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'Yo' Said What?

The Code Switch team loves thinking, talking and hearing about language and linguistics — see our launch essay, "When Our Kids Own America," and "How Code-Switching Explains The World." So we wanted to share this report from NPR's Arts Desk that's about the use of "yo" as a gender-neutral pronoun.

Over the past few decades, we've made a lot of changes in the English language to make it more gender neutral. We say "police officer" instead of "policeman," and "people" instead of "mankind."

But there's one thing we can't seem to get right: pronouns. We know that if you say, "Every child has his monkey," it excludes girls. So instead we might say, "Every child has their monkey," even though it's not grammatically correct. And "Every child has his or her monkey," is just clunky.

But some kids in Baltimore have come up with a solution that has caught the attention of linguists.

At the UMAR Boxing Gym, you hear the word "yo" a lot.

"You know, like yo hit me ... yo took my stuff! Yo, yo! ... yo right there is crazy."

Instead of "he" or "she," it's "yo." It's slang people have been using for years in Baltimore.

Margaret Troyer, a former Baltimore-area teacher, published the first paper showing that "yo" is being used to replace "he" and "she." Troyer first noticed it while she was teaching middle-school kids in the area.

"Some examples would be 'yo wearing a jacket,' " Troyer says, referring to her research. "Another example from the paper is, 'Yo threw a thumbtack at me,' which is a typical middle school example."

So Troyer began to study her students. She gave them blank cartoons and asked them to fill in the captions — many of the cartoon characters were androgynous.

Troyer found the kids used "yo" instead of "he" or "she" when they didn't know the gender of the character. But they also used "yo" as a substitute even when they did know the gender.

"They said things like, 'Yo put his foot on the desk.' So it was clear from this that they knew it was a male person, but they were just using 'yo' to refer to the person," says Troyer. "And then in other sentences they would use 'yo' to refer to a female as well."

Christine Mallinson, a sociolinguist at the University of Maryland, calls this interesting and unusual.

"Usually things like pronouns don't change once a language has been established," Mallinson says.

She says kids in Baltimore solved a very old problem in linguistics: English doesn't have a gender-neutral pronoun. That makes it difficult to refer to people if you don't know the person's gender.

It's also a problem for people who don't want to be identified as "he" or "she."

"There have been activists who have wanted to propose something like 'zee' and 'zeer' as an option for something other than 'he,' 'him,' 'she,' 'her,' but that hasn't really caught on," Mallinson says.

Back in the 1880s, a lawyer named Charles Converse coined the gender-neutral pronoun "thon" — a combination of "that" and "one." Thon even made it into the 1909 supplement to the Century Dictionary, but nobody actually used it.

And there have been other made-up pronouns, too: "nee"; "heesh"; "huh."

Needless to say, they didn't catch on.

Linguists are interested to see whether "yo" is here to stay in Baltimore, and whether it will make the jump to other cities, Mallinson says.

"It'll be interesting to see whether they keep that usage as they become adults. Do they keep that in the workplace? If that's the case, it might persist," says Mallinson. "But sometimes slang or linguistic innovations in middle or high school get dropped out as people become adult users of English."

And, she says, even if "yo" is just a fad, it says something about the kids who use it.

"What these students are doing that's so fascinating is they have a view of the world that is, in many ways, gender neutral, and they're using language to reflect that," says Mallinson. "Maybe for them it's just a normal thing to just go around and not have gender so much on the forefront of the brain."

Of course, gender is never completely out of the picture with teenagers. Back at the west Baltimore boxing gym, 19-year-old Tarahn Robinson says sometimes he uses "yo" for girls. But there are exceptions.

"I change it up for a girl ... I say, 'Shorty took my stuff, yo that girl took my stuff.' " Robinson says. "Shorty. You know, you gotta switch it up, sure."

And as for whether you can expect the pronoun "yo" in a city near you — Mallinson says a bunch of Baltimore kids can't make it go viral. But if a celebrity started using it, though, that might do the trick.

For another story about pronouns, please read " 'Latin@' Offers A Gender-Neutral Choice; But How To Pronounce It?" from Code Switch's Gene Demby.

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Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.
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