Horton Hears a They/Them: The Linguistics of Nonbinary Speech

An old book says that "Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus." I've never read the book, but it must be true. After all, men and women are total and polar opposites. Men wear pants so they don't tangle their ankles and fall down. Women wear skirts so they are free to engage in interpretive dance. Men have AC chromosomes. Women have DC chromosomes.

Not convinced? Good. Humans are much more complicated than tradwife podcasters might have you believe. Take language, for example. New research by Jack Rechsteiner and Dr. Betsy Sneller from Michigan State University suggests that nonbinary people - people who don't understand themselves as men or women - might use language in a way that's all their own.

Rechsteiner and Sneller interviewed nonbinary individuals and kept track of how they pronounced words that end in -ing: Were they "speaking" or "speakin'"? This might seem like an absurdly small thing to track, but linguists have shown that sayin' or saying it one way or the other can be associated with your gender. Stereotypically, many white "women" go for the version that confirms the dictionary spelling, while many white "men" are found to be sayin' things the other way.

Why this association exists is a very complicated question, but the association itself isn't too surprising. Society involves a great deal of comparison. For all sorts of reasons (sometimes historical, often troubling), we look around and understand ourselves in contrast to others. How we speak has many influences, and a key influence is how we understand ourselves as similar or different from others. It's sort of a feedback loop, too. If I think I'm different from you and speak in a way that's different from you, you'll begin hear that difference - even if you're not consciously aware. The difference becomes meaningful for both of us.

Even when we think something about our behavior is "just biology," things are often more complicated. Dr. Sneller explains, "There are also studies that find that little kids tend to reproduce gendered pitch patterns. In other words, little girls tend to have higher voices than little boys, even though there is no physical reason for this [before puberty]. Humans are pro-social beings: we care about what other humans think of us, and we imitate, consciously and unconsciously, other humans whose group we want to belong to."

Gender is a system of belonging and caveats. When we say "men" do something a certain way, or "women" do something another, we invariably mean that a certain subset of people linked to those categories behave in those certain ways. Some people feel they match those categories well enough to call themselves men or women. For other people, neither category sounds right. Terminology has shifted over recent decades, but these people who don't hear themselves in the words "man" or "woman" are often described today as being nonbinary.

As a linguistics student, researcher Jack Rechsteiner heard professors discussing how men and women spoke, but there was little discussion of how people outside those categories spoke. Rechsteiner, along with his graduate advisor, Dr. Sneller, wanted to change that. The team gathered eight nonbinary speakers (seven white, one Black) in the MSU area and interviewed each for roughly one to two hours. Then, the researchers counted each time an interviewee pronounced a word ending in -ing the "standard" way (imagine it said by Julie Andrews) or the "nonstandard" way (Roseanne Barr?). Remember, among many American English speakers, it's more common for white women to use the standard version while men use the nonstandard.

What Rechsteiner and Sneller found was that nonbinary speakers tended to use the "standard" pronunciation, no matter what gender was assigned to the speaker at birth. In other words, these nonbinary speakers weren't using language in a way that split them into talking "like men" or "like women." Instead, they used -ing in a way that doesn't neatly map onto stereotypically gendered speech. 

Rechsteiner and Sneller based their work on earlier research by Chantal Gratton. In 2016, Gratton published a paper which argued that nonbinary speakers may change their pronunciation of -ing in order to avoid being misgendered. When in comfortable, familiar settings, Gratton's research participants used the standard and nonstandard pronunciations in roughly equal amounts. When they were interviewed in a less-controlled, more public setting, however, each speaker used more of the pronunciation which was not associated with their gender assigned at birth. For example, if a nonbinary person was concerned about being erroneously perceived as a man, they might use the standard -ing pronunciation (associated with women's speech) in order to disrupt that perception. Gratton explains the difference in behavior as a reaction to the perceived threat of being misgendered. Simply put, people might use speech to disrupt a possible identity as much as they use it to construct an identity.

Building on Gratton's work, Rechsteiner and Sneller tried to keep their interview setting consistent to avoid triggering the participants' fear of being misgendered. What they found is participants tended to use the standard -ing pronunciation most of the time - regardless of their gender assigned at birth. Additionally, even talking about gender didn't seem to change the speakers' behavior in this regard.

While Gratton's nonbinary participants tended to use both the standard and nonstandard -ing when comfortable, Rechsteiner and Sneller's participants tended toward the standard version alone. There are a few reasons this might be, regional dialect differences among them, but overall both studies emphasize that nonbinary speakers may be developing novel approaches to using small parts of language.

So, does this mean that there's a nonbinary way to talk? Not quite. In Rechsteiner and Sneller's study, they define "nonbinary" based on how their participants define the term: "identities which are not captured by the dichotomy of cis or trans female-male binaries as well as identities which resist the label of any gender at all." Just as "man" and "woman" are full of caveats, "nonbinary" can mean many different things. Rechsteiner and Sneller's work doesn't describe how nonbinary people everywhere talk, but instead describes how a small group of connected individuals talk.

Sociolinguists use the term "communities of practice" to describe these groups of people who share time and space and who work together to make meaning in the world. Let's say you're part of a queer South Asian Muslim organization in a big American city. You get together regularly for religious study and holidays. You share life news with each other, spend time in each other's homes. Sure, you have big "demographic" things in common - being urbanites, part of a religious minority, queer. What might connect you more strongly, though, is the amount of time you spend together and the kinds of meanings you try to sort out together: What does it mean to be Muslim and queer? What makes someone a Muslim who belongs in your community? What's the right way to live as a queer person of color in the world? Compare this to other people you see regularly but casually (bus drivers, cashiers), or people you see "intensely" but infrequently (teachers, therapists). People in your communities of practice are a unique overlap of quantity/quality. As a result, the way your community of practice speaks may begin to reflect how you see yourselves as similar to/different from groups and identities elsewhere in society.

For the participants in Rechsteiner and Sneller's research, they're spending time together and negotiating how to exist in America when you don't quite fit the dominant gender categories. How do you help people understand you, and should you even try? How do you stay safe while being open about who you are? Why do you feel like you're not a man or a woman, when so many people seem comfortable with those categories? Along the way, you'll be sorting out how your nonbinary experience makes you similar to or different from people who call themselves men, women or neither. Your use of language may begin to follow the answers and attitudes you develop.

That link-up between self-understanding and language is what research by Gratton, Rechsteiner and Sneller tracks. Sociolinguists learned a long time ago that men don't talk like this, and women don't talk like that. White upper-class men from New Jersey who grew up in Italian-American homes and who are in a fraternity talk like this. And Filipino-American middle class nonbinary people from central Texas who grew up in Evangelical homes and who are part of lesbian book clubs talk like that. We have many understandings of ourselves that we're constantly trying to highlight or hide, celebrate or subdue. Language is a key part of those negotiations with ourselves.

More than tracking a curiosity, Rechsteiner hopes this kind of research will help others understand nonbinary experiences. "Any research that can validate non-conforming identities is great research to ensure understanding of marginalized and targeted groups."

So, remember: However you speak, there are people out there who want to hear you.


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