Saturday, January 17, 2015

Gaps in Gender-Neutral Language - and my sib epiphany

One of the ways I've benefited immensely from Feminism, despite not being a woman, is in the expansion, defense and normalization of gender-neutral language. English has always had a fair bit of gender-neutral language (including singular they), but gender-neutral language was nonetheless expanded quite a bit by Feminists in the 70s and 80s. These days I can easily be a spouse, a child, a parent, a person, a poet, a cook, a volunteer, a lifter, a runner, a queer, a geek, a gamer, a hipster, etc. I can use gender-neutral language in formal contexts and in slangy ones, and it often doesn't even sound very marked. I've been told by others that English is MUCH better about having and using gender-neutral language than many other languages, including Russian and French, and not just because we have almost no grammatical gender, but even in intentionally neutral words like parent or child, that most languages have, but that we have more of and actually use more often in unmarked ways.

The original rationales and defenses of gender-neutral language in English had nothing to do with non-binary people like me. Chaucer uses it when he doesn't know, or doesn't want to reveal yet, the gender of a person he is talking about. The Feminists of the seventies, argued that using gender-neutral language helps to diminish the power of gender bias within our language, by ceasing to use male terms as prototypical terms for both males and females, and ceasing to emphasize differences between male and female jobs, where they shouldn't be the focus. None of these rationales for gender-neutral language in English even envisions gender-neutral folks like me (unlike say Sanskrit, where the question of how to talk politely about neither-men-nor-women is definately part of the grammar).

With two exceptions, I try hard to use gender-neutral language about myself, and prefer when others use it about me. It feels better, not sure how to explain it, but it does make things more comfortable for me. And by and large, English is pretty good about making it possible for me to talk about myself in gender-neutral ways. But there are gaps and problems and I want to talk about those. (Oh my two exceptions, I've described my job as “housewife” from before I even came out to myself, and why I still prefer that to house-spouse, or stay-at-home-parent, etc. is a topic for another post. Also I made a deal with my kids that they could call me “dad” as long as they wanted to, although I hope the day will come when they don't want to any more. I usually call myself a parent instead of a dad, but not always.)

A new piece of language usually goes through three rough phases while being introduced - coining, gaining prevalence, and becoming unmarked. In coining, the term enters the language but might not be widely enough known for people to recognize the term without having to look it up. As it becomes more prevalent, it is usually championed, or someone or organization tries to promote or at least defend the word or phrase, but often it still seems unusual or marked, or most naturally at home in a particular context. As it becomes more common still, it loses lots of its marking starts just seeming like a regular term or phrase. For example, I'm old enough to remember the word “website” going through this process. In the early 90s the “world wide web” was a new thing, and largely a metaphor, but it very quickly became “the web” as a metaphor and short form, and “website” was coined from that, but it was all technical talk. By 1994, most people had never heard the term and there were only a few websites actually up yet. By the mid to late 90s most people had heard the word, and didn't have to look it up or anything, but it still sounded like a technical term. Today, it is used so commonly that it just seems like a normal word. When I was young, “mailman” was the normal term. I heard “postal carrier” still fairly young but it sounded odd, marked, formal and stilted. Gradually “postal carrier” or “mail carrier” became more normal, even “mailperson.” Today “mailman” sounds odd to my ears, and “mailperson” or “mail carrier” sounds very normal.

Even on the front of being polite to non-binary types, English is making progress. The Doctor of Dr. Who often says “ladies, gentlemen, and variations thereupon.” Data in Star Trek says “ladies, gentlemen, and invited transgendered species.” In MASH Hawkeye said “Ladies, Gentlemen, and anyone in-between ...” Often this is played as a joke, but increasingly it is not, or is only barely. The idea of expanding the phrase “Ladies and Gentlemen” has definitely been coined, but it is still in the promulgation stage, becoming slowly more prevalent. Similarly, the pronouns I use for myself are ze and hir, which are sorta borrowed from Germanic languages. They have been pretty prevalent among genderqueers on the internet for a decade or two now, but are rarely known by the population at large, and certainly sound highly marked when they are used. Singular they is a very old usage, its been common since Chaucer. At one point in the past it was very normal and unmarked. In the 1800s people argued that you ought to use “he” rather than "they" any time singular they was tempting. That became the norm, until recently the tide has begun shifting the other way again, as people argue that generic he is pretty deeply problematic. So singular they is an extremely prevalent gender-neutral usage, but I don't think it codes as entirely normal or unmarked yet, the way that “firefighter” or “police officer” do.

So there are lots of reasons to want gender-neutral language, and my desire not to be misgendered accidentally, or to have polite ways to talk about people who are neither-male-nor-female is not really the main driver. But there are holes or gaps where gender-neutral language hasn't been coined or taken hold that are extremely annoying to me and other genderqueers, even though on the whole English is pretty decent.

My brother calls me his sibling, and my parents call me their child, my cousins call me cousin, no problem. Facebook uses “sibling-in-law” to refer to my relation to my brother's wife, odd, marked but ok. But I have no term to suggest for my aunt to call me, or, more importantly, for my nieces. I saw “nepling” as the joking gender-neutral of niece/nephew once, but have never heard a good non-joking solution. Facebook uses “child of sibling” which seems pretty awful to me. Similarly, there is no good uncle/aunt neutral form. My understanding is that some dialects use “auntie” a little more broadly than “aunt” especially for gender-dodgy folks. I've seen the form “auntcle,” but it seemed pretty jokey. Facebook's “sibling of parent” is awful. I see my nieces pretty often, and I know they love me, but struggle with my gender issues, and are young enough that it shouldn't really be their job forge hard compromises in identity and relation, but I have no good answer for what they should call me now. Sigh. Any suggestions from anyone out there on the nephew/niece or aunt/uncle problem or how they solve it?

