Increasingly over the last few decades, transgender visibility has started to cross over into the public’s general consciousness. Although there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made in terms of respecting and empowering the social rights of transgender people, they are finding their voices more than ever as well as the courage to speak up.
One of the issues relating to transgender rights concerns being addressed by appropriate pronouns. Transgender people may not feel comfortable being addressed by the more common ‘he’ or ‘she’ pronouns, especially those who identify completely outside of the male – female gender binary. Non-binary transgender people have offered other pronouns to be identified by. These include; ‘(f)ae, (f)aemself’ ‘per, perself’ and ‘ze, zemself’ to list but a few.
However, this kind of innovation in the English language has not been met without controversy. Dr Jordan Peterson who is a Canadian professor caused commotion in 2015 when he started to voice his objection to what he considered as “[the] propositions of radical social constructionists” and that the federal legislation to legitimize and protect transgender people’s right to be referred to with such pronouns will “elevate to hate speech”.
What Dr Jordan Peterson might not be so familiar with is the idea that across different languages, the way pronouns are used to refer to people isn’t always bound by someone’s outward biological sex. Japanese, for example, has a much more flexible system of pronouns with up to 17 different words that correspond with the English ‘I/me’ and what is even more mind boggling is that often Japanese decides to use none at all.
In Korean, pronouns are chosen depending on a combination of someone’s gender, relative position in society in terms of power and even to come across or to refer to someone else in a cute way.
But you do not have to look so far afield to recognise this kind of pronominal variation! Consider how in the UK we refer to reigning monarchs throughout history until today, Her Majesty would surely take ritual offence if someone referred to Her Majesty as ‘she’.
The shape of the English language is changing in parallel with the development of people’s rights. As there are opponents to social change, you can always expect that there will be opposition against linguistic change too! However, pronouns work in varying and wonderful ways all around the world and so it is nothing unnatural or inorganic, and with time hopefully even the naysayers will come to accept that everyone has a right to be listened to and respected on their own terms.