My pronoun is: 3rd person singular

As a new resident of Finland and keen learner of Finnish, I was delighted when a Finnish personal pronoun appeared on ads all across Europe. Plastered on tube tunnel walls and advertising boards in London, Paris, Berlin, Madrid and Stockholm and Sydney, witty posters thanked European languages for their lexical gifts to the Finnish language but also announced Finland’s gift to the world: hän.

A little word punching far above its weight according to the Finland Promotion Board and Finnish embassies across the world: “Equality forms a core value for Finland and its people, and the best symbol of Finnish equality is a personal pronoun from the Finnish language: hän. The third-person singular pronoun hän is neutral in terms of gender and social status, so it represents equal opportunity. It is “she” and “he,” all at once, and it has always existed in the Finnish language.”

Occasionally, commentators on social media pointed out that there are, of course, other languages that don’t distinguish between natural genders in their pronouns. But it has escaped attention that the vast majority of African languages does not make a difference between he and she, his and hers. So, really sorry to say it, but move over Finnish, here come the Niger-Congo languages!

This group of languages comprises thousands of languages and covers a huge area of the African continent. Which languages belong to this, the world’s largest, family beyond its inner core, is a matter of debate. But one thing unites them: the absence of natural gender in their rich and varied gender systems. The number of genders and of the distinctions on which they are based differs widely. Many languages have genders for nouns that denote referents with particular shapes, as does the Atlantic language Gujaher, on whose gender system I blogged earlier here and here. Most languages have particular genders for very big and very small items, and all of them have a class that collects most human beings. But within humans, no grammatical distinction between male and female referents that could give rise to masculine and feminine genders is made. In the third person, pronouns or agreement markers either encode the gender of the noun they refer to or simply the person and number – 1st, 2nd. 3rd, singular, plural, collective… Here are the six subject pronouns of Yoruba from Ayọ Bamgbose’s (2000 )grammar, with no sex distinction in sight:

Bamgbose (2000: 106)

Cross-linguistically, the absence of biological gender is rather unusual, as you can read in Greville Corbett’s gender overview in the World Atlas of Language Structures. But do gender-neutral languages advance gender equality, as claimed by the Finland Publicity Board? Some might say yes, including the Swedish campaigners who introduced the gender-neutral pronoun hen into this language, with otherwise marks biological gender in pronouns. Or the feminist scholar Oyèrónkẹ́ Oyèwùmí , author of The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses. She argues, based on evidence that includes linguistic organisation and the absence of the marking of natural gender going hand in hand with marking of seniority in the language system (on which I have written in this post) that male and female genders were no meaningful social categories in precolonial Africa.

Language can both be a symptom, a fossilised indicator, of deeply rooted social structures (since language encodes those categories best that speakers care(d) for most), and a driver for social change. But languages with and without natural gender distinctions co-exist in the same geographical spaces ad are spoken by multilingual populations with very diverse local cultures. This holds for Swedish and Finnish, and for Niger-Congo and Afro-Asiatic languages (many of which do have sex-based pronouns), among others.

Regarding their role in social change, then, languages can at best serve as a blank slate which can be co-opted in imagining it, as done by the Finland Promotion Board: “Finland wants to encourage international dialogue on equality by introducing a Finnish word to the world: hän. In this campaign, hän is a tool for telling the Finnish story about equality as a source of strength for society.” Billions of speakers of African Niger-Congo languages could lend their words to this endeavour. Because their pronoun is…. 3rd person singular.


Bamgbose, Ayọ. 2000. A grammar of Yoruba. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Corbett, Greville. 2013. Sex-based and non-sex-based gender systems. In: Dryer, Matthew. S and Haspelmath, Martin (eds.): The World atlas of language structures. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Oyèrónkẹ́, Oyèwùmí. 1997. The invention of women: Making an African sense of Western gender discourses. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

“My language is unclassified. That can’t be.”

Today’s topic in class was the history and the metaphors behind the genealogical classification of languages. Comparing two family trees – one of the Niger-Congo language phylum and one of Sunjata Keita brought to the fore what underlies both these conceptualisations of these lineages, and what information is not considered relevant in them. Have a look. Do you have an idea about what is missing?

One view of Niger-Congo languages (Williamson 1989)
Sunjata’s lineage (after Niane 1960)

Both family trees trace genealogical relatedness – descent from a common ancestor – through time, the Niger-Congo tree from left to right, the Keita lineage from top to bottom (incidentally, family trees tend to show the trees uprooted and upside down, or lying down, but almost never growing from the roots, despite using the image of a tree… And both trees assume monoparental descent – languages have one ancestor, and lineage in Sunjata’s case is determined through the male line, until the very bottom of the tree, when some women come in, because of their importance for the plot development of the Sunjata Epos.

In class, a vivid discussion ensued: on the word lists and features used to establish the trees, on selections of words and features resulting in conflicting trees, and, crucially, on the metaphor underlying genealogical classification itself, on how it is intended to exclude contact-induced language change and on the historical background in which it was created, in a sociopolitical context focusing on racial and linguistic purity. We evoked the problems that keep appearing for Niger-Congo – the place of Mande languages, the integrity of Atlantic languages, the name for the Gur language family, the belonging of Dogon – and we discussed how the view that language is passed akin to asexual reproduction in biology conflicts with the way in which children learn languages, focussing on West African language socialisation in large families which in their majority unite speakers of several languages, creating a multilingual input from the outset. I stop here, because each of these topics deserves and hopefully will get its separate blog post.

But this is what I will end tonight’s story with: One course participant is Dogon, and he reports, very upset, that in the most recent classifications, the Dogon cluster of languages is seen as unclassified – there is not enough evidence to give it a place in any established language family or stock. But, he says, we have relationships – we belong into the Mande world! It pains me how a model developed in the nationalist and racist context of the late 19th century can continue to cause that much harm by denying people’s relationships to spheres with which they feel much social and also linguistic belonging – just not the one of the kind measured by the comparative method. But lets’s remind ourselves that this method calculates relatedness by computing the lexical similarity of 100 to 400 words from the most basic vocabulary only, sometimes complemented by features selected to support particular classifications, explicitly and by design discarding the wealth of culturally meaningful layered tapestries that emerge when we look at other areas of language. Perhaps we want to keep using the family tree metaphor. But we need to be clear about one thing: it tells a very limited story, leaving out some of the main protagonists, and we need to give more room to other stories.