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Changing Language: On Pronouns and Grammar

With an evolution in the understanding of gender as performative and socially constructed, there has been an increase in the number of people who identify outside of the gender binary and, in turn, an increasing need to expand the scope of language to accommodate people who exist beyond the binary male/ female divide of gender. This has led to the usage of the singular they/ them pronoun or neo- pronouns such as xe/xem or zie/zir.

When many people hear about they/ them pronouns or neo-pronouns for the first time, they react extremely negatively to what they perceive is the ‘violation of grammar’ or ‘made-up’ words.

Part of this is rooted in bigotry.

People who are used to a cis-normative world and believe that such an order is ‘natural,’ react harshly to what they perceive as people ‘making up’ terms for no real reason.

This is, of course, a lie. There is nothing natural about the binary divide of the world we live in. For starters, sex and gender are different, though even sex is a far more fluid category then people believe it to be, since Trans people who undergo hormone replacement therapy can change much of their chemical composition and, thus, what we think of as ‘sex.’ Further, intersex people who may have XXY, XXX, or other such ‘unusual’ chromosomal compositions do exist and have always existed. Current estimates show that intersex people make up at least 1.7% of all humans or 132 million people— a pretty significant number.

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Sometimes people will get all of these things from a non binary person. But its important to understand that its a requirement for us to engage in these requests. Its not a requirement for us to reveal personal details or to give a cis person a crash course in gender studies. We're people, not resources. Sometimes I dont have the energy and I've realised that it is okay to conserve that energy. Im practising putting up some boundaries when I'm tired. Some boundaries might sound like this : . 'I feel uncomfortable about you asking me that. I'd prefer to keep that to myself' . 'I am unable to explain this to you today. There are resources available online for you' . 'I'm not going to explain my sexuality and gender identity to you.' . 'I would prefer that you got to know me before requesting this labour from me' . 'I dont have the emotional bandwith to disclose this information to you' . 'This is inappropriate for me. I'd prefer that you did not ask me this in the future' . Image description [ rainbow bubble lettering reads : non binary people do not owe anyone androgyny, education, details of their trauma, permission to cross boundaries, medical history or medical transition, they/them pronouns, justification for their other cooexisiting identities. Beneath is a blue background with orange flowers on]. . #oneofthem #artistsoninstagram #instaart #queer #nonbinaryartist #queerartist #enbyartist #lgbt #art #agender #nonbinary #artist #illustrator #enbyillustrator #nonbinaryillustrator #transgender #transgenderartist #transgenderIllustrator #queermagic

A post shared by wednesday holmes ⚧ they/them (@hellomynameiswednesday) on

Gender is an entirely social category base don how well we perform characteristics ‘expected’ of our gender. As such, it simply doesn’t make sense for gender to be a binary dichotomous category. Also, non- binary genders have existed for thousands of years, such as hijras and kinnars in the Indian sub-continent, or the two-spirit people amongst Native American tribes. The imposition of a gender binary is, in fact, far newer than the idea of gender as a fluid, non-dichotomous way of existing in the world.

Then we come to the ‘rules of grammar’ and made-up words. Firstly, grammar is an arbitrary tool of expression that has only been formalised and prescriptively standardised in the last three hundred years or so. Prior to that, there were no standard rules of grammar and no codified spellings. Secondly, the singular they/them is actually grammatically correct. Think about when you find a book lying around and you’re not sure who it belongs to. Most likely you’ve said the words, “Oh! Someone’s left their book here” without a second thought many times before. It can be confusing to shift from using they/them only for groups or for people whose gender you don’t know, but something being confusing and something being incorrect are entirely different things. Besides, second-language English-learners are asked to get used to rules of grammar that seem non-sensical to them quite often. Surely, you can refer to your nonbinary friend using they/them pronouns.

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Reposting this for the people who seem to have forgotten. Look in the far bottom right corner. . Every single time a performative ally comes to my comments or dms asking for a basic question they expecting trans people to answer it for them. Its Dehumanising to be constantly treated as if we are nothing more than a search bar to them. . EVERY SINGLE TIME I simply ask an "ally" to Google it, do their own research, they call me "rude" "aggressive" "mean" etc. I want to assert RIGHT NOW that me asking you to do the absolute bare minimum is not victimising you. It's me genuinely asking you to do 1% of the work. I spend days making art to spread awareness, for a cis person to come in an patronise, criticise and emotionally manipulate me. . HERE IS A CLEAR BOUNDARY – IF CISHET PEOPLE IN THIS SPACE ARE NOT WILLING TO EDUCATE THEMSELVES IN ANY WAY, THEN THEY HAVE NO RIGHT TO COME IN AND DEMAND THAT I DO MORE FOR THEM. IF YOU ARE ABLE TO BUT WONT GOOGLE IN SUPPORT OF TGNC PEOPLE, YOURE PROBABLY NOT DOING ANYTHING ELSE EITHER. . IF YOU THINK FOLLOWING ME IS ENOUGH TO SUPPORT TRANS PEOPLE THEN YOU ARE SEVERLY MISGUIDED.

A post shared by wednesday holmes ⚧ they/them (@hellomynameiswednesday) on

As for the charge of neo-pronouns being ‘made up’ words, all words are made up. There is no logical, natural reason that a tree should be called a ‘tree’ and yet, while speaking about trees in English, that’s what we call them. Language is constantly evolving. 20 years back, no one would think of ‘twerk’ or ‘yeet’ as real words and, yet they’re (somewhat appropriatively) part of our daily vernacular, especially on the internet. Even formally and commonly words like ‘Ms’ to refer to a woman by a title that isn’t indicative of her marital status, only began to be used in about the 50s. Language has always allowed for accommodation, and the case with neo-pronouns are no different. Sure, they are made-up words, but all words were built out of our own construction.

At the end of the day, however, linguistics and grammar cannot become grounds for disrespecting and invalidating real people and their identities. When lives are at stake, is learning new rules and vocabulary really so difficult?

Featured Image via Stonewall

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Tanvi is a student at Ashoka University, currently pursuing her BA in Sociology and Anthropology

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