On Jan. 3, the American Dialect Society held its 30th annual “Word of the Year” vote, which this yr additionally included a vote for “Word of the Decade.”
It was the yr – and the decade – of the pronoun.
In a nod to shifting attitudes about gender identities which can be nonbinary – that means they don’t neatly slot in the class of man or girl – over 200 voters, together with me, chosen “(my) pronouns” as the phrase of the yr and “they” as phrase of the decade.
Pronouns, together with conjunctions and prepositions, are typically thought of a “closed class” – a bunch of phrases whose quantity not often grows and whose meanings not often change.
So when pronouns take heart stage, particularly a brand new use of “they” that expands the closed class, linguists can’t assist however get excited.
Word of the yr votes are lighthearted methods to spotlight the pure evolution of language. Candidates have to be demonstrably new or newly standard throughout the yr in query. Previous American Dialect Society winners have included “dumpster fire” in 2016, “fake news” in 2017 and “tender-age shelter” in 2018.
Because so many phrases enter our collective vocabulary every year, the American Dialect Society additionally votes on subcategories, from “Euphemism of the Year” to “Political Word of the Year.” “People of means” – utilized by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz in February 2019 to seek advice from billionaires – gained the former, and “quid pro quo” gained the latter.
While the American Dialect Society’s annual vote is the longest-running vote, different language publications, from Merriam-Webster to Oxford English Dictionary, additionally announce phrases of the yr. In December, Merriam-Webster introduced that its phrase of the yr was “they.”
It’s uncommon for phrases so simple as pronouns – “I,” “he,” “they” – to get a lot media and cultural consideration. But that’s precisely what’s been occurring over the previous few years, which made them a tempting selection for voters.
This yr’s American Dialect Society Word of the Year, “(my) pronouns,” highlights the pattern of individuals presenting their most well-liked pronouns in electronic mail signatures and on social media accounts – for instance “pronouns: she, her, hers, herself.” People began doing this to assist destigmatize a nonbinary individual’s declaration of their pronouns.
The Word of the Decade, “they,” honors the manner the pronoun has turn out to be a singular pronoun for many individuals who establish as nonbinary.
“They” has really been used as a singular pronoun in English for hundreds of years if the gender of somebody being spoken about isn’t identified, or if that individual’s gender is unimportant to the dialog. For instance, if I began telling you one thing humorous my child stated, you may ask, “What’s their name?” or “How old are they?”
Only lately has “they” turn out to be extensively accepted as a pronoun for nonbinary people for whom the pronouns “he” and “she” could be each inaccurate and inappropriate. It’s not the solely possibility – some nonbinary individuals desire “xe” or “ze.”
A shift that didn’t occur naturally
Though it can drive some pedants mad, language adjustments as tradition adjustments. In English, these adjustments often contain new or repurposed nouns and adjectives, like what occurred with “app.” Originally shorthand for a downloaded pc or smartphone utility, it turned a phrase in and of itself.
But on this case, the social push to respect nonbinary gender identification has prolonged thus far into English that it’s altering pronouns – once more, a category of phrases that not often adjustments – with a brand new, third-person singular gendered pronoun to accompany the longstanding pair of “he” and “she.”
It helps to fill in a linguistic gender hole, similar to how, in some dialects, “y’all” or “yinz” fill in the lack of a definite, plural “you.” But whereas “y’all” appeared slowly after years of unconsciously contracting “you all,” the nonbinary “they” arose rapidly after a acutely aware social motion.
This may clarify why some individuals have tailored to the nonbinary “they” extra simply than others. You most likely know somebody – or are somebody – who has struggled with referring to a person of nonbinary gender as “they.” But what makes it so troublesome? Is it discomfort with what can sound like dangerous grammar? Or does it need to do with our gender biases?
In a latest research, linguist Evan Bradley requested individuals to guage the grammar of sentences with a singular “they” as “correct English” or not. They discovered that singular “they” – in its centuries-old use for an individual of unknown gender – was simpler for individuals to just accept. But the acceptability of nonbinary “they” trusted an individual’s attitudes towards gender roles.
This means that the issue with nonbinary “they” has extra to do with our tradition’s perspective on gender than on the language itself.