Far more frustrating for me personally is the lack of a good gender-neutral for sir/ma'am or for Mr./Mrs. It rarely bothers me much when someone calls me Brian rather than BP, or he rather than ze, but sir and Mr. always bother me a lot. To make it worse, many people feel obligated to use sir/ma'am, or Mr./Mrs. as part of being polite, or worse are required to by their job. So people who don't know me are always using these terms at me in ways that feel like attacks, and total dis-validations and dismissals. I know that isn't usually the other person's intent, but that is how it is received. They are trying to be polite and failing, because English is not making being polite to me easy or natural in this case. Worse, I don't have any easy corrections. If someone calls me Brian, I can gently say “actually I go by BP these days.” If someone calls me “sir” usually my face just falls, and I have no good quick response. If I'm feeling very gentle or contrariwise upset enough I sometimes say “actually it's not sir anymore” or “not sir please” or “sir? Really? Sir?!!” If someone gets as far as “what should I say instead?” I have to say "well, if you aren't comfortable with ma'am or doctor, you should just leave out the honorific."  But most people don't know I'm entitled to “doctor” certainly not people I've never met, ma'am is problematic too, and sometimes they aren't allowed to leave out the honorifics. Wise waitresses and service folk, often look at me, size me up, and say “need a refill, hon?” Pseudo-honorifics like sugar or hon, work pretty well for me, but I know genderqueers that don't welcome those either. English needs and doesn't have a gender-neutral form for sir/ma'am. I've seen science fiction writers use “ser” this way, but it doesn't work in spoken practice, it just slides into sir. Similarly, coining Ms. and getting it to stick and become unmarked, was one of the real successes of the 20th century Feminist language reform project.  But we need and don't have a good gender-neutral between Mr. and Ms. (and miss and mrs.).  I personally am entitled to Dr. and can often correct people to "actually it's Dr. Morton," but that isn't a good solution for most non-binary folks.  I've seen an attempt to use Mx. in Britain as a gender-neutral between Mr. and Ms. but it definitely hasn't caught on much. I don't really have a good solution, for either sir/ma'am, or Mr./Ms. does anyone else?  How do you deal with this?

I was talking the other day with another genderqueer (who takes they/them) about the other big noticeable gap in gender-neutral language in English, the lack of any good generic affectionate term. Say “hey ____, whatcha been up to?” you can fill in “dude” “bro” “fella” “mate” “lady” “lassie” “girl” (even for a woman), “sister” and probably several more, and be appropriately polite, friendly, and affectionate. But what do you say to a non-binary person? “Hey, person, whatcha been up to?” Ouch. There are lots of other ways that we use terms like dude and lady as well, that you just can't find good neutral equivalents. If the person is enough younger than you, “kid” isn't too bad, although it can come across as dismissive if you aren't careful. “Homie” as a neutral for homeboy/homegirl is also possible in some dialects, but doesn't work for me. I'm no one's homie. The genderqueer I was talking with ran in enough leftist circles that “comrade” often sorta worked for them (and the Russian tovareesh and chelovek aren't too bad, one of the few cases where Russian has better gender-neutrals than English). But by and large this is a gap.

Here, however, I have a concrete suggestion. It came to me last night. Sib – as a mildly affectionate short-form for sibling, in the same way that bro or sis work. Hey, sib, whatcha been up to? So I know this sib, who organizes on Facebook for genderqueer minors that are being harassed by the foster care system. Wow, that sib, is smokin' hot! etc. … Think of “sib” as a gender-neutral substitute for dude or lady or bro. The word sib, isn't already in use, it doesn't sound too much like other common English words, and hopefully its shortening of the familiar word sibling will make it fairly accessible. Maybe there will be a problem with it I don't see, but let's give it a try for a while and see how it works, OK?

So those are my gripes. Are there other places where you folks get frustrated with lacks of good gender-neutral terms or phrases in English?

1 comment:

  1. I'm male, but came across your post because I was trying to discover the appropriate gender-neutral equivalent to "sir/ma'am." Not finding one, I propose "per," for "person." I understand that it has been proposed as a gender-neutral pronoun, but I think it sounds good as an honorific. I think Mx. is good as a title; it's consistent with the existing ones, and the X sort of symbolizes a break with traditional gender concepts.

    I see nothing wrong with "nepling," but if it strikes you as too joke-y, perhaps "nieph" or "nipote." The former is an amalgamation of "niece" and "nephew," while the latter is the Italian word that actually means both niece and nephew. (In Italian, it ends with a long vowel and has three syllables; I'd propose making it a silent e and pronouncing it with two syllables.) And to replace "aunt" or "uncle," I rather like "auncle" (The "t" seems too difficult to pronounce, like a syllable unto itself.). But if you think it should be more different from the other words, perhaps "oncula," derived from the French "oncle" (uncle), or "avuncle," derived from the English word "avuncular," meaning "of, relating to, or characteristic of an uncle." Or maybe just "ave," pronounced with two syllables as in "ave Maria."