Transgender Language: Tensions with and Responses to Gendered English

The Violet Fairy Book, from the famous series collected by Andrew Lang, gives us a tale in which a princess rescues another princess, they fall in love, and upon their elopement, are cursed by a hermit who turns the rescuer into a man. The ex-princess is delighted at this change, and lives the rest of his life happily with his bride. With just a phrase, intended by the speaker as a hex, the ex-princess found his true self by accident and discovered the way he wanted to live.

To many transgender people who live in the world outside of fairy tales, language is the only means they have of manifesting themselves. It becomes a tool to birth a reality that is in congruence with their own beliefs about themselves. The almost-magical power of choosing their own name (reminiscent of some rites of passage) and proclaiming preference with a certain set of words allows a transgender person to take control of their life and their gender, legitimize themselves in the eyes of their friends and families, and ease the strange jab of tension that is part of the experience of dysphoria. In fact, the social aspect of transition (as opposed to the physical, which may range from haircuts to hormone therapy to gender affirmation surgery), consists almost entirely of making it known what language a transgender person prefers for themselves.

Not only is language key for the comfort of transgender people, but some find parallels between language theories and their feelings about gender. Natalie Reed, a prominent transgender activist and blogger, recognizes the importance of language in her own life, and uses it as a metaphor for her own experiences in her blog post “Signifying Gender.” Many who have not experienced transgenderness in their own life wonder how it is possible to “feel” like a particular gender. Isn’t gender socially constructed? Shouldn’t we be striving for a gender-neutral society? Reed says no.

Like language, while the specifics of gender may be socially constructed and in some way arbitrary, those features don’t make it “meaningless, under our control, or divorced from a phenomenological reality.” She comes to the conclusion that gender itself is a semiotic system or “code”, and therefore almost a form of language, and that our society couldn’t function without gender any more than it could function without language. She believes that it is part of every interaction between human beings, and a key part of the “sameness” or “difference” that we use to understand and express our individuality in relation to other people.

Using Reed’s model, through which we can see the intersections of language and similar systems of social meaning, one can take a closer look at transgender language habits. This speech sub-community is unique, in that their language ideologies differ greatly from the dominant ones. This will manifest itself in the way these people purposely use language. For example, in an effort to create inclusion, transgender people and their allies might say “all genders” instead of “both genders,” as the majority of English-speakers would without compunction. The crusade to create language that transgender people can use comfortably, both in reference to themselves and for other people in the community, has resulted in the creation of a unique lexicon to supplement standard English.

Like in any subculture, a specific vocabulary set is necessary to describe particulars that other people might never encounter or experience, but contemporary transgender people are also influenced by queer theory’s stake in postmodern viewpoints on language. Many have rejected traditional medical and psychoanalytic designations, like “transsexual,” “female-to-male,” and “male-to-female,” in favor of more inclusive terminology like “transgender,” “transmasculine,” and “transfeminine.” Others, who identify with third genders, no gender, or multiple genders, must create names for these concepts that have no traditional English words, like “genderqueer” or “genderfluid.”

A daily, concrete problem that many transgender people are forced to address is the pronouns used for them by others. In particular, non-binary people (those whose genders step outside the dichotomy of male and female) whose preferred pronoun is “they,”are often criticized by prescriptivists, and high school English teachers, for being “incorrect.” Many choose instead invented pronouns like “zhe,” but often their peers and family have trouble using those in a sentence. What are these queer people, who feel the same dysphoria as a result of masculine pronouns as they do feminine pronouns, to do? Hopefully, a trend that has pervaded Baltimore for at least a decade may catch on. In city schools, many youth use the interjection “yo” as a gender neutral singular pronoun instead (“Yo in Baltimore”). Other enterprising queers, dissatisfied with the way they are treated by the inherent gender biases in mainstream English, have constructed their own community-specific languages, often abbreviated to conlangs. Reddit, a popular internet news site and forum, has a community devoted to the hobby. Most are concerned in particular with convenient yet descriptive pronoun use, and others have developed very specific systems for diverse sexual orientations and genders. It is possible that, with enough cooperation, a better system of pronouns might be introduced artificially into the language, as knowledge of and tolerance for transgender people increases.

