'Yo'! Baltimore Kids Create a Pronoun A gender-neutral pronoun is taking root on the streets of Baltimore. Campbell Leaper, a psychology professor, traces the popularity of "yo."
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'Yo'! Baltimore Kids Create a Pronoun

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'Yo'! Baltimore Kids Create a Pronoun

'Yo'! Baltimore Kids Create a Pronoun

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In casual American language, certain regions have come up with a third-person plural: y'all for Southerners and yous for Northeasterners and people in New Jersey, my home state. But as for a gender neutral pronoun, a new candidate has emerged out of Baltimore, Maryland. Teachers and linguists started to notice kids using the word yo, but not as a greeting - more like to replace he or she. Let me give you a few examples. Yo put his foot up. Yo threw a thumbtack at me. Yo handing out papers.

So a study was done, and the results were published in American Speech by a Johns Hopkins education professor. We're going to talk about this in detail in a moment, but instead of my bad rendition, let's listen to some reporting done by Stephanie Marudas. She headed out to the Baltimore Career Academy, a high school in Baltimore, so we could hear yo in action.

Unidentified Man: You can use yo as a substitute, like a noun or something. You know, for your name, for an object or something like that. Hey, yo, did you see the football game last night? Instead of saying, you know, (unintelligible) or something, you just say yo. You say, you see yo over there across the street? You know, something like that.

Unidentified Woman: Especially when you know somebody's name and you don't call them out their name, then, yeah. You say yo's there. Or you're trying to describe somebody, and the other person's like, oh, yeah, I remember yo. But you don't never know their name. Instead of calling them out their name, you just use yo and saying such and such. Or yo, they're always come in the stores and such and such. If you don't know his name, you don't want to call him by his name, either. So…

STEWART: Got it? Okay. Listening in on the line is Campbell Leaper, UC Santa Cruz professor of psychology, focusing on gender and language.

Hi, Campbell.

Professor Campbell Leaper (Psychology, UC Santa Cruz): Hi. Glad to be here.

STEWART: So you heard the tape, and I know you've read the report. Can you sum up for us what's significant about the way the word yo is used in these occasions?

Prof. LEAPER: For many years, people have often used he to refer generically to he or she. And in the last 20 years, it's been more common for people to say he or she instead of just saying he when referring to the generic. But there is no gender neutral pronoun, as occurs in other languages like Chinese or Persian and Hungarian and so forth. And writers have suggested using making up terms, but these generally don't work because it's pretty hard to institute language change from the top down. Languages due to change over the years, but it's - it occurs from the bottom up. So, an example would be is what's occurring in this community where they are using yo to refer to he or she generically. So that's pretty significant.

STEWART: I wonder if you have any thoughts on the actual word yo that these kids have come up with. I mean, (unintelligible) sort of from the military, you said, yeah, present, yo. Kids started using it in school, like, yo, I'm here. Or yo, like the word hey. Any ideas, any thoughts on why the word yo would be chosen as this neutral pronoun?

Prof. LEAPER: Well, as you just mentioned, sometimes yo has been used just as sort of an attention-getter, like, you know, you mentioned you're from New Jersey, I'm from New Jersey, also. And so that's - that was often kind of a common thing that, you know, a lot of your listeners maybe, you know, you hear from watching "The Sopranos" or something like, you know, hey, yo. So that might have been partly how it got started. And then also, there's the possibility that it became associated with just you - so saying yo, short for you, which is common in many communities.

STEWART: So, what problems could this solve? What if yo catches on? What if suddenly one day I turn on "Good Morning America" and Diane Sawyer is using yo instead of he or she? I mean, why is there a need for this?

Prof. LEAPER: Yeah, right. You know, starting in the 1980s, a lot of style guides started saying, you know, don't use the he generically. Use he or she, or use the plural. And so, whenever you're trying to create some sort of change, there's typically a backlash. And the argument against using he is that it's sexist, is that the generic he is privileging males as the general case. And a lot of people poo-poo that and say, oh, that's just really a trivial matter. That doesn't really affect the way I think.

The philosopher Benjamin Whorf is famous amongst people who study language for articulating the idea that language shapes thought, that the words that we use affect how we think because we put things in these categories. So correspondingly, one idea might be that didn't masculine generic, using that regularly, gets people to mainly think in terms of males and their imagery, and that there's various studies that have tested that hypothesis in psychology.

And indeed, that tends to occur, is that if you give people stories that are written in the masculine generic and then you ask them sort of what were you imagining about that, you know, typically they come up with stories about males. And if you're a girl growing up and the language uses the masculine generic, it's just one of the many ways in which girls and women sort of come to understand that it's a man's world. So ideally, when it's not relevant, it would be nice if we had a language that doesn't specify gender.

STEWART: How does English compare to other language in terms of its gender neutrality?

Prof. LEAPER: It's kind of in the middle. So you could have some of the romance languages like Spanish and French where every noun, just about, is gendered. You know, you have the masculine form and the feminine form. And so…

STEWART: Oh, I know, Senor Cook beat that into my head…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LEAPER: There you go.

STEWART: …from grade nine to 12.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. LEAPER: There you go. There's no way to avoid it, so there's no - so, for example, if you want to refer to Latinos generically, you have to use - you know, you use the masculine form with O at the end, or you say Latinos and Latinas. So, there is no general gender neutral form there.

Conversely, there are other forms like Chinese and Farsi and Turkish and Hungarian and Filipino where the pronouns are gender neutral, so you don't have this problem. So English is somewhere in between the two because there are ways we can get around it.

STEWART: You mentioned that the way language changes and evolves rarely from the top down, that sometimes it must start organically with people changing it to fit their lives and their habits and their needs. So, in terms of this word yo, what would it take for it to spread?

Prof. LEAPER: Probably a lot of language change often occurs through popular culture. Often, it's younger generations that lead to change because they're not as wedded to the old ways of speaking and doing things. And language is always changing. It's never fixed. Because that's like one of the most common responses I get from students when I talk about these kinds of topics in classes, like, well, that's the way the language is. And that language is never fixed.

A thousand years ago, if we went to England and we're hearing people speaking English, we probably couldn't even understand most of what they're saying because the words were so different. They've changed so much over the centuries.

STEWART: Do you think you could imagine yourself using yo as a gender neutral pronoun in the future, professor?

Prof. LEAPER: Sure. Why not?

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: All right. I'm going to ask you to try it, and next time you do it, I want you to e-mail it to me, and I want you to tell me how people react.

Prof. LEAPER: Okay.

STEWART: Is that a deal?

Prof. LEAPER: I'll try to do that. Sure.

STEWART: All right. Campbell Leaper is a professor of psychology focusing on gender and language at UC Santa Cruz.

Thanks a lot.

Prof. LEAPER: You're most welcome.

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