November 17, 2009

This Is What Happens When You Switch Your Major From Engineering To Linguistics…

I have recently decided to change my major from Biomedical engineering to a double major in Linguistics and Neuroscience. Excited to actually study something that I find enjoyable, I have been spending every minute of my day procrastinating by trying to memorize what Wikipedia has to say about linguistics and neuroscience. Also I have been reading and have finished In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language by Arika Okrent. An astoundingly interesting book and a must read for anyone with a slight flair for language. My further meanderings into procrastination led me to attend UNC Chapel Hill’s LGBT student group’s meeting last Thursday where the topic was Trans 101 (I have to express my dearest apologies for I have forgotten the presenters surname, first name is Mandy). After which I felt that using gendered pronouns was now akin to hate crimes.

Yet instead of being inspired to fight for and rally for LGBT equality with civil disobedient vigor, I couldn’t help wondering that explicitly asking if one preferred male or female pronouns was a bit long-winded. Then a small voice inside my head uttered "the neuter case!" (which is common in the other Germanic languages). We would simply need to turn back the clock to old English where there was a plethora of pronouns. So just as we might say the gendered 'he' or 'her' we would say neutered 'hit.' We could even introduce different new and artificial pronouns for gender identity and expression; as well as transitions and intersexes and so on. There by mapping the English language to the current need for equality and representation.

Though ultimately this would not bring about equality though language, like Ludwik Łazarz Zamenhof hoped to do with his Esperanto, but it would make the tool that is language more, in a way, ergonomic. Yet such an overhaul is simply a flight of fancy; I do not expect nor actively entertain the idea that grammarians could be the new LGBT activists though I will certainly be a linguist of the movement. So now I leave you dear reader to write your next rally speech in old English.


  1. I like the way it is in Turkish - there's only one word for the 2nd personal pronoun (almost like reducing he/she/it to "it").

  2. I don't agree with gender neutral language when we're referring to specific individuals. I am not an it, nor a he/she nor any other sort of neuter.

    I'm a man and as such I'd prefer to be referred to with masculine pronouns. I think that asking people whether they prefer male or female pronouns is an important (and small) courtesy--how long-winded it is is not really a relevant concern.

    Yay for linguistics and grammar. I love them too. I'm just not sure a gender-neutral pronoun is a legitimate, or even a sensitive way to handle it.

  3. I agree with the previous poster here - I'm not entirely sure that gender-neutral language deserves to be one of the top priorities in the LGBT community's agenda. I think that any member of this community would much rather be referred to as "he" or "she" than "FAG" - I just think that we have bigger issues at hand.

  4. Uh, anonymous, gender-neutral language may not be important to LGBs but it's sure as hell important to Ts and Qs (where by Q I mean those who identify as genderQueer). A societal insistence on announcing one's gender in nearly every sentence of every interaction endangers trans people (by potentially forcing them to out themselves in dangerous situations- there's a great post on the topic here) and totally erases those who identify outside the gender binary.

    Also, among certain circles, several gender-neutral words are in common use. I see zie and hir every day, as well as others that I honestly don't notice any more. I personally think we're going to have more success with "they," in a few generations anyway.

    Gender-neutral is different from neuter. Neuter suggests a lack of gender, which few people identify with. Gender-neutral declines to pass comment on gender. When we change "each student must enroll in his classes by Thursday" so that it instead says "students must enroll in their classes," we're not suggesting that the students don't have genders. We just make no assumption as to what those genders may be. Which I think is a worthwhile goal.

  5. The fuck is genderQueer?

    In all seriousness though, please explain to me what this means.

  6. I'm just somewhat hoping we steer away from "their." It makes for a lot of ambiguity regarding singular versus plural in writing and tends to cause problems :-/.

  7. It seems to me that, if I were a trans person, I wouldn't want to be identified as "zie" or "hir" or anything else that might suggest that I were anything except the gender that I identified with. If I were a male-to-female trans person, I would want to be identified as "SHE." I personally think that anything else would be offensive.

    ...and in the case of an emergency (I'm referring to the article here), I don't think that "gender-neutral" language would help the situation at all. How does one remedy this situation? By insisting that the doctor call you "zie?" I feel that you're outing yourself even more that way.

