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Non-binary Language Innovations in English: Between Recognition and Creativity

Written by Penelope Bollini


Hello everyone! This is the first post of a series in which we will be discussing language innovations related to non-binary identities in several languages.


Language innovations can occur in different ways: from loanwords to neologisms, languages change and re-invent themselves. Language change is always embedded in social reality and language innovations come alongside social movements. The case of non-binary language innovations is not an exception. With the rise of performative and constructivist theories, gender binarism was challenged and, with it, binary linguistic norms. The linguistic representation of gender was contested and together with a request for the recognition of non-binary identities, a way to linguistically represent these identities was needed. Every language has its own challenges when it comes to gendered language, and the intertwinement between language and culture makes the introduction of non-binary language innovations case specific. This series aims to explore the way different languages have been dealing with non-binary language innovations.


Let’s delve into it.


The first language we’ll be talking about is English. It seemed a sensible choice to start with this language since it’s the one that most of us students (and staff) use daily. But let’s be honest: when talking about “English”, it is difficult to make generalized statements because it is present in different places across continents (I’m looking at you, colonialism) and is increasingly used as a lingua franca or an “international” language (now I’m looking at you, linguistic imperialism). Therefore, for the sake of this post, I’ve narrowed it down to English used in two geographical areas: North America and the UK (sure, unoriginal, but we have to start somewhere, right?). English presents two main challenges relating to non-binary language: nouns and pronouns.


Nouns


To understand non-binary language innovations in English we must take a step back in time because gender-inclusive language initially meant non-sexist language. In fact, in the mid-1970s, feminists drew attention to the way sexism was embedded in language, proposing an anti-sexist language reform. Several aspects of English use were criticized and recognized as sexist. First of all, the fact that some adjectives were only used when referring to women but not to men, e.g. “bossy” or “emotional” (versus “assertive” and “passionate”, used for men). Second of all, there was the issue of female versions of words that gained negative connotations (e.g. male “master” versus female “mistress”) and of derogatory sexual terms such as “bitch” or “whore” which were (and are) used to denigrate women. For these two cases, the solution proposed cannot really touch upon the word but can try to change its use either by not using it or through women’s reappropriation of the term (e.g. self-labeling as “that bitch”). But feminists’ concern was deeper than that with one of the main issues being the generic nouns that had the word “man” built in. There was no female or neutral equivalent for them until someone suggested it. This was the case for words such as “mankind”, “man-made”, and especially job titles. Through a “neutral” use of those words, feminists argued, men were seen as the norm, the unmarked gender, and women designated as the other (shoutout to Simone de Beauvoir and her seminal work Le Deuxième Sexe). Moreover, this linguistic practice invisibilized women and their societal role. As women started to hold more positions, they also wanted their language to represent them. Therefore, female equivalents were introduced (e.g. “headmistress” from “headmaster”; “landlady” from “landlord”).


These strategies aim at specifying the gender of the person and making women’s gender present in language. However, they heavily rely on gender binarism, which reflects the gender binary in broader society. An alternative strategy would be using gender-neutral language in which the gender of the referent is not specified (see Table 1 for examples).


Table 1: Examples of masculine nouns alongside feminine and gender-neutral alternatives proposed or currently adopted.


This is the strategy of choice for advocates of anti-cis-sexist reform (i.e. people that would like to use non-gendered versions of nouns). Some feminists also show interest in gender neutralization in language. However, this strategy could be problematic since women become again invisible in language (which was one of the initial reasons to propose a gender language reform). Another possible and undesirable outcome could be that these gender-neutral alternatives would be used in practice only when referring to women, therefore they would not effectively neutralize the role of gender in language.


Pronouns


While the anti-sexist and the anti-cis-sexist language reform partially align regarding the question of nouns through the neutralization strategy, pronouns (and possessive adjectives) are a unique beast. When referring to pronouns in this post, I am referring only to the third-person pronouns (subject, object, possessive, and reflexive) as well as possessive adjectives. While the other grammatical persons are gender neutral, English includes two gendered third person pronouns, “he” (masculine) and “she” (feminine), alongside the non-gendered it which is only used for inanimate objects and animals (not pets).


