Guest Lecture in Pronouns: Vasundhara
Hello all! I had hoped to get this out in pride month, but it’s falling in wrath month instead; it’s fine, we’re still all totally in our feels this hot nonbinary summer, so we’re good! This is a guest post from Vasundhara Gautam, a computational linguist at Dialpad (moving to Saarland University this fall!), who is my beautiful twitter pal. Xe makes wonderful tweets — you can follow xem here — about linguistics and gender and birds and memes. All the classics! Xyr website is here.
A little bit of background from Kirby before we jump into the post. This is a post about neopronouns, a blanket term used to describe pronouns that are neologisms.
“So, what, like, made-up words?”
- All words are made up. I have a PhD in linguistics so you can freaking quote me on that.
“So like, people can just make up whatever pronouns they want and I have to just use them?”
“But they’re not real English!”
- Real English is a fake idea. If an English speaker said it, it’s part of English. As linguists, Vasundhara and I are both interested in describing language as it is, not prescribing what language “should” be.
“But you told me I have to use xyr pronouns, that’s telling me what to do! That’s prescriptivism!”
- Actually, it’s an etiquette thing. Let me just emphasize, as I have in many previous posts, that it is breathtakingly rude to misgender someone. It’s not a linguistic anomaly, you’re just being an asshole.
“I have a legitimate linguistics question that is not whining/ranting about SJWs oppressing me”
- Let’s hold those questions and further linguistic discussion to the end and/or a follow-up post so we can pay Vasundhara the attention xe deserves!
Links of background reading you might want:
- How to learn someone’s pronouns (101; 102)
- When someone uses multiple pronouns
- Are you allowed to try out new pronouns?
I’m hoping to do some follow-up posts in this series talking about the history of specific neopronouns (like xe, but also other cool ones like fae and thon); while you’re waiting for me to get on that, check out Dennis Baron’s book What’s Your Pronoun, which is a super deep-dive on the history of neopronouning.
Anyways, without further ado, here’s Vasundhara!
Disclaimer 1: This is a complicated thing for me to write because my feelings on this are still in flux and there’s something about the act of putting pen to paper that feels like it’s crystallizing those thoughts. I reserve the right to change my pronouns and the way in which I approach this conversation with people.
Disclaimer 2: It’s also difficult for me to write about this because I’ve always found gender to be a difficult thing to think about and reason about and feel about. Gender is very hard to disentangle from society. It’s not just an internal thing — it’s inextricably intertwined with society, how I express myself to the world, how my performance is perceived. My thoughts on gender and pronouns are deeply connected with thoughts about my body, race, family, culture, and many other things that wouldn’t fit in the disclaimer (or body) of a reasonably-sized Medium post. The delicate dance that strangers do where they size you up and treat you a certain way and assume things about you and pronoun you a certain way is pretty universal. That’s something I could talk to other people about and feel seen and heard. But the way in which I experience gender internally was not always the same as the way I heard other people talk about it, and this part has required a lot of solitary reflection to figure out.
Disclaimer 3: I do not claim to speak for all neopronoun users. This is me putting down some thoughts about my pronouns and my feelings, and I know for a fact that there are people who feel very differently about their own gender and pronouns. All genderfeels are valid and should be respected, so don’t weaponize my post against a different neopronouner whose use doesn’t align with mine!
So what the heck are your pronouns anyway?
My pronouns are xe/xem/xyr/xyrs (pronounced with a z sound and rhymes with he/them/her/hers)! Here are some example sentences to show you how to use this set of pronouns:
- Xe wrote a song about trilobites!
- The only birder I know is xem.
- Is xyr website accessible?
- That tweet about a vampire linguist is xyrs.
Why are those your pronouns?
The short answer is that those are the pronouns that fit me best!
The longer story behind that is that I’ve been having genderfeels for years, and they peaked in the pandemic. My Twitter feed over the last year chronicles a lot of what I questioned about gender — to what extent I felt it, why it had to look or feel a certain way, and how I could experiment with it in ways that I hadn’t before. Part of this involved cycling through a few different sets of pronouns over the last year. I went from she/her to she/they to she/they/xe to she/xe/they to she/xe to xe/she to xe/xem. Yes, I collect pronouns like some people collect shoes!
I spent months with different labels rattling around in my head to suss out what felt best, and after considering options like nonbinary, nonbinary woman, femmeby, genderfluid, etc., I finally settled on agender. Agender is a label that feels like home because it feels not like a gender that I experience that exists outside the binary, but rather the absence of gender altogether. My gender is a no thank you, goodbye, and fuck off.
Xe/xem pronouns felt like they fit well with that. Being xe-d affirmed my experience of gender (or its lack thereof) in a way that being she-d, he-d and they-d did not.
Discovering this was a slow process, of course, because it’s rare to be in situations where you hear yourself being referred to in the third person. I used to try to simulate what it would feel like to be pronouned differently by constructing tweets where I could refer to myself in the third person and use different pronoun sets. One time when I did this in January, my friend Emma replied and they continued to talk about me in the third person with xe/xem pronouns, and I found myself reflecting on that interaction every few days for several months after that. About four months later I finally decided that if a set of pronouns could make me feel like that then maybe that was the set I should use!
