Austen Crowder

Queer linguistics are just that - linguistics

Filed By Austen Crowder | September 18, 2009 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: cisgender people, England, language, lexicon, linguistics, transgender

Alex made an excellent post about the use and potentially offensive qualities of the word "cisgender" in queer communities. He's covered all his bases there, and I highly recommend reading for a further exploration of the debate. Instead, I want to take a step back and look at the whole language picture - the nature of the English language - and apply it to queer culture. Neologism_Slackademic.jpgI'd like to approach both "cisgender" and the neuter pronoun set "hir/zir/zie/etc" in particular.

To be specific, invented words in the queer culture are known as neologisms to linguistics. Neologisms are coined words used by a language community to describe a new action, new concept, or new object. If you've ever read a blog (ding ding!), used a computer, surfed the Internet, or participated in a meme, you are part of a new explosion of neologisms, invented for the sole purpose of explaining a new realm of experiences previously unseen in the English language. Long story short, the neologism stems from one of the basic laws of language: "Language is shared by a community."

Collaboration and the Neologism

Language is, at its core, an act of sharing. Because of this we must share all aspects of the language process -- use, definitions, and language creation - with every other language user in a community. Even though different communities may have different words at their disposal, communities must share words and definitions or else risk not communicating effectively. (First person shooter fans may confuse non-players with their talk of frags, lag, buffs, noscopes, telefrags, n00bcannons, and the interjection "Teams!", but FPS players know what other FPS players are talking about, and that's the only important thing to their communication.) Therefore, like it or not, words will come into being to describe a situation that would otherwise have no descriptive terms, and these words will be accepted into the lexicon by way of common understanding.

In the case of "cisgender," we see a word invented to describe a situation that has not been described properly before. As Alex points out, the word came into existence in lieu of "messier" terms, words that often put trans people into an "Other" class. (Earlier queer literature often refers to "Genetic Girls," "Real Women," "Natural Men," etc.) Cisgender is a term created to fulfill the role of a binary opposition; if you are not gender-variant, you are cisgender. No other term fulfills this role, so cisgender quickly caught on as meaning "opposite of transgender."

There are people who feel that cisgender is an offensive term, and wish for the term to be removed from the queer lexicon. For this, we need to look at why words leave the English language. There are typically two ways a word can leave a language: one, if it no longer serves a purpose; and two, if it becomes a word that the general public sees as offensive. The computer term "punch-card" is an example of the first, as nobody really interacts with computers using punch-cards anymore. scribblenauts_watermelon.jpgFor the second, we can look at racial slurs that have slowly shaken out of the system as people began avoiding derogatory speech - the word "Sambo," for instance, is nearing extinction in my region, though it is still a hot-button term in some communities. These words don't disappear, but they do lose their place in common conversation.

On both counts, cisgender fails to meet requirements for removal from the lexicon. We have more need than ever to present an opposite term for "transgender," and few people find it offensive enough to warrant scrubbing the word from the lexicon. We can whine and we can cry, but people will continue to use the term within queer communities. Even if better alternatives are introduced, people will be unwilling to switch over; the new terms lack a shared definition within a community. (For an example, look at the Microsoft Zune's attempt to introduce "squirting" to the technology lexicon. Neat idea, but it never caught on as well as, say, "iPod.")

Shoehorning Words into an Already Packed Language

Cisgender gives us an excellent example of how words get added to the language. They are not planned, nor are they intentional; they just fill a need. Dozens of words have been created to describe queer experiences and now enjoy a permanent place in the lexicon. The other side of queer linguistics, however, has not been so successful. For years I've seen people attempting to shoehorn neutral-gender pronouns into the language.

A quick bit of history here: English did, at one time, have neuter pronouns. These holdovers from the Anglo-Saxon language eventually fell out of use as more strictly gendered borrowed words from Romance languages were layered atop English's Germanic roots. I get the reasoning for neuter pronouns, and I see the cause as noble. However, I also see the pronouns as a failing proposition.

Some parts of language are for the most part immutable. Basic building blocks such as prepositions, pronouns, and conjunctions very rarely see any linguistic shift after they are agreed upon by a language community. The trouble with neutral-gender pronouns is that they attempt to shirk this trend, insisting that normal people change their basic understanding of language and communication to discuss gender-neutral subjects. The logic seems fair enough: if enough people use the term, it will eventually come into common use.

