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What's the deal with pronouns?

It’s been a good few years since we started seeing people’s preferred pronouns appear in their social media bios, on conference badges and in email signatures. Some people might see it as a step too far. An unnecessary addition that states the obvious. But does it really?


Misgendering as a weapon

Most cisgender people – so those whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth – rarely, if ever, face the issue of misgendering. If it does happen, it can be brushed off as a joke and quickly forgotten. Sometimes though, let’s say if it happens often or is used as a way to ridicule someone, it can be hurtful and stay with them for a long time.


The situation for non-binary or transgender people is more severe, though. The misgendering in this case can happen more often or be used as a conscious way of oppression. Having an open conversation about people’s preferred pronouns limits the number of honest mistakes and normalises the use of preferred pronouns – the more people talk about this matter, the less power oppressors will hold. At the moment, misgendering techniques can be used as a way to threaten or bully others. In short: with the increased understanding of reasons behind listing preferred pronouns, misgendering as a way to oppress someone will become simply uncool.


Why is listing or talking about preferred pronouns important?

  • If someone looks like a representative of a certain gender, that doesn’t necessarily mean they identify as such;

  • Displaying your preferred pronouns signals that you’re an ally of the LGBTQIA+ community;

  • It normalises the idea that gender is a construct and our understanding of it evolves;

  • Sometimes a name can be unfamiliar to the reader or can refer to any gender.


What preferred pronouns are not (or shouldn’t be)?

  • A way to ‘catch you out’ – preferred pronouns' aim is simply to help you address each person the way they wish to be addressed;

  • An empty gesture used to ‘pinkwash’* customers or readers.

*If you’re unfamiliar with the term, pinkwashing means a type of marketing that creates an illusion of promoting the rights of LGBTQIA+ communities, whilst not doing anything practical in order to protect those rights.


She, him, they… Is that it?

Apart from traditional pronouns that are used in everyday language, the LGBTQIA+ community members may use 'neopronuns' – those that are not included in dictionaries but are used by some non-binary or trans people. Examples in English include 'ze/hir' and 'ey/em'. If you’re interested in this subject, have a browse on this page. There are quite a few language versions for you to explore!



Why should translators keep up to date with this topic?

As translators, interpreters and subtitlers facilitate communication between people and cultures, we need to be aware of new ways to express gendered language in the languages we translated out of or into.


For example, when translating an interview with a non-binary artists who uses neopronouns or non-binary language, we should be able to replicate the same in our text. Same goes for films, video games, books, medical documents, witness statements… The list goes on!


To celebrate this year’s pride month, I encourage all language specialists and people who work in the area of communication to brush up on their gendered language knowledge and explore ways to talk about non-binary, trans, gender non-conforming people and other members of the LGBTQIA+ community – both for the sake of our work and personal lives.



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