Linguistic Anthropology: On Bodine’s (1975) Prescient “They”


Having born witness to a rapid adoption of “they” in preferred gender pronouns in the past decade through prior management in a digital marketing agency, currently operating as a General Manager/Chief Executive Officer in a LGBTQ+ supporting organization, and in friendships spanning the same, if not years prior for some outliers, the use of “they/them” as singular pronouns has been an interesting progression. That said, the question as to the use of the pronouns is nuanced, where linguistic anthropology has already “tapped the egg”, revealing something akin to a bursting of a bubble of male dominant ethnocentrist grip on social mores in conditioning language competencies and performances. From the field of linguistic anthropology, Ann Bodine’s (1975) study on “prescriptive grammar movements” concomitant with the diminishment of “they” due to “social motivations” is quite revealing of the context within which language will/is/had shift|ing>|ed>1. This shift may be akin to both the artificial and natural selectivity in biological sciences. Herein, it is proposed that a “grip” on cultural performances is backpropagated2 to operant conditioning of competencies and performances simply as a result of institutionally systematized excuses3 for cultural preferences in these. 

An Occam’s Razor to “They”

To summarize, it is entirely possible, in the Occam’s approach, that the use of “they” in LGBTQ+ communities of practice sharing in a practice of identity exploration, is most likely a “return to the middle” from a period of at attempt to constrain language use in culturally emergent democracies. Early efforts as revealed by Bodine, may reveal through subsequent study, combined with psychological and sociological theory, that constraints on linguistic freedom in speaker pronouns simply lead to reactance and a behavior attempting to recover freedom in sexual behaviors (see psychological reactance theory [PRT; Brehm, 1966]) resulting in a sudden burst through glass ceilings of attempted simplifications of social structures via institutional influence in moving toward rigid dichotomous world views through its associated rigid dichotomous language, due to a simple psychological reality of a fundamental attribution error (Jones & Harris, 1967; Ross, 1977) attributing male dominant ethnocentric successes to dispositions of dichotomous affects, thoughts, and behaviors (i.e., attitudes) rather than the fact that they (ha!) had been situationally privileged by mere starting conditions of planetary human profligation anchoring4 these attitudes, and adjusting them toward greater and greater dichotomies as pressured by democratic processes unleashing an intermixing of cultures, languages, and thoughts (i.e., linguistic relativity).

Bodine’s Prescience

Bodine (1975) uncovers evidence that, prior to the 19th century, “they” had wide use in English written (E-language variety), that it was alive and well in singular indexation, and that an “authority of grammarians” and a staunch effort to assert “androcentric social order” had occurred (Bodine, 1975, pp. 130-134). Even effort to align5 the “sex-indefinite ‘he’” became polarized, “he must represent a male; she a female; and it, an object of no sex… But the plural they equally represents objects of all the three genders” (p. 135; Ward, 1755, pp. 459-460; emphasis retained). Bodine even uncovers arguments that “the proscription against singular ‘they’ constitutes a social injustice” (p. 138). Bodine uncovers near damning evidence of an effort to enforce gender bi-modality, revealing what today can be seen as behavioral modification (i.e., punishments and reinforcers via authority) used to enforce a bi-modal view of gender, where Bodine ends with a prescient conclusion:

Personal reference, including personal pronouns, is one of the most socially significant aspects language. As such, it is particularly likely to become the target of deliberate efforts to bring symbolic representation of interpersonal relations into line with the way those relationships are structured in either the ideal or behavioral patterning of the members of a speech community. With the increase of opposition to sex-based hierarchy, the structure of English third person pronouns may be expected to change to reflect the new ideology and social practices, as second person pronouns did before them. (Bodine, 1975, p. 144; emphasis added)


With respect to Bodine’s statement, pending consideration of communities of practice, it is apparent that different communities of practice may lead, lag, join, oppose, tolerate, or accept personal pronouns reinforcing sexual-relations propagating topologies of not only E-language, but I-language (Chomsky, 1986). I-language is rather fitting for the colorful spectrum of those exploring the LGBTQ+ spectrum. Now, that said, it may be worth noting a further Occam’s razor approach, it seems possible that language pronouns might also be moderated and mediated by what Lee et al. (2004) found while studying on emotion and phoneme relations, along with Hung et al.’s [2017] study on the bouba-kiki effect—it may simply be a case of motor/emotion moderation of language use preferences. Further support for the field of linguistic anthropology is suggested, however, the author pauses, because if this knowledge is used for stronger manipulations of antecedents and consequences to continually reinforce sexual bi-modality, a larger PRT may be a result, as seen in the 1960s and 1970s, though it stands without reason, that this might just be a desired outcome for chaos (see Lawson & Kakkar’s [2021]).


1 See Multi-Valent Linguistics markup (Hodges, 2021).

2 Backpropagation is a well-known concept attributed with the learning functionality in neural networks both biological and artificial (Lillicrap et al., 2020).

3 See Sykes & Matza’s (1957) article on techniques of neutralization (i.e., “excuses” [Scott & Lyman, 1968], where herein it is proposed that attempts to systematize grammar (i.e., competency), and distributions of morpheme propagation (i.e., performance) is a matter of techniques of neutralization working in advance (Sykes & Matza, pp. 666-667) of preferred (cultural) outcomes as a result of cultural kurtosis via in-group selectivity as framed by more powerful “shares of voice” across a plurality of language communities and communities of practice continually reinforcing what Inoue (2006) seems to point out in a “linguistic topography of affect and… hierarchy”.

4 See Tversky & Kahneman’s (1974) article on anchoring and adjustment heuristic, which describes the process within which individuals estimate based on initial conditions, and subsequently adjust estimates biased by initial conditions (pp. 1128-1130).

5 See Stokes and Hewitt’s (1976) article on aligning actions, operationally defined by two criteria: (1) activities “… crucial to the process in which people create and sustain joint action by aligning individual lines of conduct when obstacles arise in its path” (p. 838; abbreviated for readability), and activities “… sustaining a relationship between culture and conduct… in the face of actions that depart from cultural expectations or definitions of what is situationally appropriate” (p. 838). 


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Hung, Styles, S. J., & Hsieh, P.-J. (2017). Can a Word Sound Like a Shape Before You Have Seen It? Sound-Shape Mapping Prior to Conscious Awareness. Psychological Science, 28(3), 263–275.

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Lawson, M. A., & Kakkar, H. (2021). Of pandemics, politics, and personality: The role of conscientiousness and political ideology in the sharing of fake news. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General. Advance online publication.

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Ross, L. (1977). The intuitive psychologist and his shortcomings: Distortions in the attribution process. In L. Berkowitz (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, Vol. 10. (pp. 173-220). Academic Press.

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Sykes, G. M., & Matza, D. (1957). Techniques of neutralization: A theory of delinquency. American Sociological Review, 22(6), 664-670.

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