Respecting Pronouns Includes Artificial Ones
There are more gender-neutral pronouns than singular they
There’s no doubt that right now singular they is having a bit of a moment in pop culture, especially in queer and feminist circles. Despite being subject to debate as to whether the pronoun they can be singular alongside plural, there’s no doubt that the pronoun’s long history as a singular pronoun and increasing acceptance by dictionaries like Merriam-Webster and style guides like the APA mean that the pronoun is here to stay.
But despite this, coined pronouns (referred to as neopronouns in queer spaces) have been slow to gain the same widespread acceptance as their older sibling they. To some extent, this is completely understandable, as linguists typically analyze pronouns in the English language to be a closed class (meaning that new words are rarely if ever added, as opposed to open classes, where words are frequently added.) Because new pronouns struggle to enter widespread use in English, it’s not unsurprising, nor the fault of anyone, that pronouns like ze and thon are hardly used, if at all.
But a word being uncommon does not mean it’s unimportant. The average person seldom uses words like misogyny and patriarchy in daily language, but for feminist theorists and activists, these words are an essential part of articulating coherent ideas and criticisms about society. Neopronouns are no different. The average person hardly, if ever, uses xe/xem/xyr pronouns in their life, but to people who go by these pronouns, they’re not only an essential reflection of their gender identity but also an indication of how they wish for the people around them to perceive them.
Several criticisms float around the usage of neopronouns, both from people inside and outside of trans activism and discussion. I’ll be breaking down some of these arguments and responding to them, but I insist on making clear that at the end of the day, whether you understand someone’s pronouns or not, you should still refer to them by those pronouns because not understanding is not an excuse for misgendering people.
1. “These pronouns are completely made up”
There’s no denying that neopronouns are artificially created. Most gender-neutral pronouns besides they are neologisms (meaning words which have been coined or invented recently.) But that doesn’t inherently mean neopronouns are less valid than natural pronouns like she/her and they/them.
Neologisms are not limited to pronouns; invented words persist in all forms of speech, especially in academic and professional fields. The words transfeminism, cyberspace, internet, vegan, and homosexual did not pop out of the ground, nor did they fall from the sky. People invented these words to fill a gap in language so they could describe concepts that lacked a preëxisting term.
Most people are not hesitant to adopt invented words into their vocabulary, especially in the era of the internet where colloquial speech is changing at the speed of light. It makes no sense to easily adopt new and revived coinages like trolling, stan, zoomer, WAP, simp, and incel but draw the line at invented pronouns. The line is drawn at neopronouns, not for any genuine concern for the preservation of the English language, but rather to misgender and alienate transgender and nonbinary people.
The invention of words is an essential part of the growth and evolution of language, and by digging in our heels and refusing to use these invented pronouns, we not only deny transgender and nonbinary people the right to be referred to in a way that is in agreement with how they understand themselves, but we also stand on the wrong side of linguistic history. New words are going to be invented whether we like it or not, they always have been and they always will be. Instead of attempting prescriptivism, we should be welcoming these new pronouns as an essential part of the growth of language.
2. “These pronouns are just a trend”
Neopronouns have certainly become more popular in the past few decades, especially recently when their popularity in (mostly young) queer spaces has exploded.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean neopronouns are a trend that will die off in a few years. For one thing, neopronouns are much older than one might think. The pronoun thon was coined in 1858 by Charles Crozat Converse as a shortening of that one and was even included in the Merriam Webster Dictionary before being removed due to a lack of usage. The pronoun ae was used by David Lindsay first in 1920 in his novel A Voyage to Arcturus. Invented pronouns aren’t an inherently new concept.
Whatsmore, neopronouns have been used by queer activists for decades, and many prominent figures in LGBTQ+ history have used neopronouns, including Leslie Feinberg, who’s quoted as saying:
I like the gender neutral pronoun “ze/hir” because it makes it impossible to hold on to gender/sex/sexuality assumptions about a person you’re about to meet or you’ve just met.
But even if neopronouns were a recent invention that had only appeared recently, that would not negate their validity, as we’ve already discussed how neologisms are inextricably tied to the growth of language.
The fact that the pronouns ze/zir were (reportedly) first used in 2013 does not make them any less real than the pronouns they/them or he/his. We define words not by their age, but by their usage in a linguistic community, and if ze/zir is used by a linguistic community (for example on trans Twitter or Tumblr) to refer to people who fall outside the gender binary, then for all intents and purposes ze/zir are valid pronouns just like singular they and others.
3. “These pronouns are clunky and difficult to use.”
There’s no point in trying to say that that incorporating a new word into your daily speech, especially ones that are essential for talking about people in the 3rd person the way pronouns are, isn’t going to be difficult. It does take time to get used to calling your friend ze/hir instead of she/her, and that’s not a fact worth challenging. Sometimes learning new pronouns can feel like learning a completely new way of speaking, especially when it comes to nounself pronouns (pronouns coined after nouns, such as bun/buns/bunself.)
But difficulty does not mean impossibility, and even when you struggle to grasp someone’s pronouns, as you inevitably will, know that the challenge is worth it, because respecting someone’s pronouns means respecting their identity. When one changes their legal name, we begin to call them by that name even when difficult, because we understand that their chosen name is part of themself. Pronouns are no different.
The same way referring to a binary trans woman with she/her pronouns is equivalent to respecting her gender identity, referring to someone by zae/zaer pronouns is not just respecting zaer wishes about pronouns, it’s respecting zaer gender identity and how zae views zaerself.
Sometimes using people’s pronouns does feel clunky, unnatural, or uncomfortable, but we can’t chose to ignore someone’s pronouns simply because we find them difficult to use, because doing so is in effect saying to that person that “my convenience takes precedent over your identity.”
At the end of the day, respecting people’s pronouns does not stop at the three most common ones (he, she, and they.) Pronouns do not need to be several centuries old and derived from Proto-Germanic roots to be used to refer to people. Using someone’s preferred pronouns is an essential part of treating transgender and nonbinary individuals with the same amount of respect and kindness that anyone else deserves, and the refusal to do so is not a linguistic preference, but a denial of one’s identity.