I’ve always said that in person I’ll call anyone by the pronoun they wish to be called, and I intend to abide by this as a simple matter of civility. But I’m not sure I’d do that when talking about someone who uses a “neopronoun” when they’re not present, because some of those pronouns seem pretty bizarre and would stick in my craw (see below for examples).
Pronouns like “they” for bi-gender people are okay by me, as are “he/him” for trans males or “she/her for transfemales. But when you go on, and look at lists of other ones, it seems like going down the rabbit hole. The article below mentions over 200 different neopronouns!
For your delectation and social harmony, CNN offers “A guide to neopronouns, from ae to ze.” First, what is a neopronoun? The site explains:
The most common third-person pronouns include “she,” “he” and “they.” While “she” and “he” are typically used as gendered pronouns to refer to a woman and a man respectively, “they” can be used as a gender-neutral descriptor for an individual person or a group of people. Celebrities like Janelle Monáe, Emma Corrin and Jonathan Van Ness have each said “they” is a pronoun that works for them. [JAC: I use “they” when referring to a generic person.]
Neopronouns, meanwhile, are less commonly used than those three familiar pronouns. They’re often used by nonbinary, transgender and gender nonconforming people because they offer more freedom of identity. In his book “What’s Your Pronoun?” Baron wrote that neopronouns “expand the ways that people are able to indicate their gender identity to encompass anyone who is trans or nonbinary, as well as those who choose an altogether different term to characterize their gender.”
Per the LGBTQ advocacy group the Human Rights Campaign, neopronouns are a “step towards a society where people can more fully express all parts of themselves.”
And here’s a handy list from the article. As I said, I’d use them to a person when encountering them directly, but I’m not so sure if, when talking about such a person to another, I’d use them. In fact, while I’d use them as well in writing about a person, I would probably refer to a neopronoun user by name rather than use these words, which seem awkward. Actually, for most of the examples below, you can use a person’s name instead of their pronoun (i.e. “I asked Sammi to come to the movies. Sammi said yes!”, and so on).
xe/xyr (commonly pronounced zee/zeer)
I asked xyr to come to the movies. Xe said yes!
ze/zir or ze/hir (commonly pronounced zee/zeer or zee/heer)
The teacher graded zir paper today, and ze got an A!
Ze said hirself that I’m hir favorite neighbor.
fae/faer (commonly pronounced fay/fair)
Fae told me that faer best friend is in town this week.
I’m taking em to the park today. Ey wants to bring eir camera to capture the garden for emself!
ae/aer (commonly pronounced aye/air)
Ae is my best friend — most of aer’s weekday evenings are spent at my house.
I’m not sure exactly how these pronouns express a person’s identity, beyond reject the familiar “binary” pronouns, but that’s their business, not mine.
The article notes that some neopronouns were introduced in the 1700s, but an expert weighs in on their history. (The expert is “Dennis Baron, one of the foremost experts on neopronouns and their histories and an emeritus professor of English and Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign”.) Baron notes that
Even though there were dozens of neopronouns that made it into print in the 19th and 20th centuries, most of them didn’t make a huge impact upon their introduction or were lost to time, Baron said. During that time, the public was resistant to language change, and men in positions of power often didn’t take issue with a lack of gender-neutral pronouns, Baron wrote. [I suspect you can’t pin this solely on “men in power”, as these neologisms would seem strange to many people.]
And I don’t think I’ve ever see any used in literature, whether fiction or nonfiction. But times have changed:
Some neopronouns were created by writers as far back as the 18th century, many of whom did not publicly identify as nonbinary, because they wanted a genderless word to describe a person or group of people —only recently have pronouns been used as a political tool for the way they’re used by nonbinary and trans people, Baron wrote.
The “political use”, says Baron, is that ” Understanding and using someone’s pronouns is one way to show solidarity and respect toward trans people.” And that’s why I’ll use these terms to people’s faces, but there’s an element of compulsion about using them otherwise that smacks of virtue signaling and attempts to appropriate power through language change. I’d rather use someone’s name. And really, are you being a good ally when you use the ones below?
Leaf, sun, star — nounself pronouns are neopronouns that use nature and other inspirations as nonbinary or genderless descriptors. Linguist Jason D’Angelo told The New York Times that nounself pronouns were popularized on the social platform Tumblr around 2012 and 2013 and remain in use among members of fandoms who may take their nounself pronouns from the properties they enjoy.
For someone who uses the nounself pronoun “leaf,” that may look like: “I hope leaf knows how proud we are that leaf is getting to know leafself better!” or “Leaf arrived at the coffee shop before me; I was mortified to have been late to meet leaf.”
I don’t think I could force myself to say such things. And I get that someone might have a non-standard identity and want a novel identifier, but who identifies as part of a tree, or as an astronomical body? Really, would you refer to someone as “leafself”?