Panel discussing linguistics behind pronoun usage stirs controversy

Tuesday, September 24, 2019 - 8:46pm

LSA Lecturer Scott Larson and Professor of Linguistics Robin Queen speak at the third annual High Stakes Culture: The Power of Pronouns at the Center for Humanities Tuesday.

LSA Lecturer Scott Larson and Professor of Linguistics Robin Queen speak at the third annual High Stakes Culture: The Power of Pronouns at the Center for Humanities Tuesday. Buy this photo
Asha Lewis/Daily

The Institute for the Humanities hosted “The Power of Pronouns” as part of their High Stakes Culture series Tuesday evening. Panelists spoke about the linguistics behind gendered pronouns and what language may be used in the future. However, some students in attendance took issue with the framing of the discussion and felt the academic language used shrouded more important human elements of the subject, with the event failing to disclose why pronouns were so important in the first place. 

According to Kristin Hass, faculty coordinator of the Humanities Collaboratory, the event was intended to discuss linguistic and historical research of pronouns. 

“We were asked by undergraduates for a conversation about pronouns that turned on research of faculty who are interested in the linguistic and the historical nature of pronouns that, kind of, bring us to where we are in this moment on the question of pronouns, and how they get used, and why they are high stakes to all of us,” Hass said. 

Panelists American culture professor Scott Larson, who identifies as a trans person, and linguistics professor Robin Queen, who identifies as a cis person — or someone who identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth — and a lesbian, talked about the history of pronouns in the United States, the evolution of language, the linguistics behind gender neutral pronouns and how future generations might approach pronouns. 

“Part of what makes it hard is that pronouns aren’t like other nouns,” Queen said. “Pronouns are of a particular class of word that’s what’s called ‘closed.’ You can’t just add to it. We can add all day long to nouns and verbs, we can have new verbs and new nouns and we do it all the time. But that’s because those types of words are open, they’re in an open class. But what we’re seeing is that you can change (pronouns). And that’s happening right now.”

After the panelists spoke, Associate Dean Angela Dillard invited audience members, consisting of around 40 students, faculty and staff, to ask questions or raise comments. That’s when LSA junior Jordan Furr, who identifies as a trans person, stood in front of the room and voiced his concerns. 

“The title is ‘The Power of the Pronoun,’ and I think it’s ridiculous that we got into so much stress about grammatical issues, when the power of the pronoun should be about how powerful it is, how much pronouns used matter when you use them for people, and how misgendering someone can be very, very harmful,” Furr said.

His comment earned a few snaps and claps from the audience. After the event, Queen responded to Furr’s comment, saying her intent was not to ignore the human consequences of pronoun usage.

“I’m sort of a nerdy, language geek, and I think it’s really fascinating to see how this works within the grammatical system,” Queen said. “Perhaps it was misguided on my part not to be more specific about the ways in which that has political consequences for all kinds of people … I apologize for that, because that was not at all my intent, and it is also not what I believe personally or academically.”

"Furr said he believes trans issues, such as pronoun usage, should be represented by trans-identifying individuals who are personally affected. While one speaker at the event did identify as trans, no one on the panel used “they/them” pronouns. 

“I also would just like to say I think that if you’re going to have a sort of debate on they/them pronouns, it’s ridiculous to not have someone who uses they/them pronouns to speak about why they use them and how they feel about that,” Furr said. “You tokenize Scott as a trans person to give the rest of you credibility. But at the end of the day, only trans people should be talking about this. And yes, whatever, linguistics, academia, but overall I think that the University of Michigan that claims to be liberal could do a lot better.”

However, both Furr and LSA senior Katrina Stalcup, who identifies as cisgender, believe Queen was symptomatic of a system that privileges cis identity and perspective.

“It’s not about just one individual person doing something transphobic, it’s about cis people getting away with doing that,” Stalcup said. “Everything she did isn’t uniquely something that only she does. That’s quantified by all the questions that came afterwards where a cis man reiterated what Jordan said, and just completely invalidated the thing that he had said.”