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The Correct Pronoun for RuPaul?

It’s no secret that modern citizens can be confused about which pronoun to use for a transgender individual (here I mean both individuals who have received treatments to change their biological gender or individuals who may present themselves as the gender opposite of their biological sex). And even though I’m a linguist, I can don’t always have the answer in a situation like this.

So before I dive further, apologies if I get something wrong. Although I have had some interactions with transgender individuals, my experience is still mostly as a cisgender woman.

Personal Preference Counts

First, it is important to note that some linguistic usage guidelines should be based on preferences of groups and individuals and not on any sort of grammatical or semantic “logic.” For instance, speakers of the Celtic language spoken in Ireland generally prefer the term Irish over the older term Gaelic…despite the fact that the name for Irish in Irish is Gaeilge. One reason for this preference is likely to distinguish it from the Gaelic language of Scotland (a.k.a. “Scottish Gaelic”). Both Irish and Scottish Gaelic are close sister languages by the way.

As an English speaker, you may feel that Gaelic is a perfectly acceptable and “logical” alternative, but once I was corrected, I have always used the term Irish. Speaker preference here overrides other considerations.

Note: I once informed a student that the term Irish was preferred and he told me that his Irish-American grandmother always used the term “Gaelic.” In this case, I advised him not to correct his grandmother, but not to use the word Gaelic around Irish speakers.

Some Transgender Pronoun Guidelines

In terms of referring to a transgender individual you may not know personally, a good choice is likely to use the gender the person is presenting as. If you are not sure, GLAAD.org advises you to listen or ask politely.

Note: GLAAD.org also notes that you may not always be aware that a person is in fact transgender because you feel you can identify the presented gender. In that case, using the pronoun matching the visible gender was probably a safe choice.

Having said that, a person may still advise an alternate to your guess, including possibly a gender-neutral one. You should use that choice whenever possible and apologize for past errors.

RuPaul

One of the most famous transgender individuals in RuPaul who appears in public sometimes dressed in men’s clothing and sometimes in women’s clothing (and always looking fabulous). So if I’m reviewing an album like American (2017), which is the best pronoun to use?

As it turns out RuPaul has given us an answer (from Wikipedia) – “You can call me he. You can call me she. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee; I don’t care! Just as long as you call me.”

And in one interview RuPaul clarifies that there is a distinction between “drag” and a transgender identity. I would also note that RuPaul may what Navaho and other communities refer to as “two spirit” – a reference to individuals who may choose to sometimes present themselves in a gender opposite of their biological gender.

What about “Queer”?

Oddly, the one term I would have problems with is queer. I grew up with this term being a pejorative term for both homosexual and transgender individuals. But both communities (as well as the bisexual community) have reclaimed this term and use it in a positive manner, to the point of using the term “Queer Studies” in an academic sense. In fact, one student who noted she sometimes presented herself as masculine sincerely felt that queer was the right term to describe her situation.

Yet, as a cisgender (and white) individual, I feel uncomfortable using “queer” as I would using terms like “wop” or “spic” or the N-word even though I have heard Italian-Americans and Latinos use those terms. I am not sure it is yet acceptable to use these terms if one isn’t a member of that community.

Prince Charles Shakes Gerry Adams Hand in County Sligo

The BBC had a fairly amazing story of Prince Charles visiting the place where the IRA killed Lord Mountbatten, but also meeting with Gerry Adams of the Sinn Féin. I think a lot of people thought this could never happen.

Back in the 80s-90s the Troubles were still very much active and something a person studying a Celtic language paid attention too. In many ways the issues surrounding Ulster were very difficult and bitters. One the one hand there the Catholic Irish were angry because their country was invaded in the past, but on the other hand, the Protests were now in the majority and did not want to become “Irish” like the Republic of Ireland.

Violence made it all uglier. Many of the legitimate grievances of the Catholics fell on deaf ears as the IRA set off bombs or assassinated people. It wasn’t until I saw In the Name of the Father (with Daniel Day Lewis) that I understood how the British could badly misprosecute suspected IRA members. But see also Cal which shows how seductive, but damaging the IRA could be.

Eventually a cease fire as declared, but I wondered how long it could last geven the mistrust on both sides over many decades. But it has lasted, and this semester when I mentioned Northern Ireland to my students, I got a lot of blanks stares from my students (oy!). There is not harmony by any means, but Adams has made the Sinn Féin (the IRA’s party) a legitimate political force and the British have been more encouraging of Irish language use in Northern Ireland (although some Protestants associate it with IRA unfortunately).

Still it’s nice to see that people can choose to at least tolerate each other if it will stop violence. I think people are also recognizing that Northern Ireland/Ulster has a unique culture which blends both Irish and UK culture. I really hope to visit some day.

Video of the Week: Irish Carlsberg Ad

If you liked One Semester of Spanish Love Song, you’ll enjoy the Carlsberg Irish ad.

The Carlsberg Irish ad stars three Irish lads attempting to get a beer somewhere outside Ireland. As payment, the barkeep demands they “do something Irish”, preferably “singing or dancing”. Instead they choose to recite a “poem in Irish”, which turns out to be random phrases they vaguely remember from their years of mandatory Irish language education. At last, they have found a use for all of those phrases….