This methodology rarely succeeds. For one, the change is not forced by any "hole" in our lexicon: words exist to cover male and female, and many English speakers don't see the utility of having a gender-neutral pronoun. Second, the gender-neutral pronoun adopters are attempting to change the basic building-blocks of the language. I remarked in a previous post that humans may have hard-wired perceptions of what is male, female, human, and inhuman. The same is true of language; neurolinguistic scholars have documented the "black box" nature of language learning: we do not understand how we learn it, but children in a language community quickly learn the intricacies of communication.

However, language does find its own solutions for holes in communication. The modern fix to the gender-neutral pronoun is the co-opting of the words "they" and "their" when a genderless pronoun is needed. (In the case of formal writing, he/she and s/he seems to take prevalence.) Prescriptive grammar supporters may scowl with anger, but the fact of the matter is that prescriptive grammer must eventually bow to the will of the language speakers. (Take split infinitives as an example; eventually, the grammar police always lose.)

In many ways the gender-neutral pronoun will exist in much the same way "cisgender" or "frag" may appeal to queer or first-person-shooter language groups: people within the community will understand the use of the term, but outsiders will need a little help to "get it."

It is my sincere hope that some honest-to-goodness linguist stumbles upon this and offers some more specific advice. This is admittedly born from a combination of experience, scholarly research, and observation, though I'm far from claiming that I have any documented expertise on the subject.

Please, feel free to drop your hat in the ring with your ideas.

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I often use the word they and them for the neutral pronouns because it really is like trying to fit my whole body through a pinhole in order to fundamentally change the linguistic structure I use.

Easier in writing but very difficult in speech.

Which is a shame because the binary gender system has a lot of problems and can be very damaging for some. Just gotta hope that things can move in the right direction eventually.

Good post on linguistic evolution too.

I understand the bind that language's lack of a gender-neutral pronoun puts some gender-variant people into; believe me! I'll be happy to accept another pronoun once the language begins shuffling to need it; until then, I'll stick with they and them.

There are way more than two ways in which words typically leave a language. Simply switching to a new word that means the same thing is incredibly common (if not the most common). If a new term which means the same thing comes along, it may completely replace use of the older term, be used in variation, or the new term itself may die out.

As Alex points out, most of the hundreds of millions of people who would be described as cis aren't aware of it. In fact, the majority would probably use non-trans (890,000 google hits for non-transgender vs. 8,780 for cistransgender). There is already more than one term available. The use of cis may exist within a subsect of the lgbtq* community, but without some reason to use it over non-trans, it seems it is already losing out on which term will persist. And yes, I agree that the need for the term is increasingly important and isn't going away. The question over which term to use will probably only become an issue if it becomes important to the people it would describe. And if those people feel like "cistrans" is offensive, a new term will be used instead. The people whom a term describes are generally who decide if it is offensive or not, triggering the loss of a word that you described. (c.f. Smitherman's work on the use of "black", "African American", and many terms to describe another community in the US).

-This is only my 2 cents as a linguistics professor

Great! I'm happy to hear from somebody who knows their stuff.

I'll admit: while writing this entry I straddled the line between discussing the entire swath of English speakers and queer community English speakers. The general public hasn't taken up "cisgender" because they are not aware of it, though I've discovered in my reading of queer discourse that the word has come to mostly replace "non-trans."

I also took the liberty of running your Google search using the terms "cisgender" and "non-transgender," which returns a slightly less-monumental ratio of 19,000:800,000. (cisgender:nontransgender returns 19,000:42,100, interestingly.) Again, I think this represents the difference between cisgender's use in localized (LGBTQ) communities, versus non-transgender's more widespread use. It will be interesting to see how various terms for cisgender stack up as the topic becomes more fervently discussed -- as you say, it will be cisgender folk who ultimately decide which word is used to describe someone who isn't trans.

However, I can't say it enough: thanks for your two cents! I'd love to say that I have an advanced degree in the subject, but that requires extra schooling that I haven't committed to yet.

I actually had a typo and forgot the 1! So yeah it is a large margin still, but not as much as I had typed. Sorry about that.

I definitely agree with your assertion that there's a need for the term and I don't think that it will go away. Since the word has appeared in academic discourse and continues to be used there, I dont think the term cis- will completely disappear, I just don't think it will be mainstream considering the prevelance of non-...

