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Are there any examples of neopronouns for non-binary or third gender people being fully incorporated into a language's grammar?

Linguistics Asked by curiousdannii on December 1, 2020

Many non-binary people now request that new third person pronouns (neopronouns) be used to refer to them, for example xe or ze. These have not been widely used by English speakers yet, but it’s still too early to say whether they might in the future.

Non-binary gender is a fairly recent concept for many people in western societies, but other societies have long had similar concepts, which anthropologists have termed third gender. Note that not all those who would identify with one of these would identify with the western terms transgender or non-binary gender.

Seeing as these third gender ideas have been around for thousands of years, I would like to know if there are any languages which have fully incorporated (ie, fully grammaticalised) neopronouns for non-binary or third gender people? I am specifically interested in pronouns that are used strictly for non-binary or third gender people, and not ones that are also used in a generic or indefinite manner (as the singular they is in English.)

One Answer

The case of hen in Swedish is the closest example I know of. hen does have a generic usage for people of unknown gender---so it does not fit your question exactly---but in most cases without explicit metalinguistic commentary, it's impossible to know whether a grammatical gender system arose due to social gender forces. We would not want to say Finland has no social gender simply because their language doesn't mark gender in its third person pronouns, so we would not want to claim the reverse even if we came across a language with multiple personal pronouns. This doesn't mean there are no examples of language users explicitly adopting a pronoun for non-binary gender reference.

In the last few decades, Swedish speakers have borrowed the Finnish hän as a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. Finnish, a language neighboring Swedish, does not mark gender in its third person singular so its pronoun was seen as a good candidate for a new gender neutral pronoun. Adoption was resisted for a while, but in the last decade has seen widespread usage. It has been recognized by the Swedish Academy and is included in their glossary of the Swedish language, and the Swedish Language Council has commented on the proper inflections of the pronouns.

Answered by Christian on December 1, 2020

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