Why Linguists Should Worry About Book Prices and Digital Access

An issue that may seem to be a bit esoteric is the pricing of linguistics books on Amazon, but I do think it has a negative impact in efforts to disseminate information among ourselves and to the community. As most linguists know, most new hardback books are usually over $100 to purchase, but even paperbacks can be expensive. Even paperbacks range from the relatively cheap $30 to over $50.

In my experience, the general public is interested in certain linguistic topics such as the history of English (or other heritage languages). They may also be interested in certain policy issues such as education and language. If possible, it would be helpful for people to get reliable information at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, really good linguistics books at a reasonable price are very scarce.

Indo-European Books

One topic that the general public is fascinated with in Indo-European, but it’s also an issue that leads to lots of problematic theories and political debates. The Nazi “Aryan race” is the worst case scenario of tying a linguistic theory to racism. Pointing people to a good Indo-european handbook might help people understand the methodologies more and put the information. These exist, but are usually over $40.

Right now the The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World by J.P. Mallory and D.Q. Adams is selling for just under $60. The Cambridge University Press’ textbook Indo-European Linguistics: An Introduction (Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics) by James Clackson is about $45. Another textbook from Blackwell,
Indo-European Language and Culture: An Introduction by Benjamin Fortson is about $60. The cheapest respectable book is the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European roots (under $17) and a few books that focus more on archaeology than language.

Or you could spend $4.99 (free on Kindle) and get Indo-European Origins by William Davey. Reviews are mixed, but I would be concerned with this review that noted that “Googling for an author’s name did not provide any insight at all in regards with his background, so I’m still in some doubt” (I also could not find much on Google). Nevertheless, other people seem to like it, but is it as well researched as other books? Another reviewer feels dubious. But right now, it’s the top link in Amazon. Hmmm.

Lack of Basic References

In a similar vein, as an instructor, I would like my students to read informed sources about different languages or language families, but helping them find basic information is more frustrating than it needs to be in the digital age. A lot the handbooks I would recommend range between $60 to over $300, and most are print only.

Obviously, no undergraduate would make this investment, and it’s steep even for a graduate student or faculty member. Traditionally students could go to the library for these resources (and I do remind my students to step inside the library), but not all the books may even be in the library. Or they may be on permanent loan to an instructor or desperate graduate student.

At the moment, the quickest source for linguistic facts is Wikipedia, and I’ve been known to look things up myself. Hopefully, some of the editors have been able to fund purchasing of the quality resources I’ve mentioned…but you never know.

How Pricing Affects Awareness

The general assumption of academic publishing is that linguistics books are meant for either libraries or other linguists who will agree to pay an increased price that reflects a buying pool. But now that new digital options have emerged, it is time to rethink how information is distributed and take advantage of cheaper models of distribution. The Rutgers Optimality Archive (ROA) allows researchers to both access and contribute information for free. The Atlas of North American English by William Labov can be licensed by libraries in a digital format any registered user can download. Mouton also provides some information at http://www.atlas.mouton-content.com/.

Libraries are starting to realize these resources are necessary, but we need to find ways to encourage other publishers to make their handbooks more readily available in a digital format. I would also like more of an iTunes model where individual chapters could be purchased as needed.

Our Tax Dollars at Work?

As other organizations such as the Association of Research Libraries have pointed out, many American academic projects are at least partially funded by U.S. government agencies. Therefore, our tax dollars are actually paying for results which should be available to the public. This is similar to the idea that content produced by the federal government is public domain. As many instructors will tell you, it is not as if they expect to live off of royalties from their books based on the limitations of distribution.

It is important to remember that publishers do need to be compensated, but the beauty of the iTunes model is that it provides access to more publishers than traditional music media distribution. It also allows customers more choice in what to buy the chance to preview what they buy. I have become a much more educated music listener thanks to iTunes. It would be great if a similar model could allow people to become more educated citizens.

“Ancient U.S. Weapon”? How old can that be?

The meaning of words can vary from context, and this article about an “Ancient U.S. Weapon” in Syria brought home this point to me.

If you consider that ancient often means “the earliest recorded memory” or sometimes “before our civilization as we know it began”, then definitions can vary across disciplines. In historical linguistics, “ancient” is usually no later than the Roman Empire (at least in my estimation), yet the Academy of Ancient Music is playing pieces by Handel from 1685, which is about the time period when known compositions can be firmly reconstructed. Another semi-amusing case is the PBS program In Search of Ancient Ireland – which apparently ends with the Norman invasion in the 1100s (well into the Middle Ages again). I suspect that any era when Wales, Ireland or Scotland was still under the control of a Celtic language government will be “ancient”.

Still the words “Ancient U.S.” really gave me pause. I know that pre-European history is “Ancient”, although it generally ends between 1492 to 1900 depending on location. But the U.S. itself as “ancient”? That is a new concept for me. Especially since the artifacts were weapons from the 1970s used in the Vietnam War. I actually remember when the troops left Saigon, so definitely in my lifetime.