    ...and I don't see anything wrong with using "his/her." Isn't that grammatically correct anyway, as opposed to they?

  8. I'm still a fan of gender-neutral pronouns, but I think English is lacking in that way. You don't call someone an "it" in Turkish as was my example - you just don't give a shit about someone's gender is my point. And I think that's the way it should be. What does it matter which gender you do or don't identify with? We are all humans and should be referred to in such manner.

  9. I am genderqueer. I do not and have never felt a part of the male gender. It's a strange feeling when you suddenly realize you are lumped into an identity category that you do not ascribe to solely because of your genitalia due to someone calling you "he." Nor, however, do I feel completely comfortable identifying with a female gender. I personally prefer that both male and female pronouns be used when addressing me. I do agree that in a perfect world, we would not have gendered pronouns and would simply use a gender-neutral pronoun. My gender identity is outside of the gender binary and for such reasons, I don't care if the pronouns used to describe me are outside of the standard "he/she."

    Furthermore, while I understand that the LGBT community has many issues that it needs to tackle, there is no need to create a hierachy of them and all issues should be seen as equally important. While calling someone a "fag" is horribly offensive and hate-speech should be a target of the movement, by saying that that is more offensive than calling someone by a pronoun that they don't ascribe to, you are placing more value on one's lived experiences than someone else's. This is frankly offensive. Personally, I am much more offended when people equate aspects of being with the male gender than when someone calls me a fag. As a movement, we need to work to include all people in every way possible. The issues of a few are the issues of all.

  10. While at the Equality North Carolina Conference this past Saturday in Greensboro, it was common to hear several individuals who found labels problematic. Many transpeople who I have met prefer either male or female pronouns, and it is a mark of courtesy and understanding by going by which pronouns they prefer.

    It's important to listen, ask questions if you feel it is necessary, but when it comes down to it, neutral pronouns aren't going to apply to everyone, and especially not just to any and all transpeople. It's a case by case basis and we should all strive to learn more about the specific trans issues through workshops, panels, and other information sessions. I think Patrick brings up an interesting point of discussion, but it is also important to be flexible and sympathetic on a case by case basis.

  11. Jack-

    So, what is the best way to refer to you in the third person as a genderQueer? Like if I wanted to be like "Jack attends Duke University. _______ majors in English," what would I write in the blank? Also, is it fair to be upset with people referring to you as a he (unless you have previously declared your preference for being called something else)? How do people know that you do not identify as a member of the male gender? If anything, this should be a compliment, as men are generally smarter, more rational, and better at sports than women. Also, how do you act as someone who does not feel completely a part of the male gender? Do you dress like a woman, or rather, how society would expect a women should dress? Do you romantically pursue men or women? Also, have you considered changing your name to something gender-neutral? "Jack" is kind of misleading.

    -"Curious, but not bi-curious"

  12. "If anything, this should be a compliment, as men are generally smarter, more rational, and better at sports than women."

    Hey there now. Wow. That is so offensive.

  13. Bengisu-

    Please tell me which part of my claim is incorrect.

    1. "Men are generally smarter..."

    Who invented the atomic bomb? Men. The wheel? Men. Porn? Men. Playstation? Men. Who invented original sin? A WOMAN.

    2. "...more rational..."

    Have you ever met a woman in real life? They're always going around all "It's just like...I wanna hook up with him...but like...I don't wanna hook up with know?" and watching America's Next Top Model and shit when there is football on. And all those feelings!

    3. "...better at sports than women."

    Seriously. You ever watch the WNBA? There are a lot of things I would like to watch girls blow. Unfortunately "30 lay-ups a game" is not one of them.

    Men also have better senses of humor.

    -"Curious but not bi-curious"

  14. ITT: People making an issue out of a non-issue and one poster providing the mocking response they deserve.
    In the words of the philosopher Immortal Technique: "If you can take a fucking dick, you can take a joke."

  15. I'm disappointed that someone would turn any such discussion into a forum for mocking.

    but aside from that, I'm really glad that this topic is being talked about. And thanks to Jack too for being so willing to educate people.