put a coin in the pronoun jar
I am listening back through the archives of the comedy podcast My Brother, My Brother, and Me. It’s a comforting and familiar media, and I like having background noise that feels sociable but undemanding when I’m hanging out at home. Yesterday in my backwards binge-listen I hit Episode 553: The Planet’s Dying Pringles, in which one of the comedic themes is “spring cleaning.” The brothers suggest various elements of the podcast that they’re going to konmari out starting in spring. Among various running jokes, Travis McElroy suggests that he’s going to oust the word “this.”
Travis: I — one last thing that I do wanna cut from the show, I just want to cut whenever we say the word ―this.
Travis: I don‘t wanna say that word anymore.
Travis: And if we do, we‘ll put a quarter in the jar.
Griffin: Okay. That‘s gonna rack up pretty fast, Trav.
Travis: Yeah, but then we‘ll spend that on ice cream.
Travis: We can keep doing all of our great bits, like, where we do stuff that‘s just for people to use on TikTok, right? That thing we do all the time?
Griffin: But now you fucked it up, Trav. The — possibly the whole show, because now I‘m going to be thinking, constantly, for the rest of my life, about that word, and how I can avoid saying it.
Travis: About this?
Griffin: Yeah. God.
Travis: Sorry. That‘s a quarter. [coin jingling sound]
A running gag follows this statement: each time one of the brothers uses the word, there is edited in the sound of a little coin clinking, as if they’d put a quarter in the jar. The transcript of the episode blessedly includes the coin jingles (thanks, MBMBAM fan wiki, for that link); they total up to $7.00 (28 coins) by my extremely rough count.
As you probably noticed, the title of this blog post mentions pronouns. The linguistically astute among you have probably by now thought, “hey, ‘this’ isn’t a pronoun.” And by gum you’re right! “This” is a demonstrative determiner, which some languages use as third person pronouns, but it’s extremely rude to do so in English. So where do the pronouns come in?
English third person pronouns and demonstrative determiners share the important trait that MOST English-speakers don’t have a good conscious grasp of when they’ve used one (as the McElroys handily show by placing a taboo on one and then totally using it anyways). Determiners and pronouns (along with, say, complementizers, auxiliary verbs, and some modals) are a part of speech we’d call a functional category — it’s there for syntax reasons, but our brains are very good at turning them invisible so we can focus on communication and semantics instead. Some things make these ‘invisible’ parts of speech much easier to observe (like a little coin-jingling sound in a podcast). You might not notice how often you say “this” until you go back through and edit the podcast or read the transcript — and likewise, many people use pronouns completely without realizing it.
What this (coin jingling sound) means is that, for example, I could have a whole long conversation with someone where I’m using they for a third party (let’s say it’s my friend Thyme), and my interlocutor is using he. (Trans readers are now nodding vigorously at the screen — this happens ALL. THE. TIME.) My interlocutor (let’s call them Rosemary) genuinely does not notice any of this. We can go on for an hour this way if I don’t intentionally point it out to her. “Well Thyme told me they finished their finals last week.” “Oh how great, he was taking so many hard classes this semester!” Rosemary can’t hear the coin jingling noise!
A lot of us have noticed this — a great example from Amy Brown on twitter, here:
Amy has a conversational turn where she even emphasizes the “they” so her interlocutor has a chance to self-correct, but no such luck! I didn’t have the good sense to write it down when this happened, but this was also my experience with some trained linguist colleagues of mine.
Here is a paraphrased reenactment below; context is that Parsley is a colleague of mine who had by this point known me for years, who is politically extremely pro trans rights and liberation, and who has been extremely good-natured about me talking about this example. We were standing next to each other eating small cheeses after a colloquium back in the halcyon days of 2018 or so.
Parsley: You should meet Kirby, she’s running the department twitter and writes the newsletter —
Me: Hey Parsley (handwaving to get their gaze and take the floor) hey, what pronoun did you just say?
Parsley: (thinks for a minute) I honestly could not tell you. Was it they?
(Parsley, if you are reading this, thank you for letting me continue to recycle this one!) A trained linguist with a PhD in linguistics did not hear the coin jingling! I did tease them for a few years about creating a swear jar, because they did not notice whenever they did this. It’s not that they didn’t care, and it’s not that they weren’t linguistically aware enough to understand what was happening!
So, a couple important things about the coin jingling as I (a trans nonbinary person and also a linguist who works on pronouns a lot) experience it. First: yes, I notice all pronoun use. It took some amount of mental training to attune myself to it, but I intentionally did that because it’s my object of study and because the social stakes are fairly high for me personally. Second: no, this doesn’t mean I’ve never messed up a pronoun. I usually notice when I do, but that also took intentional effort to develop that attunement. Third: I would absolutely wager that if I took all the cis English-speaking linguists, and took all the trans non-linguistics-trained English speakers, and had them do a pronoun-counting contest, the trans non-linguists would kick the cis linguists’ asses. In fact, I would bet that for many English-speaking trans people, they (like me) don’t really have the option to stop hearing the coin-jingling sound of a wrong pronoun every single time. A lot of us wish we could ignore it, but genuinely can’t.
So, when do you hear the coin jingling sound? When you decide to. Or when you intentionally start attuning yourself to notice it. Or when it’s important, whether you want to or not.
It’s good linguistics practice, if you’re interested in being a linguist, to pick some functional category (pronouns being a really great example) and just try to count all of the ones you hear for a whole day, or even a whole hour-long podcast episode. It’s something I frequently suggest to my students, because it’s genuinely very eye-opening. Again, our brains adapt to erase functional categories — hence why it often takes intentional effort to be able to notice them consciously.