Whether intentional or not, the way we speak is political.
I’m not talking about saying out loud who we voted for or what we think about health care — I’m talking about something far more basic: how we address other people. Do you default to the casual “guys” or the more old-fashioned “folks”? When speaking with a grown woman, do you ever refer to her as a “girl”? With a queer person, do you ever say “Hey, girl!” in solidarity of your shared love (actual or, worse, assumed) of RuPaul’s Drag Race?
If you answered “yes” to any of those things, you haven’t necessarily done anything wrong; you’ve just wandered into the increasingly concerning world of gendered language in an society that is becoming less and less gendered. Everywhere we look, the very idea of gender is being questioned in fundamental ways: Washington DC is granting nonbinary drivers licenses. The Tube in London is shifting to gender-neutral announcements. Target has recently announced nongendered kids clothing. Vogue confused the meaning of gender fluidity, even if it was in a well-meaning attempt to honor such notions. The good news? This is a problem with very actionable solutions.
Why Is the English Language So Gendered Anyway?
Celeste Mora knows this struggle around language and gender very well. As Grammarly’s head of social media and community, she is constantly fielding questions about dos and don’ts regarding gendered language from those seeking answers to questions they may never have considered before. What are the proper ways to use the singular they? Which gender-neutral words are best to use? Are there more formal neutral pronouns?
The answers aren’t that obvious and, unfortunately, English doesn’t naturally lend itself to nonbinary ways of speaking. “English has a disadvantage,” Mora told POPSUGAR. “We don’t have a lot of gender-neutral options that sound good.”
As Mora explained, this is based in English’s “romantic-language roots,” which makes our shift from binary to nonbinary so difficult compared to other languages. Take Turkish, Hungarian, Finnish, Persian, and more: those languages are relatively genderless.
The limited nature of the English language is exactly where frustrations form for persons who don’t fit into the gender binary of cisgender males or females. C Mandler runs into this frustration frequently as a nonbinary transgender person who uses they/them/their pronouns. “The original way words were used were definitely patriarchal and cis and straight, developed by white men who wanted to create a standard of speaking,” Mandler explained to POPSUGAR. “But the beauty of language is that it does have the capacity to change.”
Mandler, a GLAAD campus ambassador, sees the singular “they” as a perfect fit for their identity as a person who lives “homonormatively.” Moreover, they find a comfort in “they” being an everyday word. “It’s already a commonplace word,” Mandler said. “For all the people who say ‘they/them isn’t singular,’ we use it all the time colloquially.” An example of this is in situations when an unknown person leaves something behind. You would say something to the effect of, “I don’t know who left their stuff. Hopefully they pick it up.”