I’ve always associated the gender-neutral pronoun with the sorts of progressive liberal arts campuses and communes, places where fluid gender identities are common and the old him/her doesn’t fly. But according to Dr. Margaret Troyer, young people in Baltimore City have invented their own “gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun, [used] primarily in subject position.” And that word is Yo.
“Some examples would be ‘yo wearing a jacket,’ ” Troyer told NPR. “Another example from the paper is, ‘Yo threw a thumbtack at me,’ which is a typical middle school example.” Troyer, who used to work as a middle school teacher, tested out her hypothesis by giving her students cartoons and asking them to come up with captions. When the cartoon character appeared androgynous, the kids used “yo” instead of “he” or “she” — but they also sometimes used it even when the gender of the character was clear.
Troyer’s paper, co-authored with Elain Stotko, was published by American Speech in 2007 and received a flurry of media attention then; this new uptick of interest in the gender of “yo” is thanks to an NPR story that aired this morning as part of the new Code Switch reporting group. The story makes it clear that several years after Troyer’s original research, yo is still going strong — and it’s also a pretty startling linguistic revolution. English’s lack of a gender-neutral pronoun has caused trouble for centuries, and “usually things like pronouns don’t change once a language has been established,” sociolinguist Christine Mallinson told NPR. If it’s a revolution, though, it’s slow in catching on; some have claimed that the usage has made a leap over to other cities, including Kansas City, Kansas, but it’s still mostly a Baltimore thing for now.
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