There are never many readers in the British Library between Christmas and New Year, so it may not have been the best time to open a new front in a philological campaign. But small piles of bookmarks appeared in the library locker room one morning last week, promoting the use of the word hu. Pronounced with a short vowel sound, as in ‘huh’, hu is ‘the stylist’s choice in epicene pronouns’ and ‘performs flexibly as a subject, an object, and a possessive epicene; for it is declension-free’. The sales pitch was followed by a few examples:
To each hu own.
That fine detective novel draws the reader in, teasing hu to puzzle out for huself the solution to the mystery.
Let each user of our EZ cell-phones pay as hu goes.
The bookmarks were sponsored by the Archangul Foundation, a charity established by D.N. DeLuna, an academic at Johns Hopkins, to encourage the spread of hu as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. The foundation also operates a publishing imprint specialising in ‘ultra-scholarly print publications’.
All but the most aggressive grammarians accept that they and its variants will do as well as hu in most contexts, but DeLuna isn’t the first person to have tried to engineer the language in this way. Dennis Baron at the University of Illinois has compiled an exhaustive list of epicene pronouns (‘a chronology of the word that failed’), beginning in 1850 with ne, taking in A.A. Milne’s heesh and Robert Kaplan’s shis, and concluding in 1992 with ghach, invented by Marc Okrand as part of the Klingon language he created for Star Trek. ‘There are no common gender pronouns in Vulcan,’ Baron writes. He also includes a blend of he, or, she and it that appeared in Forbes in 1976: h’orsh’it.