Language is one of the most crucial elements building our perception.
We need tools to describe the world around us. That is why language is one of our lives’ most dynamically changing aspects. New words emerge each year in order to live up to constantly emerging innovations. Gender and sexual identification definitely impact the language we use the most. Not only do we have a wide variety of names for different sexual identities, but new pronouns also change the way we use language. How are the pronouns changing? How do we use them? And most importantly, are neopronouns an answer to the ever-changing world?
How did pronouns evolve into neopronouns?
To have a good understanding of pronouns, we should first understand how do we use “regular” pronouns. Well, technically speaking, they are a group of words that can replace a direct noun, for example: “Ann is smart” can turn into “she is smart”. We all learn about them in school and we all use them on an everyday basis, but the true question is: why have they become such a social discussion nowadays?
If we look at pronouns from a grammatical perspective, there is nothing to talk about—just a part of grammar as a verb, noun, or adjective. However, if we take a deeper insight, we can learn that pronouns help us define our gender identity. Most commonly, we use normative pronouns like: he/him, she/her but also gender-neutral ones like they/them. English users seem to be a bit “privileged” as they can easily use gender-neutral pronouns. In other languages, predominantly European, every noun has a gender so it is almost impossible to create a neutral pronoun. Mainly because of that, non-binary people struggle to find an appropriate form for them. All these struggles resulted in a quite recent language innovation: neopronouns. They were also surely influenced by the growing gender and sexual social discourse. Many societies become more tolerant and leave some space for non-normative people to create their own way of. Neopronouns are good for those, who don’t find an appropriate option within other, gender-related pronouns. It seems natural that if we can’t find a proper word for something we want to name, we simply create a new way of doing so.
Neopronouns are definitely a recent phenomenon when it comes to the scale it is being used in. According to a survey from 2020, 4% of LGBTQ+ people use neopronouns to describe their gender identity. However, the history of neopronouns is quite long. The first record of changing traditional pronouns took place at the end of the XVIII century. Back then the new form was “ou”—the first pronoun departed from traditional, grammatical ones. The big break though was adding “ze” to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary in 1934. Unfortunately, it was removed shortly after because of the massive economical, political and social changes. It was not until 2019 when gender-neutral forms (“ze”, “hir”, “zir”) were introduced in The Oxford Dictionary, marking its importance once and for all.
What exactly are neopronouns?
Listing each example of a neopronoun is nearly impossible as it can be almost everything one wants to be called. Quite often they are a kind of variation of already existing pronouns, for example: they/them → zey/zem or xe/xem. Neopronouns are mostly short and easy to remember (thanks to their resemblance to traditional pronouns). There aren’t many official publications on neopronouns so we can learn the most from people using them or talking about them on social media.
One of the most popular influencers covering this topic is @lesbiansnowwhite, who introduces as The Pronoun Gal. They talk about different neopronouns, from zey/zem to Candy/Candys. Not only do they popularize using them, but also cover practical use in sentences. Their work on the Internet shows that we aren’t quite ready for such a diversity of pronouns. Most people make sarcastic or hateful comments on her videos. However, it’s worth mentioning that most of the neopronous they talk about aren’t widely used by many people.
Even if we don’t understand the idea of neopronouns, it seems great that we are getting gradually accustomed to them. One of the most interesting aspects of neopronouns is that they can be further divided into two categories: neopronouns and noun-self pronouns. The latter relates more to the specific person using them (interests, identification and more). They don’t relate to standard pronouns so they can be easily mistaken for a name or a nickname. What’s more, they are almost impossible to define as they can be literally everything.
The criticism behind neopronouns
We all know that gender discourse can evoke many controversies. Quite a lot of societies still boycott any non-cisgender narrations. Of course, very often it’s a matter of the lack of understating and proper explanation of all the changes that are around us. It seems obvious that it may take much longer for those brought up in conservative surroundings to accept gender innovations. For more conservative groups such innovations can create problems.
Neopronouns and noun-self pronouns are a huge lexical innovation and it’ll take a lot of time till we get used to them as they require the willingness to accept them. It may also require more time to remember specific neopronouns and appropriate knowledge to use them in everyday sentences. For many, they may seem like an unnecessary whim or an identity crisis done for show. It can also create problems for some when it comes to meeting new people because asking about pronouns still isn’t a standard we are used to.
According to an article from The New York Times, some people even use emojis as neopronouns, which seems like a natural shift from lexical culture to a pictorial one. The neopronoun community itself also has its limits when it comes to choosing their new pronoun—for example, pronouns connected with the BLM movement are widely condemned. Moreover, not everyone identifying with the LGBTQ+ community is an advocate of using neopronouns. Some people vocalize their opposition on social media platforms. We can read some examples in the article from The New York Times,“As a trans man, I think neopronouns are getting way out of hand, I couldn’t stomach why anyone would want to identify as an object”.
We know some theory now but it’s worth looking at this aspect more practically. I had a chance to ask some questions to my colleague Lucy from the UK who uses neopronouns (xe/xem) on a daily basis.
Nina: What neopronouns do you use?
Lucy: Well, when I found out I was non-binary, I started using they/them. But, after a year or so, I realized that it doesn’t really fit me. I did my research and decided to try xe/xem. Now, it’s 2 years later and I can say with confidence that I feel they are the best for me.
N: But they/them pronouns are gender-neutral, so why didn’t you want to stick with that?
L: I don’t have one answer for this question. Maybe because I wanted something less normative, maybe I felt restricted by the “grammatically correct” pronoun. You know, I was 19 when I started using xe/xem and it was the time of my biggest rebellion towards everything. I think it played a great role in this.
N: Do you think you may change them in the future?
L: I have no idea, to be honest. For me, the choice of pronouns reflects my identity, and who I’m at a specific moment. And, from my experience, it can change quite a lot in a short time so I’m not afraid of that. Maybe if we talked in two years, I’d tell you something different, who knows (laughter).
N: Are people you meet open to your pronouns or are they more sceptical about it?
L: It depends. To be honest, I don’t get offended if someone forgets my pronouns or mispronounces them. When someone meets me for the first time, they usually use she/her pronoun because I look like a woman so it’s the first thing that comes to their minds. I typically correct them if I want to keep in touch with them but if it’s someone on the street, I don’t. Of course, I don’t like it if someone keeps using the wrong pronoun even though I corrected them. For example, I work in a café in London and on our name tags everyone has their pronoun so I guess it’s just rude if people ignore it.
N: Why do you think so many people still have problems with using “untraditional” pronouns?
L: Hard to tell. I think that it’s such a new thing that it’ll take time for people to get used to it. But you know, not having enough knowledge, and not understanding neopronouns is one thing, but hate and offensive comments are something completely different.
N: Have you ever heard any offensive comments about you using a neopronoun?
L: Of course, but not that often. I hang out with like-minded people, so they don’t have problems with that. But on some occasions, I can hear someone saying: “It’s just bullshit, you want to be special…”. Such comments don’t really hurt me because as a non-binary person, unfortunately, I’m quite used to that.
N: What do you wish people knew about neopronouns?
L: I guess, the most important thing is that it’s a private matter. Why do you care if someone wants to be called she/her or zey/zem? It doesn’t change their character or interests so it doesn’t really affect other people. Let everyone live their lives and the world would be a better place!
Nina Baranowska | @youshouldsexitpl