by Daria Haner
When students discuss neopronouns, they express some common thoughts: “You can’t just make up a new gender” or “People are just saying their gender is ‘bacteria’ or ‘cloud’, how does that make any sense?” So, what are neopronouns, what do they have to do with gender identity, and how can allies respect them?
The New York Times defines neopronouns as “A word created to serve as pronoun without expressing gender, like ‘ze’ and ‘zir.’ A neopronoun can also be a so-called ‘noun-self pronoun,’ in which a pre-existing word is drafted into use as a pronoun. Noun-self pronouns can refer to animals — so your pronouns can be ‘bun/bunself’ and ‘kitten/kittenself’’ ” (Marcus). Neopronouns as defined today were recorded as early as the 1850s, with “ne/nis/nir” being used in The New-York Commercial Advertiser (McGaughey). Other examples of non-they/them gender neutral pronouns include “thon,” “ne,” “er,” “ip,” and “ve,” all dating from the 19th century (Baron, “Nonbinary Pronouns Are Older than You Think”).
The first record of noun-self pronouns occurs in 2013 on the blogging/social media site Tumblr (Miltersen). These pronouns are often used by those whose gender identity closely aligns with concepts such as nature, animals, or fantasy worlds. Although mostly used by the transgender and nonbinary communities, people of any gender can identify with and use noun-self pronouns (“Nounself Pronouns”).
So, why are neopronouns so controversial? Two common arguments include 1) neopronouns are not “real words”, and 2) there is “a set number of genders” and therefore there should be only one pronoun set for each of those (Baron, “Countering the Backlash against Nonbinary Pronouns”). The first argument is easily refuted— new words are always added to the English language through widespread use, like the word “contactless” officially added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2020 (“‘Contactless’: A New Way to Shop”), or even arbitrary creation, like the words “downstairs,” “fashionable,” and “bedroom,” all coined by Shakespeare and now common words in English (Shakespeare Birthplace Trust). Language is ever-changing, and should serve the needs of the people using it. As time goes on, language will evolve, and neopronouns are a part of that development. As for the second argument, gender does not exist in a binary or even a trinary, and in fact is best represented as a spectrum or a color wheel rather than a box one can check; even biological sex has more variation than just XY and XX (“Understanding Gender”; Sun). Societies around the world and throughout time have represented gender apart from the modern gender binary (“Interactive Map: Gender-Diverse Cultures”). To hold on to the tradition of finite genders is to invalidate not only lived experience and identity but also cultural heritage.
Using someone’s preferred pronouns, whether they are neopronouns or not, is just like learning to pronounce a name. By mispronouncing it or using a different name because it seems more convenient, you are invalidating their identity and pushing your own assumptions about their identity upon them. Even if you don’t understand neopronouns or other gender-neutral pronouns, not understanding something doesn’t mean that it isn’t valid or it shouldn’t be respected. Some life advice from Malala Yousafzai: “We should all consider each other as human beings, and we should respect each other.”
Marcus, Ezra. “A Guide to Neopronouns.” The New York Times, 8 Apr. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/04/08/style/neopronouns-nonbinary-explainer.html.
McGaughey, Sebastian. “Understanding Neopronouns.” The Gay & Lesbian Review, 28 Feb. 2020, glreview.org/article/understanding-neopronouns/.
Miltersen, Ehm. “Nounself Pronouns: 3 Rd Person Personal Pronouns as Identity Expression.” Journal of Language Works, vol. 1, no. 1, 2016.
“Nounself Pronouns.” LGBTA Wiki, lgbta.wikia.org/wiki/Nounself_Pronouns. Accessed 9 Oct. 2021.
“‘Contactless’: A New Way to Shop.” Www.merriam-Webster.com, www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/meaning-of-contactless. Accessed 9 Oct. 2021.
Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. “Shakespeare’s Words.” Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, www.shakespeare.org.uk/explore-shakespeare/shakespedia/shakespeares-words/.
“Understanding Gender.” Gender Spectrum, 2019, genderspectrum.org/articles/understanding-gender.
Sun, Simón(e) D. “Stop Using Phony Science to Justify Transphobia.” Scientific American Blog Network, 13 June 2019, blogs.scientificamerican.com/voices/stop-using-phony-science-to-justify-transphobia/.
“Interactive Map: Gender-Diverse Cultures.” PBS, 11 Aug. 2015, www.pbs.org/independentlens/content/two-spirits_map-html/.