Here again, in the 1970s, feminist movements noted that the use of he as masculine generic invisibilized women. To face this issue, different alternatives were proposed (and criticized). Some solutions were not always welcomed because they could “burden” the text. These include trying to avoid third-person pronouns altogether (e.g. by using “everyone”, “one”, etc.), using both (as in “he or she”), changing the sentence to the passive or plural form, and repeating the noun. Another solution is using “she” as the generic pronoun, which displays a more active role in reversing the idea of “men as the standard'' (I have to say, the first time I saw it used in an academic article which was not discussing gender issues, I got excited). However, this was criticized and at times tagged as a “reverse sexist” practice that would invisibilize men. A further idea is to simply alternate between masculine and feminine pronouns, which could lead to confusion and impact the coherence of a text. Most of the previous solutions still rely on grammatical gender binarism and are therefore ill-suited to represent non-binary gender in language. Finally, the most debated solution is the introduction of the singular “they”.


After its use became more common, in 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary entered the singular use of “they” in its dictionary. In so doing, the singular “they” gained more recognition and has been used increasingly in both gender-neutralization and gender-specification strategies. For anti-sexist language advocates this can be an economic way to neutralize language, while for anti-cis-sexist language advocates it is used both to neutralize the presence of gender in language and to specify a non-binary identity. The same issues discussed above regarding the invisibilization of women subsist.


Arguments about the ungrammaticality of the singular “they” have been side-lined through the dictionary recognition. Nonetheless, not everyone is on board with it. Some oppose its use because they have a binary understanding of gender (and therefore do not see the need for a non-binary pronoun alternative). Others have a very static understanding of language and are reticent to any linguistic change, even though they might say that they support non-binary people’s struggles. Moreover, an enduring argument against the singular use of “they” is that it might confuse people. This is not a minor issue since even after a period of adjustment, its use could be ambiguous in some situations. For example, take this phrase in which “they’ is used as both a plural and a singular pronoun:


The journalists understood what they wanted to achieve when they asked them their stance on the issue.


The first “they” is supposed to refer to a non-binary person; however, without this prior knowledge, the meaning of the phrase is ambiguous. Even after knowing that the first "they" refers to a non-binary person the meaning of the phrase is not straightforward. In fact, if we call the person “X” the phrase could still mean both:


The journalists understood what X wanted to achieve when X asked them their stance on the issue.


and


The journalists understood what X wanted to achieve when they asked X X’s stance on the issue.


Luckily, the singular “they” is only one of the alternatives proposed and the solution to this problem is already present in the linguistic practice of some people who opt for neologisms such as xe or zie (in Table 2 examples of the different pronouns; here, a more complete list).


Table 2: Examples of non-binary pronoun systems proposed versus singular “they” versus standard feminine and masculine pronouns.



Reworded using one of these neologisms, the phrase would look like this:


The journalists understood what zie wanted to achieve when they asked hir hirs stance on the issue.


This is way clearer. Sure, one has to be acquainted with the use of “zie”, “hir”, and “hirs” to easily understand it, but its meaning is nevertheless unambiguous. Notwithstanding these alternatives, the singular “they” lingers as the most widespread choice among cisgender people who opt for a gender-neutral alternative pronoun. Similarly, while some non-binary people prefer a neologism that clearly carries a specification of their identity in language, many opt for the “simple” singular “they”. Other anti-cis-sexist practices include switching between all the presented alternatives based on the situation (e.g. using “zie” in queer circles where its sense is clear and singular “they” when talking to people less accustomed to the debate, to ease communication).


Overall, the English-speaking landscape is characterized both by waves of recognition and creativity. There is widespread recognition of the neutralization of nouns that accommodate some strands of feminists and serve non-binary people’s representations in language as well. Regarding pronouns, while the singular “they” has nowadays gained formal recognition and is being increasingly used, more creative suggestions (i.e. neopronouns) are mostly relegated to queer circles and only time will tell whether these trends will change.


Personally, I find that the English language provides quite some freedom to express non-binarity, and the formal recognition of the singular “they” certainly doesn’t hurt since it makes one’s life easier by automatically shutting down any person that has an “it is ungrammatical” argument loaded. However, the recognition of one non-binary pronoun makes it more difficult to use any other alternative since one is expected to adjust to the norm, especially if “the norm was already changed to accommodate them”. Nonetheless, non-binarity is about the disruption of gender roles. Therefore, one shouldn’t be surprised if linguistic norms are themselves disrupted in the process of non-binary identities’ linguistic expression.


What has been your experience with non-binary innovations in English? And do you have any insights into how this is being handled in other English-speaking parts of the world?


Which languages would you like us to explore next? Let us know through a comment or send us a message!


P.S. I am always up for a chat about this topic and extremely curious to explore how different language communities are discussing (or not discussing) the possibility of non-binary language. So if you’d like us to write an article about your language, let me know if you’re up for a coffee or tea to give me some insights. If you’re also interested in writing, we can produce a four-handed post or you could even write your own piece.



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