Neopronouns in the Classroom

I was perusing my Google News feed when I came across a New York Times article with the title, “What Are Neopronouns?” I’d never heard of a neopronoun before, but it sounded interesting, so I thought it would be a good time to learn about them.

Before discussing neopronouns, it’s important to define what a pronoun is. Merriam-Webster defines “pronoun” as follows:

Additionally, Etymonline provides the following etymology of the word, “pronoun”:

It should be noted that neither Merriam-Webster nor Etymonline acknowledge neopronoun as a word.

The struggle with pronouns stems from their attachment to gender and personhood. The article explains that Samuel Taylor Coleridge offered “it” as a non-gendered pronoun for a person, but the word, “it,” inherently denies personhood and is more often applied to objects. Thus, finding a universal non-gendered pronoun proves difficult. I think eventually we will have a consistent non-gendered pronoun (they/them seems to be in the lead for universal adoption), but I anticipate people trying out different words. I don’t think this is a bad thing; this is how language grows and changes. 

In short, a neopronoun is a pronoun replacement that is meant to more accurately describe a person who identifies as genderqueer or non-binary.

The word, “neopronoun,” uses the suffix, “neo-,” which means, “new.” Added to the word, “pronoun,” it produces the definition, “new pronoun.” Some neopronoun users construct neopronouns from existing words with which they identify. The NYT article describes someone being referred to as leaf/leaf/leafselves, but the most common pronoun replacement that attempts to solve the gender-pronoun problem is they/them/themselves. They/Them/Themselves could be confusing though because they are typically used as plural pronouns, not singular. I’ve seen this used before though, and I think I even had a student a few years back who preferred they/them pronouns as opposed to the traditional, she/her. I recall when they first asked me if I could use they/them and my response, “Sure. Why wouldn’t I?”

I repeat, why wouldn’t I? I want my students to have agency over their identities, their bodies, and their education. I have a lot of respect for my students, especially those who ask questions that they might feel are bigger than themselves, risking societal ostracization or mockery. I want my students to know how much I respect them, and I feel like this is a pretty small ask in return for something that makes them feel more valued and confident in and out of the classroom. There were times, I remember, when I accidentally said, “she” or “her,” but they didn’t crucify me for my error. More often than not, I think I was harder on myself for forgetting than they were.

Neopronouns that go beyond they/them/themselves are difficult to grasp, however, because pronouns, by nature, are not specific to one’s identity, whereas neopronouns are very specific. In this way, their function goes beyond that of a traditional pronoun. To reflect on the Merriam-Webster definition, the pool of pronouns is small; neopronouns attempt to widen the pool of possible pronouns.

Conversations surrounding neopronouns are often political charged, more conservative-minded people, or those who subscribe to a prescriptivist linguistic philosophy, are often offended by their use. However, we should know that in a survey of 40,000 LGBTQ young people, only 4% reported using pronouns other than “he,” “she,” and “they.” Thus, the odds of you encountering someone who uses specialized neopronouns is very slim. Additionally, in the classroom, the use of pronouns is also limited. I try to make a point of calling every student by their name; in a classroom of 25 students, using pronouns can be confusing. It’s much easier to say, “Can you pass that book over to Peter?” instead of, “Can you pass that book over to him?” Even though I may have committed the accident of calling my former student “her” once or twice, the amount of times I referred to them as a pronoun in the classroom was probably very few.

recent survey of pronoun use among 40,000 L.G.B.T.Q. young people by the Trevor Project, a nonprofit dedicated to preventing suicide among queer and trans youth, found that one-quarter of them used nonbinary pronouns. (Participants were recruited from late 2019 through early 2020 by ads on social media.) Most said they used common pronouns like “he,” “she” and “they.”

Just 4 percent said they used neopronouns, including “ze/zir,” and “fae/faer,” often in combination with other pronouns.

Whether you’re for or against them, think they’re silly, or think they’re valid, I think it’s an interesting conversation about the construction, meaning, function, and categorization of words. I think taking a descriptivist approach to this is much more interesting than, say, a political one, though it’s difficult to separate the politics from any discussion dealing with identity. Some people simply want to hurt those who dare ruffle the comfortable way they see the world.

I am interested in the longevity of neopronouns for individuals–is this more of an identity-forming strategy, something that exists in the period during which one’s identity is in the process of being formed and then becomes deprioritized when the identity is fully formed or realized. I want to tread carefully here because I don’t want my message to be, “Maybe it’s just a phase.” Dressing in punk rock clothes might be a phase; one’s sexual identity is not. More precisely, I am wondering if these use of neopronouns is a stepping stone to the realization of one’s sexual identity. In that case, I think it’s important to support the student requesting a neopronoun, even if it sounds or feels silly to use them.

We must teach our students to be accepting of those who are traditionally viewed as different. It is easy to imagine a class laughing when a student says, “Can you use the pronouns, ‘ze/zir,’ for me?” A student who asks this has probably been thinking about it for a long time. They’re probably, at least a little, embarrassed to ask. But remember that they’re asking you because they trust you. We must use that opportunity to respond, “Sure, why wouldn’t I?” in order to show that student that we have respect for them, that they can trust us, and that we are here for them. When we say, “Sure, why shouldn’t I?” you are demonstrating to the rest of the class that you accept all of them as they are. It may have been a big deal for the student to make this request, but it shouldn’t be a big deal for their teachers to respect whatever formative changes they are experiencing. I don’t think it’s useful or helpful to make a scene when a student makes this kind of request, even if you’re proud of them for doing it. Save your pride for a private moment, if you are proud of them.

As well as very uncommon, I think neopronouns are more likely to be seen, used, and perpetuated within queer communities, sort of an in-group phenomenon not too dissimilar from sign names used in the deaf community. A sign name is a unique name given to a person in the deaf community. If I were to tell you my name in American Sign Language, I might sign the letters C-H-I-A-P-P-O-N-E. However, if I were a member of the deaf community, I would be given a name, one that might not make sense in spoken English. The author of the linked article, for example, says, “In deaf life, people like Secretive aren’t strange at all. Among my closest friends are Waffle, Piano-player, Angel, and even Hand-rubber. And that’s just my work colleagues.” The difference in this comparison is that nepronouns are self-invented, while sign names are given. Additionally, sign names are usually restricted to the deaf community; I’m not sure of the extent to which people who are genderqueer attempt to perpetuate the use of pronouns other than “they/them” outside of their community. Regardless, I don’t think they function that differently.

English is such a fascinating language because so many of our words are not gendered as they are in the Romance languages. Yet, we are constantly at new frontiers when it comes to how language could be used effectively and efficiently. As with all forms of evolution, biological and otherwise, that which is most successful in spreading will live on. I don’t think neopronouns will experience widespread adoption because they’re too identity-specific; they will, however, live on within genderqueer communities, as they have for a long time already. I think “they/them” are going to be the primary non-gendered pronouns.

There’s a great Word Matters episode (Episode 25) about how new words are made. It’s a worthwhile listen in the context of this discussion.

Additional Readings

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