Society for Linguistic Anthropology
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
The contemporary nonbinary "they" innovation, which claims that English third person pronouns are subject to self-selection just like sex/gender categories, courtesy titles, and personal (nick)names, has received considerable media coverage of late. But, although this reform resembles other cross-cultural and historical examples of change in pronominal forms (e.g., Brown and Gilman 1960), it has not received much critical attention. In this presentation, I compare and contrast nonbinary "they" to two earlier pronoun innovations: Quaker "thee" of the 17th century and feminist "s/he" of the mid 20th. Focusing on arguments and text-artifacts put forward by proponents of nonbinary "they," I argue that the current folk metapragmatic discourse draws on what Silverstein (2003:221) has called “an ideology and pedagogy of standardization.” We see this metapragmatic discourse expressed in: (a) pronoun charts, displaying the correct case inflections of third person pronouns; (b) claims that nonbinary "they" is grammatically equivalent to indefinite "they;" (c) the deployment of a specialized lexicon requiring extensive metasemantic glossing; and (d) the articulation of an ethnometapragmatics of “respect,” and “inclusion” (e.g., in advice and commentary on how to perform “pronoun sharing” and to correct “misgenderings”). However by framing the nonbinary (or “bespoke”) "they" in these prescriptive ways, this discourse downplays significant vernacular linguistic and cultural obstacles to the acceptance of this reform in the wider speech community, thereby further dividing an American public already divided over the norms of valued public registers of communication.