The way language is actually spoken by transgender people themselves is also a key part of their social interactions. The pitch of one’s voice, as well as the gender stereotypes associated with the methods of communication a person might use, can influence others’ perceptions of that person’s gender. Those who wish to be perceived as a particular gender are encouraged to take on either the “hedging” and submission associated with women’s communication, or the aggression associated with men. Don Kulick notices, in his survey of studies done on transgenderness and language, that most advice for transgender people on how to speak targets transgender women. Transgender women who undergo hormone treatment cannot physiologically make their voices higher, unlike transgender men, whose voices are lowered with testosterone. Many choose to go to speech therapy, to achieve a more typically female voice range, but are also instructed by these professionals on articulation, rhythm, and word choice. Kulick explores the emphasis, to the point of “obsession,” on transgender women’s language. This may have something to do with our culture, in which attention to language and higher communicative competence are considered to be more feminine traits, and women are expected to be more interpersonally dependent and socially aware creatures. No such attention is paid to the speech of transgender men: it may well be that most assume that men’s speech is so simple that no coaching is necessary. This reveals our culture’s biases about gender roles and stereotypes, as perpetuated by professionals in the field of language.

Also affecting the lives of transgender people on a deep level is the narratives that they are expected to hold to, and the discourses our culture uses to address them. Because there can be no medical test or similar external affirmation of one’s gender identity, many people questioning their gender identity expect that they should fit the descriptions that cisgender filmmakers and writers endlessly repeat about trans people. An example is the “man/woman trapped in a woman’s/man’s body” trope, which is harmful because in addition to promoting binarism and excluding those who don’t fit into traditional genders, it implies that one must have a high level of hatred for one’s body (and that is never healthy). Potentially transgender people, who might not feel that this descriptor applies to them, may begin questioning their certainty and continue to feel alienated and confused, and held to impossible internal standards, increasing their psychological stress.

The transgender pride flag

The transgender pride flag (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These ideas also affect those who love and work with transgender people, like family, friends, and medical professionals. To receive aid from the medical establishment (in matters like obtaining hormone treatment and surgeries) transgender people must repeat their life stories to psychological professionals, who get to “decide” who is really transgender and who isn’t, and thereby function as gatekeepers. Often, these professionals do not specialize in transgender people or their care, and besides owning a copy of the official diagnostic criteria from the DSM-IV, they are as subjected to transgender narratives as anyone else, and often expect certain traits from those arriving in their office seeking referrals. This includes archetypes as well, like, as Natalie Reed describes, the “child who simply knew.” Publicizing only stories of very young transgender people with very strong sense of their gender identities and very high identification with gender roles (playing with dolls, etc) implies to questioning transgender people, and often their health care providers, that those coming out to themselves at twenty, forty, or sixty must not be really transgender (“The Eunuch, The Rapist, The Whore, and The Child Who Simply Knew”). Those in a position of authority in regards to transgenderness, like storytellers and counselors, must be careful of the language they are using to tell transgender stories, and the way it may affect the people who may identify with it.

Hopefully in the twenty-first century, cisgender people will become more educated about transgender issues and queer language will shift towards the center of cultural consciousness, which may unravel some of these twisted ideas and strange tensions that exist in regard to gender identity in our culture and the way we choose to employ our language.

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“Lot of My Sister” Review

Lot of My Sister is a 2001 chapbook by Alison Stine, containing 13 medium-length free verse poems.

The poetic collection focuses on matters of the body, and is mostly set in the dusty wilderness of the rural Midwest. Blood is a motif that twists through the entire work; both the result of violence and of defloration, though there doesn’t seem to be much of a difference. There are also a few poems told from some very interesting perspectives, like the wife of Jack the Ripper.