Analyzing Facebook Posts

The MIT Technology Review published an article about a Penn study analyzing Facebook posts to find correlations betweeen words/phrases and your demographic and personality profile. The actual study is available at the PLOS One Website.

There are lots of interesting correlations for posit, including ones for age predictors. Below are some keywords which are associated with some age groups.

“Words, phrases, and topics most distinguishing subjects aged 13 to 18, 19 to 22, 23 to 29, and 30 to 65. Ordered from top to bottom: 13 to 18 19 to 22 23 to 29, and 30 to 65. Words and phrases are in the center; topics, represented as the 15 most prevalent words, surround. (N~74,859; correlations adjusted for gender; Bonferroni-corrected pv0:001).
doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0073791.g004”

Words vs. Age Groups
13-18 19-22 23-29 30-65
  • school
  • tomorrrow
  • homework
  • English
  • bored
  • math
  • prom
  • hahaha
  • :D
  • <3
  • (:
  • semester
  • fuck/fucking
  • apartment
  • studying
  • campus
  • shit
  • roommate
  • at work
  • enjoying
  • office
  • beer
  • drinks
  • new job
  • company
  • apartment
  • daughter
  • my son
  • my kids
  • fb friends
  • husband
  • repost
  • blessed
  • children
  • prayer(s)

On the whole, I would say that the results do have a certain validity. If you’ve ever been on Facebook, I am sure you will have seen some of these words yourself for your age group. And while I don’t doubt the methodology at all, I would be handout the usual caveats for this kind of study.

Caveats

Who’s in Facebook?

My first caveat is class assumption. The 19-22 word set is dominated by traditional collegiate life with the number one word being “semester” (followed by “fuck”). Other major collegiate-specific words include “campus, studying, classes” and minor words include “papers, exams, assignments, science, professor” and so forth. The list includes recreational words which could be collegiate or not (drunk, hangover), but many students also happen to drink (or talk about drinking) at college.

To me this means that this isn’t just a 19-22 year old sample, but middle class 19-22 year old sample. As many researchers such as danah boyd point out, it is important to note that not EVERYONE is in Facebook, and not everyone is in a particular social media environment.

Personality and Community?

The article also discusses correlations between personality type and word use. For instance, people who test as introvert are apparently interested in “computers” and “anime” (vs. “party” and “boys/girls” for extraverts), while those who are “neurotic” tend to use words like “depressed”, “sick of” and “fucking” (vs “success, basketball, lakers, success” for the emotionally stable).

Again, I don’t necessarily dispute the results, but I do wonder if the notion of “performance” has been taken into account. What I mean by performance is that people may write in a certain style and on certain topics in order to conform to some social norm such as what is expected of a particular gender.

To take a personal example, my Facebook network includes a lot of co-workers and family. I don’t necessarily share everything with everyone on Facebook. I watch a certain amount of manga, but I choose to not talk about it on Facebook since it’s not usually relevant to my circle. Instead, I tend to talk about the far more socially acceptable topic of pets and babies (I have a corgi and he is soooo cute!). I would be curious if my word cloud skewed towards extrovert or not.

Facebook may truly indicate personality preferences, but it is not the same thing as a personal journal.

Sociological Ha Ha or Sociological Faux Pas?

Now that I’m teaching sociolinguistics again, I am having to consider the line between presenting a topic humorously in order to reach out to students and coming off as being either flip or sensitive.

If I may have an ironic sociological moment here, this is an issue that many educated white people of the sarcastic persuasion have to consider. What I may see through an ironic lens someone else really could see as insulting.

Consider the 80s film The Gods Must Be Crazy from South Africa. The plot is that Xi, an indigenous African still living the ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle discovers a Coca-Cola bottle dropped from a plane. The tribe has theoretically never seen anything like it and consider it a gift from the gods. At some point Xi goes on a quest to learn more about the divine object and ends up encountering the bizarre civilization of white modern South Africa. It was crazy all right.

If you take the plot literally, it sounds like an insulting portrait of “naive” natives. However, I and others have actually considered it a parody of how white anthropologists work with non-Western cultures. Although most academics no longer see these cultures as being “barbaric”, they may still be seen as sweetly childlike, which can be just as damaging. This movie though shows that Xi and his people have plenty of common sense, especially in comparison to the ditzy white South Africaners.

In reality of course, almost all “indigenous” peoples have been in contact with the West for decades now and many have either voluntarily or been forced to give up their traditional lifestyle. This can often be very tragic, but it can also lead to juxtapositions of people in traditional African dress texting on their cell phones. Or men shopping in an Afghan bazaar. It’s a good reminder that traditional peoples can adopt to new technology quite well when they see the benefits.

But as much as I like the satiric aspect of the movie, I will admit that it’s still a white perspective of indigenous peoples, and that means there is always potential for misunderstanding and offense. This why I may have to create a “Foot in Mouth” badge to capture those times when my sarcasm goes awry. On the other hand, sometimes humor makes a point more efficiently and more memorably than any sincerely heartfelt presentation ever could.

I think the world really needs is more movies from around the world and definitely more snark from everyone around the world. Maybe then we can all have a good laugh together.