Breaking the binary with pronouns
My PhD project concentrates on 3rd person singular pronouns from a sociolinguistic gender perspective. For this blog post, I want to concentrate on the biggest current question: how do we refer to a person who does not identify as a he or a she?
This ‘gap’ in the language has been filled with what I am calling ‘nonbinary pronouns’ – pronouns that can be used to refer to someone who does not (exclusively) identify as female or male, and does not wish to be referred to as a he or a she. These pronouns include the use of singular they and several neologisms, ‘neo-pronouns’, such as ze, xe, ey and e.
To my knowledge, these pronouns have not yet been studied extensively, although they have been acknowledged by scholars such as Stryker who has written about transgender history (2008: 21-22). In her chapter on Gender and its relation to sex, McConnell-Ginet also shortly discusses nonbinary pronouns (McConnell-Ginet, 2013: 24-25). While McConnell-Ginet acknowledges the possibility of adding a new pronoun into English to function as a nonbinary pronoun, she suspects they is more likely to fulfil this task (ibid.). Previously, there have been numerous attempts to introduce neo-pronouns for generic purposes (e.g. Everyone loves zir mother), but these attempts have invariably failed, as Baron’s historical account of neo-pronouns in English illustrates (Baron, 1981; more recently, Baron has also discussed nonbinary pronouns on his blog The Web of Language [e.g. 2015]). However, the present-day issue is different, as nonbinary pronouns are emerging to be used in reference to specific individuals (as opposed to generic references). Only time will tell which nonbinary pronoun(s) will thrive (if any), but clearly, the topic requires more in-depth academic inquiries.
I set out to learn more about these pronouns with an online survey. The survey also dealt with generic pronouns and attitudes towards these pronouns - you can check out my research blog https://pronounblogger.wordpress.com/ for more information. For this blog post, I am using the subgroup of nonbinary participants (N=79; 72 native English speakers, and 7 non-native speakers) and a subset of questions for nonbinary individuals and their pronouns:
Which pronouns do you want people to use when referring to you?
Is it important to you that people use the correct pronouns when talking about you?
How would you describe your feelings when someone uses the wrong pronouns when referring to you and/or misgenders you?
Have you ever felt discriminated by the language use of others?
The responses to the first question highlighted the prevalence of they, but also demonstrated other nonbinary pronouns in use. Indeed, most participants, 59 (75%), included they as a suitable pronoun for themselves, and 36 (46%) of these participants listed they as the only suitable pronoun for themselves. Somewhat surprisingly, almost a third of the participants, 24 (30%), listed more than one pronoun, most often they along with he or she, or a neo-pronoun. He and she were included by almost a third of the participants, 22 (28%), but only 5 participants (6%) preferred just a binary pronoun; the rest included either they or a neo-pronoun. Some of these participants explained that it was easier to ‘allow’ binary pronouns as well, since the use of nonbinary pronouns is still unusual. Similarly, a few participants mentioned they would prefer a neo-pronoun, but they also accepted they as it is more common. In the end, only 10 participants (13%) listed a neo-pronoun, and of these 8 (10%) also included they. Out of the neo-pronouns, e, ae, and ey occurred only once each, but ze (or zhe) occurred 4 times, and xe 3 times. Interestingly, three participants also listed it as their pronoun.
For the second question, the majority, 52 (66%), indicated that at least to some extent it was important that others used their correct pronouns. When participants were asked if they had ever felt discriminated against by language use (question 4), the majority, 59 (75%), again responded affirmatively. Some participants explained that they felt excluded by gendered language use, for example generic he or she usage.
Similarly, the majority, 56 (71%), reported negative feelings when they were asked how it feels when someone uses the wrong pronouns (question 3). The participants’ responses highlighted feelings of invalidation, exclusion, hurt and anger. The most common phrase occurring with this question was simply it hurts (8 occurrences); uncomfortable (7), and dysphoric (7) occurred fairly frequently as well. For example, one participant described aer feelings as follows “Upset, frustrated, irritated, tired, sad, dysphoric”. Some participants also explained that it depends on the situation; it feels worse when it is done on purpose:
"It often triggers mild dissociation, like I know intellectually they're talking about me and I know intellectually that I exist, but I feel like I exist a little to the left, like I'm slightly detached from my body. Either that or if it's clearly deliberate, I get angry, hurt, sad, or some combination of those”.
These responses lead us to a simple conclusion: language use and pronouns matter. Whereas the responses highlighted negative effects, on the other side of the coin of invalidation, hurt and anger, these pronouns can help individuals feel validated, included, respected – and help in the process of breaking the gender binary.
Baron, Dennis (1981). The Epicene Pronoun: the Word that Failed. American Speech, vol. 56, no. 2, pp. 83-97.
Baron, Dennis (2015). What's your pronoun? Retrieved from: https://illinois.edu/blog/view/25/242099. [Accessed Nov 10, 2017].
McConnell-Ginet, Sally (2013). Gender and its relation to sex: The myth of 'natural' gender. In: Corbett, Greville (Ed.) The Expression of Gender (pp. 3-38). Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton.
Stryker, Susan (2008). Transgender History. Berkley, CA, USA: Seal Press.