Even through the dusty tone, it is a very political work, focusing on the oppression of women as a very personal matter, seen through the eyes of one. Much of the work focuses on violation, humiliation, and powerlessness inflicted by men that she loves. It reads much more like a resigned journal entry than a treatise.

I don’t believe that poems focusing on women should be pigeon-holed as only being for women, but it is a fact that women (I am of course including transgender women) might relate to this collection more. Otherwise, this poetry collection is for anyone who (like me) prefers to read densely-packed, intensely personal poetry.

College Writers: Do you need to study writing to be a writer?

As time crawls forward to graduation, I find myself wondering if I have any regrets. If I would have done anything differently if I had different information.

I have been a Creative Writing major since my acceptance at Oswego University (though I did add a Theatre minor my junior year) because I couldn’t fathom doing anything else. My original plan was to go on to get a Master’s in Library Science, but that plan has fallen by the wayside as I have slowly realized I’d rather do something active than sit behind a desk.

My passion for the written word hasn’t waned, but I do find myself wondering whether my major was worth my time. The answer I have come to is pretty complex, so buckle up.

ABOUT THE CREATIVE WRITING B.A.

My required classes have consisted of multiple tracks of practical, workshop-based classes (I took Fiction, Poetry, and Playwrighting), with some basic English courses sprinkled in. Perhaps the most interesting and unique writing course that Oswego offers is the Living Writers Series, in which faculty invites writers to talk about their work.

Other majors at other colleges have different programs. Some have more general majors, usually just branded as “Writing,” that focus more on business-oriented, professional writing, and of course a Journalism degree would be relatively similar.

YOU SHOULD NOT MAJOR IN IT IF:

I’m going to be honest. I don’t think that aspiring writers need to get a degree at all, let alone a Creative Writing one. Writing instructors cannot teach you anything that you cannot learn on your own from reading and writing extensively.

If you love to learn, and you think you would enjoy academia, by all means go to college. College is an amazing experience, and if you are a scholarly type (like me!) and it fits into your career plans, I highly recommend it. However, consider majoring in something else.

Writing is both a trade and an art, and therefore you learn much more by doing than by sitting in a classroom. Your mileage may vary, but in my experience things like foreign languages and science are much harder to study just from reading and practice, and therefore might make a better major.

Secondly, majoring in a secondary interest may be worth it just to broaden your scope. Basically, writers need something to write about. My experiences in Political Science and Linguistics classrooms have permanently altered my worldview, and I think my writing has become more mature as a result. And– don’t flinch– this also serves to open up your career options. If you love science fiction, why don’t you augment it with science journalism? If you write like George R. R. Martin, get a political science degree so you can also blog about current events. You know yourself best; all I am saying here is to consider your options.

Many writers choose to major in English, and despite its reputation as a useless major, I think it’s a really good path, for fiction writers in particular. If nothing else, you will be exposed to a bunch of literature you may not have otherwise read. And if you dedicate yourself, all that reading can really do you good: after being forced to read the entire Iliad in three weeks, nothing seems too dense. Shakespeare isn’t much harder for me than an average novel (aside from his pop culture references, of course). If professional-level reading competency fits into your career plans, an English degree is pretty useful.

YOU SHOULD MAJOR IN IT IF:

There are two reasons that a Creative Writing major is indispensable.

One thing is networking, though as always this is more feasible at larger, more well-known universities. Meeting other writers, both those with established careers and those who are your peers, is valuable for a variety of reasons. Since OSU is a small school, I doubt you have heard of any of my professors, but what if you could attend a class taught by Maya Angelou? Peers are useful too: some of them are bound to be very talented, and maybe together you could set up a very successful YouTube channel, or just have someone to read your future work. All writers know how valuable a skilled and articulate beta-reader is!

The other is market research. It may sound cold, but reading what your peers are writing will help you get ahead. Learn from their mistakes (personally, I am sick of reading love poetry and fiction set in college dorms, so I don’t write it), but don’t ignore their successes. Though I think people often put too much stock in it, it is still a fact that publishing goes through trends, and you could be in the perfect position to jump on the newest one.

