He’s a ‘he’ right? He’s a ‘they’? He’s — I mean they’re — pretty cool.” At the same time, though, I can’t imagine anyone else being overtly familiar with the concept of asking someone what they’re preferred pronoun is. I don’t think the South alone should be singled out as a place that distinctly doesn’t do that; the distinction, I think, should be given to places like Swat that seem like they would be in the minority with this particular behavior. I feel like if anyone did that outside of a select few locales people would look at them sideways and label them weird. That’s what would happen if I did that back home, at least. Of course, I have no way of knowing what’s it’s like outside of my own frame of reference. Maybe Junction City, Kansas is chock-full of “theys.”
I can’t say whether or not I’ll ever be a “they.” I can see the significance it would have to other people, but I’ve never been the kind of person to define myself as anything other than “me” because labels are for people who aren’t delightfully pretentious. I like the idea that people come here and grow into that way of viewing themselves, but I’m quite fine with “she” and “her” for the time being. It’s not something I’ve thought about, and since saying someone’s name too many times in one conversation is a mark of a psychotic stalker, I’m okay with being referred to by the pronouns that have been allotted to me. So call me Briana (it rhymes with banana), or call me “her” or “she.” You can even call me “they.” Maybe I’ll grow another head spontaneously from my shoulders once you do so — seems like it’d be fun company at least. Maybe I’ll even get the brain that’s good at math.