Elaine M. Stotko

The Johns Hopkins education professor gained national attention as a proponent of the gender-neutral pronoun 'yo.'

October 21, 2008|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

Elaine M. Stotko, the chairwoman of the Johns Hopkins University's department of teacher preparation who earned national attention as a proponent of the gender-neutral pronoun "yo" as a replacement for "he," "she," "her" and "him," died Thursday of brain cancer at Gilchrist Hospice Care. The Columbia resident was 54.

The genesis of Dr. Stotko's work came in a graduate linguistics class for English teachers that she taught at Hopkins in 2004.

Dr. Stotko learned from several Baltimore middle and high school teachers in her class that students were using a new gender-neutral pronoun form: "yo." She and one of those teachers, Margaret Troyer, would write "A New Gender-Neutral Pronoun in Baltimore, Maryland: A Preliminary Study," which was published this year in American Speech, the journal of the American Dialect Society.

The word "yo" and its use is no stranger to American speech.

"It used to be an Army term, and then it was Rocky Balboa's, and now it's a staple of African-American slang," observed an editorial in The Sun.

Teachers in Dr. Stotko's class kept their ears open for it and supplied her with examples, such as: "Yo handin' out papers," "Yo, get away from my locker" and "Yo threw a thumbtack at me."

The authors designed several writing exercises and "sentence judgment tasks" to gather additional examples.

"Why are we always forcing people into categories?" Dr. Stotko said in The Sun editorial, published in January. "Our society needs to change and stop dividing people on gender."

"There is currently a trend within transgendered communities to use generic pronouns, such as ze and hir, with a limited range of success within the communities and less success outside," Dr. Stotko and Ms. Troyer wrote.

"Again, the forms are being introduced purposefully to solve a perceived need in the language. The pronoun described in this study, yo, does not appear to have had the same purposeful introduction but instead seems to have arisen more spontaneously within certain speech communities of urban middle and high school students," they wrote.

They contacted educators in such cities as Washington, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Milwaukee and New York to ask whether "yo" was being used.

Teachers replied that they had heard the word used as a greeting or an "attention-focusing device, but not as a pronoun."

Dr. Stotko and Ms. Troyer wondered in their report whether "yo" would become a permanent part of American speech or like "other novel middle-school-age language forms, will just as quickly fade away."

However, not all readers of The Sun's editorial applauded Dr. Stotko's proposal.

"How will anyone decipher this conversation: 'Yo said to yo that yo said yo to yo before yo said yo,'?" wrote Michael and Kay Peluse of Havre de Grace.

Elaine Marie Stotko was born in Rapid City, S.D., and raised in Bossier City, La., where she graduated from Parkway Senior High School in 1971.

She earned a bachelor's degree in French from Northeast Louisiana University in 1975 and a master's degree in English as a second language from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1977.

In 1992, she earned a doctorate in linguistics from the University of Delaware, where she worked for 16 years as senior assistant dean in the College of Human Services, Education and Public Policy.

Since 2001, she had been chairwoman of Hopkins' department of teacher preparation.

"She was an incredible leader as well as a teacher," said Jennifer H. Cuddapah, an associate professor of education at Hopkins. "She was extremely smart and very innovative and practical, which was a good thing for our department."

Dr. Cuddapah said she enjoyed helping teachers "deal with the hardships of the profession."

"She was very committed to that and approached her work with an accessible and down-to-earth manner," she said. "As a new person coming into the department, she mentored me."

In addition to linguistics, Dr. Stotko wrote widely and counted among her research interests the effect of teacher education on teacher quality and children's understanding of language.

"She also designed numerous courses, including one recently that used tai chi. It was called 'Reducing Stress and Managing Behavior in the Classroom,' " Dr. Cuddapah said.

She was an accomplished bluegrass bass fiddler and enjoyed gardening, bookbinding and traveling.

"Her sharp wit, generous heart and acceptance of all people earned her many, many dear friends who stood by and comforted her through her illness with excellent food, good company and laughter," said her husband of 13 years, Eric T. Jacobson, a project manager with Baltimore Gas & Electric Co.

Plans for a memorial service to be held at Hopkins' College of Education in November were incomplete yesterday.

Also surviving are a son, Adrian Q. Quintero of Baltimore; a stepdaughter, Jessica L. Jacobson of Millersville, Pa.; her parents, Cornelius Paul "CP" and Arline Stotko of Bossier City; a brother, Edward Stotko of Port Deposit; and a sister, Lori Stotko of Half Moon Bay, Calif.

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