WHAT ABOUT CREATIVE WRITING MINORS?

On the other hand, I think that a Creative Writing minor is a great idea, even for people who don’t want to make writing their career. At my school, this is a more focused program, meaning that you only have to practice one medium. Many people choose it just to devote time to their hobby, but in our increasingly technological world, how could getting experience writing well possibly hurt you?

SUGGESTIONS FOR PROGRAMS

My Creative Writing classes have been focused around work-shopping, to the point of neglecting most kinds of instruction. I remember one lesson on publishing, another on first sentences, and maybe a few others on different kinds of poetic forms, but for the most part, the entire semester’s worth of classes was focused on the piece that became our final project. In my opinion, this is extremely short sighted. Even if work-shopping helps students publish all three of their fiction pieces, or every poem they handed in (about 15), what then? How does this help a writer go on and create a career?

This could be fixed by limiting work-shopping to only one round (most of my classes have done two) and doing more short assignments, which students can apply to future projects. It doesn’t matter to me if they’re in-class or for homework, but finding effective ways to practice dialogue, exposition, stage directions, line breaks, imagistic language, etc. could really help student writers in the long run.

My other suggestion would be a wider variety of classes that majors could take as electives. For example, we got little-to-no instruction on publishing, blogging, genre fiction, journaling, or reading for audiences. I’m sure there’s many more useful skills that I could list that I haven’t even been exposed to. I think my career would really benefit from practicing skills that don’t apply to sitting in front of the keyboard.

OTHER OPINIONS

Of course, every program is different, and every person’s experience is different. I invite you to comment (or write your own post!) about your thoughts and feelings. If my advice is missing something, I won’t hesitate to rethink!

The History of Cursive

Apparently, American schools will no longer be teaching cursive, as it has been deemed useful for nothing more than signing your name. The news got me thinking– why do we have two different scripts in the first place? Where did cursive come from?

Our alphabet is based on the Latin one, which resembles our uppercase letters. By the fifth century, lowercase letters were starting to develop, and people were connecting letters sort of like in cursive. After the decline of Rome, most writing was happening in monasteries, by monks who turned hand-copying books into a form of worship and art. Most people are familiar with the type of beautiful script they produced, but Charlemagne found regional differences to be annoying, so called for standardization.

However, the Italians during the Renaissance (namely Niccolo Niccoli) didn’t like the clunky look, and started showing off ornate writing forms as a status symbol. The habit of elevating certain scripts continued into American history, and in the mid 1800s a bookkeeper named Platt Rogers Spencer decided that since all humans are created equal, their handwriting should be equal, too. He invented a widely-used system, that was later replaced by multiple successive styles that fit the needs of the writers. Cursive has become a way to write quickly and often casually, without lifting the pen from paper.

Today, the need to write quickly, accurately, and legibly has been reduced by the availability of typewriters and then computers, and therefore penmanship is no longer taught as a discipline.

People have been fretting over the loss of good penmanship for half a century, but if my study of Linguistics has taught me anything, it’s that you can’t stop the flow of language. If a culture no longer needs something, it will be dispensed with.

However, that doesn’t mean that the art of penmanship is dead. Calligraphy is a popular hobby, and there will always be those who will appreciate the visual beauty of written language. In my opinion, there’s no reason to mourn.

For further reading:

A Brief History of Penmanship on National Handwriting Day

Is Cursive Dead? Not on your life.

History of Handwriting

Tracing Cursive’s History

The Pronoun War: English’s Gender Neutral Third Person

Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.

–Benjamin Lee Whorf

In English, if we are going to talk about someone in the third person, we are often required to assign them a gender. However, in recent years, more and more people have been coming forward to talk about their relationship with our culture’s gender system, and many have found it lacking. They may consider themselves to be at multiple points within this complex universe (a gender wormhole!), or planted firmly on an asteroid between Mars and Venus, or floating apathetically somewhere in another constellation.