Also, I think that Robert makes a great point with the meaning.. while cis can be the opposite of trans, the meaning isn't a great opposite, which is why I think non- is used more... Not only is "cis" not at all frequent, the meaning I think puts a further divide between communities with the "cis" having a "on THIS side" translation =/

PS- Overall, really great post and ideas and I'm glad there was further discussion on this

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 19, 2009 2:07 AM


It was a pleasure to read your posting mostly because it was well written. I object to a waste of time on a word that has no particular value in advancing civil rights. It is also a word that can be used by a demagogue.

An equivalent to: "She thought so little of herself she chose to be a proselyte outside a church."

The first thing I thought of when I heard this word was cistern which is literally a sewer.

"cis" as a word also sounds stupid and has two meanings already: "Having or characterized by certain atoms or groups on the same side of a molecule."

As a prefix it has a meaning roughly equivalent to "on this side" such as in cis-border.

It is far too close to the British "cissy" (which is a variant of "sissy") to be useful as a mechanism to aid consciousness raising. You mentioned "Sambo" and I think this word is our equivalent for all the good it will do.

Of course, all I was academically was an associate instructor in communications. In my business life I had to get results with words. :)

"cis" as a word also sounds stupid and has two meanings already "Having or characterized by certain atoms or groups on the same side of a molecule." The meaning of the prefix cis is WHY "cis" has the standalone chemistry meaning it does. Further, the brilliance of the cisgender term is that like heterosexual, it is an entymologically logical antonym to the "non-normal" term (transgender or homosexual).

It is far too close to the British "cissy" (which is a variant of "sissy") to be useful as a mechanism to aid consciousness raising. I'm sorry, that objection sounds along the same lines as objecting to niggardly because it sounds too close to "n***r".

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | September 20, 2009 5:13 AM

Please see Steve's second answer above cissy :). A cissy is considered a weak male. That would not be the start of where I would want to begin consciousness raising. You know the meaning of niggardly and it is not even a parallel to this "cis" nonsense.

Again, much ado about less than nothing.

Enjoy your victim mentality.

Cissy is a name. Sissy is what you describe.

I, personally, just use "he" in formal writing to refer to generic pronouns for the reason that this is common to all Indo-European languages--nouns are by default grammatically masculine when referring to a person of unknown gender, which is as much referring to the antecedent of the pronoun as a man as calling someone "una persona" in Spanish must mean that you're calling them a girl due to "persona" always being a feminine noun, even when referring to males.

However, as evidenced by what I just wrote, I use singular "they/them" in common parlance just because that's how I've always talked, and it's how my parents talked, and my grandparents--it predates me, and will surely outlive me as well.

I can't stand the hir/zir/zie/etc words. They just sound stupid. They is much better.

Don't have a care in the world about cisgender - although it sounds rather clinical for some reason in a way that transgender doesn't. I don't know why - probably just me.


Many thanks for the well-spoken article on this "tempest-in-a-teapot" (MY opinion!) topic.

Being a member of the "Boomer" generation that has been "out" in varying degrees (work in progress?) for longer than I care to admit, I find that there are so many other crucial matters that arguably have MUCH more impact on a trans-person's day-to-day survival than the arbitrary usage of awkward and redundant additions to our vocabulary. (How's THAT for a run-on sentence?)

Obscure linguistic inventions like "zie" (or is it "zee"?) only seem to obfuscate an already complicated discussion, and nothing good can come from that.

When doing any kind of educational outreach ("Trans 101") with groups "outside the bubble", the acronym "K.I.S.S" always comes to mind.

As a busy activist in the ongoing struggle for trans-equality, I find my objective is best served by keeping things simple.

I believe that our movement could benefit from more self-examination and less self-defensiveness.

Don'tcha think, or don'tcha?

I've heard of studies of kids in Baltimore that use "yo" as a gender neutral third person singular pronoun. I like 'yo.'

"Yo is pretty cute! Do you think lipstick lesbian or fabulous twink? Either way I'd totally hit that!"

"I just got butt-bumped right out of the line for the bathroom stall by yo! I've been waiting to pee for like 10 minutes, that's not even fair!"

Glad you posted this, Austen. Thanks! It was a nice read.