13 October 2012


When I was younger, we used to talk about boyfriends and girlfriends. Instead, young people nowadays seem to talk about their partners. Which is splendid, except for one thing: a listener can't be sure of the sex of the partner.

This struck me a couple of days ago when a young woman told me: "My partner comes from Greece."

Now, I could, of course, have made the assumption that her partner was male; but you never know in today's world. And it would seem to be a potentially embarassing situation if I asked, "What does he do?" only to find out later that the 'he' was actually a 'she'. As a result, I did not pursue the topic, and instead I asked her about something else.

It seems such a pity that English has adopted this gender-neutral word partner without allowing a gender-neutral pronoun. Perhaps I could have asked, "What do they do?" – but that doesn't sound right at all.

This is one instance when I would have preferred the gender-neutral Malay pronoun dia ('he'/'she'). It is interesting that, in mixing languages, many local people insert English pronouns such as I and you in their Malay utterances, and one reason seems to be because it means they don't need to choose between the formal saya and the informal aku first person pronoun. But for third person pronouns, Malay has the more general usage while English forces us to make a gender choice.

It's a pity I can't get away with using dia when sepaking English!