This matter is of particular importance to me because I am one of those people. The fact that English has no construction for a gender-neutral third person singular shows how non-binary people have not traditionally had a voice or a place in our culture. We should not have to jump through verbal hoops to express our lived experience.

I completely support anyone who would like to invent their own pronouns, but this post will provide a survey of the most common gender-neutral pronouns. While written from a language-centered point of view, I hope it might provide some guidance to non-binary and/or questioning people looking for a pronoun to identify with, and their loved ones who may be new to the issue.

(It is generally considered dehumanizing, and isn’t commonly used by non-binary people, and therefore is left off this list. However, like anything else, it is a perfectly legitimate choice!)

THEY

They/them/their is a common choice for people of non-binary genders. It has the advantage of being already firmly entrenched in our language, but the disadvantage that it is generally understood to be plural, resulting in possible confusion.

Many people denounce its use on the basis that it isn’t “grammatical,” but really, that sort of prescriptivism is nonsense. Singular “they” has a long use in literature, often used alongside the sexist but more acceptable general he/him/his. Chaucer, who is particularly well-respected in academia, used it. Its use was not even questioned until the 1700s, when intellectuals began to artificially apply Latin logic rules to English grammar, resulting in the shunning of many perfectly natural English constructions.

If you’re still not convinced, check out this article from Motivated Grammar about why singular they is perfectly acceptable.

This page focused on singular they in the works of Jane Austen also provides an interesting look at the history of pronouns in English.

EY

These pronouns, often called Spivak pronouns after the mathematician who popularized them, are particularly convenient as far as invented pronouns go because they are based on existing ones. It’s easy to think of them as they without the “th:” Ey went to the store and bought emselves a cake for eir birthday. Interestingly enough, since Spivak was a mathematician, the pronoun has caught on surprisingly well in the world of internet gaming, and is often used as a gender option in multi-player games..

ZE

Ze/hir/hirs is a common choice in the transgender community, but is easily mixed up with “her,” which may or may not be desirable. It has a variant, ze/zir/zirs, that avoids this problem. Neither come particularly naturally to most English speakers, but this is not a reason not to use them!

For a more gender-neutral pronoun options, and examples of how to use them in a sentence, visit the Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog. Almost certainly useful for anyone deciding on their preferred pronoun!

Teen Book Festival: Rochester, NY

In these first few weeks of blogging, I have been rushing to get some content up, and hoped to stick to a once-weekly blogging schedule. However, I wanted to give this update in time for people to act on the information!

The Teen Book Festival, in my hometown of Rochester, NY, feels like my baby. Or at least my nephew. I was around for its inception (though as a student volunteer and unofficial advisor) and I’m so proud that it’s still going strong today!

It takes place this Saturday, May 17th, at Nazareth College, and it’s completely free! Laurie Halse Anderson, author of Speak, will be in attendance, and I urge you to go if only to see her. She’s super nice, and her presentations are constantly A+ quality. Other notables are Simone Elkeles, Terry Trueman, and Ellen Hopkins. If you are anywhere near the area, it’s an opportunity you really can’t miss!

Shen Yun Performing Arts

Recently, my mother and I had the good fortune to see the Chinese dance troupe, Shen Yun, perform at the Rochester Auditorium Theatre. If you get the chance to see it at any point in the future, please do– we were gasping and clapping the entire way through. Filled with acrobatic dance numbers and interspersed with opera and instrumental exhibitions, and featuring a particularly interesting use of a projection screen, audiences of every age and temperament can enjoy this

It was this show that inspired my post on tonal languages, but I couldn’t neglect the main focus of the show: the dance. According to the hosts, many of the world’s flips and tumbles were invented by ancient Chinese dancers, and that piqued my curiosity.

Here is a video that will give you a taste of what I saw, including a history lesson about why they perform around the world but not in China.

Chosen Different [Book Review]

Chosen Different by Nat Kozinn is an alternate-universe science fiction novel, the first in an in-progress series. (I only mention this for readers like me, who prefer to power through multiple books instead of waiting impatiently!) In my opinion, it would be best for a teen audience. It was a good read, and not lacking in any substantial way, but more experienced readers might appreciate more complexity and narrative beauty.

