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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.

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.

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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