Trans-Awareness Week & Linguistics

This week in the University of York, it’s Trans Awareness Week, a week, in term time, dedicated to advocating raising awareness of the trans community and issues relating to it through education. There’s much that we as linguistic experts can do to support the lives of trans students, and the trans community as a whole.

We as linguists are in a position where we are authorities on language – this puts us in a position of power. Trans and Intersex individuals, on the other hand, are often denied  authority of language relating to their own identity and bodies; people’s identity, gender and sex are often treated as invalid unless it matches those assigned at birth. The linguistic view of gender is defined as a learned set of behaviours based upon the culturally and socially constructed forms of identity such as “masculinity” and “femininity,” whereas sex refers to having biological male and/or female sexual characteristics. Judith Butler is at the forefront of current gender theory used in linguistics, her idea of ‘Gender Performativity’ suggests that language and other learned social behaviours are at the centre of what we think of as gender.

For instance, in 1994 Linguist Hans Karlgren in Sweden were able to use their authority to propose the third person singular neopronoun “Hen” Since then it has been codified by government ministers, adopted by The Swedish Academy, and its adoption has gone from a probability of 1:13000 probability of being used to 1:300. Some linguists, such as (the usually awesome) Stephen Pinker, belittle trans linguistic innovation in creating Neopronouns as they belong to a closed word class, which means that the adding of new words is rare and difficult. However, the linguistic rule that necessity is the mother of invention, that language can fill gaps in meaning if there’s enough momentum in language users, seems to hold true in the Swedish variety on Neopronouns.

Indeed, neopronouns exist in English; xe/xir/xirself, ze/zir/zerself, ey/em/emself, ne/ner/nerself, and shi/hir/hirself are all neopronouns formed by the linguistic innovation of non-binary individuals to refer to their gender, some of which are gradually picking momentum. Linguists, such as Anne Curzan, can provide the authority to help raise awareness and support use of neopronouns and the language used by gender non-binary people. We can encourage its legitimacy in the eyes of authorities such as the government, employers, and universities – through supporting campaigns to clarify the government’s legal stance trans people following on from the trans enquiry,  in particular in recognising Non Binary identities in Equality & Discrimination Acts.

The American Dialect Society, in 2015 declared ‘(singular) they’ The Word of The Year. A member of the linguistic organisation said this was because ““In the past year, new expressions of gender identity have generated a deal of discussion, and singular they has become a particularly significant element of that conversation”. Such pronouns have long been in our language, therefore people objecting to their use as third person singular pronouns are essentially just being rude, conservative, and cissexist. Similarly, the study of semantics and pragmatics can show the third person singular “it” almost refers exclusively to non-human objects, and to prescribe these pronouns to gender-neutral people would be de-humanising.

Pronouns are reflections of people’s identities. Erving Goffman called this identity we hold that we present to others ‘face’, the image that we present of ourselves to others (1955). To ignore someone’s gender, their self-identity, in what is called mis-gendering, is a major Face Threatening Act, what might be called oppression or discrimination. For this reason, misgendering is considered a destructive form of social exclusion. To assign and conflate gender and sex in language delegitimises people’s own designation of their gender and bodies.

Many neologisms relating to gender identity have become more precise, and polysemous in meaning; they have developed in small communities, often online. These grassroots neologisms can then gain traction very quickly and become integrated into the lexicon of separate trans communities, and then occasionally become publically aware. Linguists can play a big role in raising awareness and legitimising language relating to trans lives. For instance, lexicographers play a huge role in codifying language and neologisms (new words) in the public’s’ eye . Merriam Webster last week added the words genderqueer, Mx. and Cissexism to their dictionary. This fulfils a lexicographer’s duty, to fill dictionaries with words that reflect and define real usage of language, a small act supporting trans people.

Ansara & Hegarty propose linguists should be more trans-aware in the methodologies of their research, taking care not to conflate the terms “man” “male” “woman” “female”, and to avoid using objectifying biological language – there is no need in linguistic research to refer to sex-exclusive terminology “male”/“female”, when we know that sex has very little effect on language, whereas gender has a large effect on language.

Similarly, imposing biological terminology on trans individuals such as “biological females” or “female-to-male”, is not only inappropriate and transphobic, but also is bad practice for data. Instead, researchers should rely on self-reporting, and not speculate based on ‘clues’ such as names, legal records, and visual based judgements. If using tick boxes, researchers should allow participants to ‘select all that apply’ opposed to ‘select one of the options’, and should never ask for someone’s “gender in the past”. For good practice, include gender coding in methodology. Treat gender as a continuum of masculinity and femininity opposed to a dichotomy.

Linguistic practice can support trans people by raising awareness of how they are are represented and treated, keeping people and organisations in a position of power in check. For example, York St. John linguist Eleanor Read used their expert analysis skills to investigate the representation of trans individuals in the mainstream media, exposing the dichotomy in media where articles either conveyed the utmost respect for preferred pronouns or they treated preferred pronouns with the uttermost cynicism, highlighting both how trans awareness has gained acceptance and negative reaction, and highlighting the potential for future research in this field. There is some progress in research into approaches to trans students in spoken classroom discourse, for example Dr. Helen Sauntson, however further dedicated research is needed. More linguistic research could be done on how non-binary genders are treated in court, for example here is some research into the language of 19 Anti-Transgender Bills, highlighting the conflation of sex and gender and the extremes of transphobic bigotry, also completely erasing the existence of intersex people, and for those complacent, the wording of UK legislation isn’t much better.

From a young age we start to perceive a link between our voice and our identity; studies show that from the age of 3 children start to become socialised into gender enough that people can hear the difference from young boys and girls. Whilst it’s true that males and females do have different vocal ranges, this difference is thought to be highly exaggerated by gender performance. We know this because the difference between voice gender performance varies across cultures – for example Spanish women on average have deeper voices that Spanish men. This link between voice performance and gender identity can be a great source of dysphoria for some trans individuals. Here, linguists can help. We can use empirical evidence and research to encourage best practice when it comes to speech and language therapy. Deborah Cameron notes that much more pressure is put on the voice performance of transitioning women, who are put under much pressure for their voice gender performance to be perceived as feminine, often feeding on problematic outdated misogynistic gender stereotypes opposed to empirical observations of women’s speech. Speech and language therapists should focus on helping trans individuals find a voice that they perceive as their own and portraying their identity, opposed to ‘correcting’ a voice so it matches gender stereotypes.

To become more trans aware and to hear more about trans life and identity please check out the YUSU Trans Awareness Week page and attend their events, for more linguistics Like York Ling Soc on Facebook, and look out for upcoming events.

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