The real strength of this book is the world the author has created. Gavin, the protagonist, is a Different: a mutant with powers, reminiscent of the X-Men. In a world devastated by a terrorist during Reagan’s presidency, the Differents are slaves, robbed of Constitutional rights and forced to work thankless jobs, or risk being sent to a special prison. The ongoing mystery of Nita, the head Librarian of think.Net, the world’s internet equivalent, is reason enough to read this book and eagerly wait for the next installment.

I was really impressed with the research and imagination that went into Gavin’s character, as well. His ability is “Anthropomorphic Control,” meaning that he has total control over his body, at the cost of being forced to consciously keep it working. When his power first began to mature, he was totally incapacitated by it, but a patient teacher helped him figure out how to function well enough to become a food-tester for this universe’s McDonald’s. Kozinn never lets us forget how fundamentally different Gavin is from us, but at the same time doesn’t let it overwhelm the storyline.

In terms of plot, by a few chapters in I thought I had it all figured out– but I was wrong. Gavin seemed to be developing into a dystopian Clark Kent, until a fascinating antagonist and some very real flaws turn him into someone I could actually root for, and transformed the storyline into something really worth reading.

The narrative is a little clunky, which at first bothered me, but as I kept reading I decided that it was for a legitimate rhetorical purpose. After all, Gavin has to consciously keep his heart beating– I would feel a little terse too.

I think that the novel’s biggest weakness is a sense of “Why should I care?” throughout the first few chapters. I think he focuses on giving us a view of his fantastic world before giving us a real reason to care about his food-testing, deliberately-digesting main character. Gavin remains a little flat throughout the narrative, having only one simple motivation, but lovers of sci-fi should forgive this and give Kozinn’s absolutely fantastic worldbuilding a chance.

I am a big supporter of self-publishing, so if this sounds interesting to you, please consider getting a copy on Amazon!

The Amulet of Samarkand

Fantasy has been my favorite genre since my grandmother gave me her copies of the Harry Potter series, and Young Adult is such a vivacious genre that I feel that I will never get too old for it. However, I also demand complexity and maturity from my escapism, and the Bartimaeus Trilogy offers it all.

Jonathan Stroud, born in 1970, has written two very successful book series, one of them being the Bartimaeus Trilogy. The first book, The Amulet of Samarkand, follows the irreverent (and often unreliable) demon Bartimaeus and the human boy who summons him. Nathaniel, a prematurely solemn twelve-year old boy, calls Bartimaeus up in his bedroom in an alternate-universe London to steal a priceless artifact from a powerful magician, and that is how their relationship begins.

The world that Stroud creates is simultaneously magnificent and grungy, evoking images of Industrial-era London brought forward a century. Within it, the voice of Bartimaeus is a beacon of modern sass, made totally unique by the author’s choice to interject with footnotes, as if his mind is working too quickly for our linear flesh brains to handle.

My only complaint about this work is that it begins a series, and I understand that many people don’t have the time or money to complete an undertaking like this. However, I recommend giving it an attempt, because these books are well worth their price.

1811 ‘Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue’

If you don’t know about Project Gutenberg, you are in for a treat. It’s a collection of free e-books, in a variety of formats, readable on e-readers and the computer. Most are non-fiction but, luckily for fantasy readers, that includes fairy tales and folklore!

The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue would be a great resource for linguists, word enthusiasts, and writers setting something in that era. It’s also uniquely readable; you can scan it in a way that you can’t with a modern, serious dictionary. However, I have to note: I don’t think even the writer could really ascertain any authenticity here. Maybe since communication was slower in that century linguistic fashion was more stagnant, but I imagine many of the entries would have sounded to contemporary ears like our grandparents trying to be “hip.”

My favorite contribution is a synonym for “topsy-turvy”– ARSEY YARSY. It will definitely be entering my vocabulary.