My Pronouns, Your Pronouns, Their Pronouns

The other day I was asked a question I’d never heard before, and because I am, or once was, a teacher of elementary Latin, it struck me as peculiar. I needed to make a routine medical appointment, and the person on the telephone put me through the usual litany—date of birth, address, current medications, and so on—but at the end, she added three others. The first two asked for my gender and my gender assigned at birth. I have encountering these often enough that I know to answer both with “male.” (No one ever asks, “Assigned by what or whom?” The answers might be interesting.) But then the voice on the phone asked, “Do you respond to the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’?”

For a moment I remembered the first lesson in one of the textbooks that we used in elementary Latin. In the classic fashion, it began with the indicative active present tense of amo, “I love”: amo, amas, amat. These were labeled, “first person,” “second person,” and “third person.” Seventh graders can be relied on to enrich their teachers’ lives by asking profound questions, and almost always some child wondered why the verbs were called by these numbers. I usually explained by asking them to imagine a dialogue in which “I” talk to “you” about “him” or “her.” Because seventh graders (and, indeed, most people of whatever age) have no difficulty as seeing themselves as the primary person in any conversation, they understand that if you are talking about yourself, you use first-person verbs. If you are talking to another person about that person, you use second-person verbs to describe their actions. If you and the person to whom you are speaking are talking about a third person, you use third-person verbs to describe them. Pronouns have the same labels: first person for ego, second for tu, and third for ille or illa.

I decided not to make the telephone clerk’s life difficult by pointing out that I can’t really “respond” to third person pronouns. My personal pronouns are “I” and “me” (and in pompous or academic moments, “we.”) I respond to “you” and, in the increasingly rare moments when I’m dealing with elderly Quakers, “thee”. He” and “him” may be used to refer to me, and I find it more important to listen to how people want to talk about me than to presume to tell them which pronouns to use when they do.

By “Do you respond to the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘him’?” the nice woman on the telephone meant, “When people use ‘he’ and ‘him’ in a conversation that might be about you, do you recognize that those pronouns might refer to you?” So I responded to the “you” in her question, answered with a yes, and we moved on to the portion of the litany dealing with Covid symptoms.

~Lee T. Pearcy
February 21, 2023