Why don’t you just use they/them?
Because being they-d never made me feel the way being xe-d does, even though it does feel better than being she-d. In fact, I’ve spent a bunch of time thinking about various other standard pronoun options and my feelings are:
- she/her: 50% neutral, 30% bad, 10% good (gay she) — also depends on who’s doing the she-ing and what the context of the conversation is
- he/him: much less evidence and therefore I cannot percentage this. Depends on who’s doing it and the context, but gay / genderbendy he-ing feels good!
- they/them: 50% neutral, 30% surprising (who — me?), 20% good
Since they/them doesn’t actively feel negative, I now list it as an alternative option, but since I’m doing this on a Medium post, let me unequivocally state for the record that no pronoun set has ever made me feel as good as xe/xem pronouns. So if you’ve read this, you are now obligated to use those for me!
I’m scared I’ll mess up your neopronouns — any advice?
It’s most important to me that you try your best to pronoun me correctly, even if you don’t get everything 10000% right 10000% of the time. I also have a personal soft spot for second language English speakers and am much more tolerant of misgendering in this context. This is not to say that ESL speakers have a free pass to misgender me but rather that I GET that it’s hard!
It’s taken me LITERAL YEARS OF GENDERFEELS to get here — it’s okay if you need a bit of an adjustment period. Back in September 2020 I confessed to regularly making mistakes with the xe/xem pronoun paradigm!
On a related note, when Demi Lovato recently came out as nonbinary, one of the things they said in conversation with Alok Vaid-Menon was that they sometimes misgender themself! It was very validating to hear them say that, because as a bb gay myself, I have often felt wary of making sweeping statements about even my own gender and pronouns without being able to prove my competence and internal consistency with them. Unlearning old habits and learning new ones takes time and conscious effort, so give yourself grace as you follow Kirby’s guide to stop messing up pronouns.
I’m questioning whether neopronouns are right for me — any advice?
How exciting!!! I have four nuggets for you, and an open invitation to reach out to me on Twitter (@VasundharaNLP) if you want to chat more about neopronouns and genderfeels!
- Find ways to hear/see yourself referred to with neopronouns
You could write about yourself in the third person like I did, or you could recruit a group of trusted friends to help you along on your gender journey by saying things about you in the third person with those neopronouns! If you’re going to be introduced at an event, send in a bio with neopronouns and ask the organizers to introduce you using them! Find ways to experiment — it may open new doors for you!
- Pay close attention to how different pronouns make you feel
For me this was the gamechanger with xe/xem pronouns. Maybe a neopronoun set makes you feel gender euphoria like no other pronouns, maybe it makes your body heave a sigh of relief, maybe it makes a new part of your brain itch in an interesting way. Observing how pronouns make you feel will help you figure out what fits best for you!
- Be prepared to do a bunch of negotiation / explaining / fighting
Neopronouns are a new concept to many people and so you will likely have to explain how to use and pronounce your pronouns, and this may lead into discussions of gender and identity more broadly. I have found it useful to have a list of links handy (the Wikipedia page on nonbinary gender and this page on xe/xem pronouns are personal favourites).
- Be prepared to do a bunch of negotiating — with yourself!
I’ve done a lot of internal negotiation to figure out my personal sweet spot for the level of neopronouning I am prepared to ask of people knowing that they will inevitably make mistakes, because the mistakes have emotional consequences for me. This balance can change over time and it may not look the same for you as it does for me. Just because people are going to misgender you does not mean you have to give them permission to. Whatever you choose for yourself is right for you and I for one will defend your pronouns (neo- or otherwise) to the death!
Your approach to dealing with misgendering may be fatalistic or it may be feisty. Your balance may be different for your oldest friends or for your immigrant family or for strangers you don’t want to bother engaging with. A friend of mine recently brought up a consideration I hadn’t thought of — e pointed out that some folks with aphasia struggle to acquire new words, and making them learn a new pronoun paradigm is a big ask, but that you also don’t want to force people to out themselves. With this particular case, neither of us had an answer, and I don’t think there is an easy or perfect answer. We just have to muddle through and figure out what works and be okay with making mistakes along the way!
Do you have any favourite resources for researching gender, neopronouns and queer identities?
- My #1 favourite resource for learning about and discussing queer things is the other quiltbaggers I know! I was lucky to have been welcomed into a community of queer folks in Vancouver by a queer community organizer friend and I’ve also met many wonderful people on Twitter (including Kirby and other queer linguists studying queer linguistics). I have particular reverence for my queer elders and you should too!
- I like this list of popular English pronouns which includes a good number of neopronouns
- The LGTBA Wiki is a huge community-edited resource on all things queer and if you enjoy digging around among very granular labels then that might be a useful site for you
- [Kirby adds: xe also sent me the link to this cool pronouns dressing room, which is a nice way to “try on” different names and pronouns!]
Whatever you do, make sure you are honouring yourself in the research you do! Your experience of gender and pronouns doesn’t need a label, it definitely doesn’t need a label immediately, and it may not align with anyone else’s experience in the universe! And that’s okay!
Kirby’s wrap-up notes here: