Though pronouns may seem like simple, little parts of speech and grammar that help us get from one sentence to the next, how they are used can have a big impact. The study of anthropology provides insight into how cultures and people look at gender and use language to communicate it.
The third Wednesday of October is International Pronouns Day: “Referring to people by the pronouns they determine for themselves is basic to human dignity. Being referred to by the wrong pronouns particularly affects transgender and gender nonconforming people. Together, we can transform society to celebrate people’s multiple, intersecting identities.” — PronounsDay.org.
Dr. Katie Biittner, an assistant professor in anthropology, is also a gender archaeologist who researches the ways that gender has been made invisible – or simply not considered – in narratives of the past
“Yet if we look at our world today, it is clear that gender is extremely important and something we talk about all the time,” she says. “I think we would be making a big mistake if we didn’t think about the implications that gender and gender identities could have had in the past.”
For Biittner, looking at gender in ways that extend beyond language becomes really important, like how genders would have been identified in the “archaeological record,” such as clothing, where we tend to have clear ideas about which gender wears what. Biittner uses those types of contemporary ideas to ask questions about the individual lived experiences of the people of the past who created the archaeological sites she's studying. “How would they have thought of themselves? Were things like pronouns significantly important to them? How might they have signalled aspects of their gender identity to other members within their community? Are these signals something we can understand or are they lost to us, or are they not familiar to us because we have different cultural norms?”
Rachel McGraw, a sessional instructor and linguistic anthropologist in the Department of Anthropology, Economics and Political Science, says linguistic anthropology is the study of language as a product of social structure and interaction. “Our language use is determined by our interactions in daily life and the social structures that exist around us.”
In some Indigenous languages (such as Algonquin languages like Ojibwe), speakers get around the use of gendered pronouns by obviation, a system that uses gender-nonspecific third singular markers (you can read more on Wikipedia, but unless you’re a linguist or grammarian, the explanation doesn’t get much clearer), and many Indigenous cultures had multiple gender traditions before colonization.
“The problem is when we start denying people their identity by saying, ‘No, I’m not going to refer to you the way you want to be referred to.’” —Rachel McGraw
McGraw points out that we don’t really need gender at all in our pronoun systems. “We get around perfectly fine without a gender distinction (or a number distinction for that matter) in the second person, where we use ‘you’ for every different kind of referent.”
People often feel they should ascribe to the grammar rules they were taught growing up and the need to be “grammatically correct” can be an excuse to reject an individual’s choice to use the singular “they/them,” even though language is fluid. Cultures and languages do change, but sometimes not as quickly as everyone might want. And McGraw recognizes that gender inclusive language takes some practice.
“It comes down to prescriptivism — the belief that there is one right way to use language – and that manifests in a lot of different ways in our society and our institutions,” says McGraw. She adds that prescriptivism does have its “good functions,” like shaping and teaching the way we use language. “But the problem is when we start denying people their identity by saying, ‘No, I’m not going to refer to you the way you want to be referred to.’ Prescriptivism can be used as a tool of power to dominate others.”
McGraw recognizes that gender inclusive language takes practice. “One of the things I say a lot is ‘you guys.’ I have to stop doing that,” she says. “We learn from each other’s speech habits, so if a few people start to make change, we can all make change.”
Like McGraw, Biittner wants to know her students’ pronouns and she too wants to break the “you guys” habit. Borrowing a gender neutral term from a friend’s daughter, Biittner strives to refer to her class collectively as “travellers.”
“When I asked her why she refers to people as travellers, she said because we all have somewhere to go, somewhere we’re travelling to, and I thought how lovely is that for a class of archaeologists?”
Sources for further reading
If you're interested in learning more about pronouns, here are a few links to add to your must-read list:
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