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There have been many pro­posed epicene or gen­der-neu­tral pronouns that have been pro­posed over the years and have re­ceived some level of use. My ques­tion is: do all of them mean the same thing? Are they synonyms for each other? Is it even pos­si­ble for pro­nouns to have syn­onyms?

That is, if a per­son has in­di­cated that oth­ers should re­fer to them with gen­der-neu­tral pro­nouns, is the choice of which pro­noun to use (e.g. sin­gu­lar they, Spi­vak pro­nouns, thon, etc.) a ques­tion of per­sonal pref­er­ence, style (e.g. per­haps a spe­cific mag­a­zine de­cides to stan­dard­ize on us­ing thon for all per­sons not iden­ti­fy­ing as “he” or “she”), or prag­mat­ics, or is there a deeper is­sue of mean­ing?

For ex­am­ple, is there a pro­noun that refers only to trans­men, and where use of the pro­noun to re­fer to peo­ple who are not trans­men (e.g. women or cis­men) is to some ex­tent dis­cour­aged or con­sid­ered in­cor­rect?


Please note

This ques­tion is ob­vi­ously re­lated to the re­cent con­tro­versy on Stack Ex­change, but is in­tended to be an in­de­pen­dent ques­tion about the English lan­guage and not an at­tempt to bring the con­tro­versy here. To be clear, I’m not ask­ing for opin­ions on the cur­rent con­tro­versy. I’m ask­ing if there has been any in­di­ca­tion (e.g. through re­search, or even ac­tivism) to in­di­cate that these pro­nouns have dis­tinct mean­ings as op­posed to sim­ply be­ing pre­ferred or des­ig­nated by dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, or rec­om­mended based on so­cial, po­lit­i­cal, or reg­u­la­tory rea­sons.

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What you're looking for likely doesn't exist because authority on this topic is still decentralized, so systematic study is not yet meaningful.

I think it's worth considering what a systematic study might look like: Let's say someone did a scientific survey of what each pronoun means to a large group of people. What survey cohort would be relevant?

Most people in a representative cross-section of the U.S. would have no idea how epicene personal pronouns are used. The implied meaning of a personal epicene pronoun is currently being driven by people who require them, and not by a plurality of usage, so it's not even clear what metric would believably predict future usage.

If you restricted your survey to people who require epicene pronouns, it would exclude how binary (for want of a better word) people understand usage of them, which would bias your study for what people intend their pronoun to mean, and against what they are understood to mean. This is complicated by the fact that there is no consensus among people who require epicene pronouns, so cues about eventual usage might be indistinguishable from the noise in current usage.

In your question, you specify that "I’m ask­ing if there has been any in­di­ca­tion (e.g. through re­search, or even ac­tivism) to in­di­cate that these pro­nouns have dis­tinct mean­ings as op­posed to sim­ply be­ing pre­ferred or des­ig­nated by dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties..." (emphasis mine). I would argue that the two are inseparable. People who require epicene pronouns, and express preferences for one, are currently determining what their future meaning will be.

I believe this is a topic that can only be resolved by continued usage in the wild and dialogue among people who care about the issue. Essentially, every essay or expression of pronoun preference is then authoritative, and therefore just as likely to determine future usage as any other essay or expression of preference.

In answer to your question, there is every indication that some epicene pronouns are preferred by certain segments of the LGBTQ community, but no agreement within or among segments. I'm not an expert on neologisms, but this seems to be a special case in which the neologism(s) is/are clearly necessary, but we do not yet have consensus on what word(s) should be used, or what personal characteristics/preferences each should imply, or if they should imply anything at all. Until some consensus is reached, authority on this topic will likely remain completely decentralized among people who require epicene personal pronouns.

It's worth noting that the same argument I use to illustrate that a study might not be meaningful could be used to illustrate that a pilot study is necessary.

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  • I think the whole question is far too broad; OP omits clearly available research, and so do you (or at least references / links). However, as this answer makes consummate sense, I'll not downvote. Just add this caveat to discourage other unsupported answers. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 16 '19 at 18:49
  • I agree on all counts. My argument is that no reference/link is relevant at the present time. – mRotten Oct 16 '19 at 19:03
  • You are mistaken, the authority is very much centralized, in every single case of authoritative argument made. If any of these becomes spread so widely as to survive through peer to peer transmission, then it will be decentralized. Sorry for the rant, "decentralization" is kind of a red herring. – vectory Oct 16 '19 at 19:16
  • "I agree on all counts. My argument is that no reference/link is relevant at the present time." But one count is that "OP omits clearly available research, and so do you (or at least references / links)." For instance, Wikipedia's "For people who are transgender, style guides and associations of journalists and health professionals advise use of the pronoun preferred or considered appropriate by the person in question". Of course this is relevant. – Edwin Ashworth Oct 17 '19 at 15:49
  • @EdwinAshworth Clearly available != relevant. Yes, I omit clearly available research, but it's because I don't think it's relevant. Every healthcare professional guideline I read essentially says "use people's preferred pronoun". That says nothing about whether there is some emerging trend for using a certain pronoun for a certain segment of the LGBTQ community. Even if I could find one that suggested some trend exists (which I couldn't), what possible study could have been done to determine that? – mRotten Oct 17 '19 at 16:10
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I’m a nonbinary/genderqueer person and the answer is yes. Epicene pronouns in English like sie/hir, xe/xem, ze/hir, e/em, ey/em, thon/thons (we could go on all day) do not have semantic differences. The only reason why a person might prefer one or the other comes down to personal preference. Most of the examples given on the Wikipedia page were coined as an alternative to singular they for persons whose genders are unknown, but they’ve in recent years been adopted by nonbinary and genderqueer activists. As far as I can tell, there’s no consensus on whether or not pronouns can have synonyms, but if they can, all the examples listed on Wikipedia would be.

No pronoun is a “nonbinary pronoun”. No pronoun is a “transgender pronoun”, or indeed a pronoun specifically for trans women or trans men. Any person of any gender can use any pronoun.

How do I know? I’m extensively involved in trans and nonbinary activism (both online and off) and I come across people who use neopronouns multiple times a day. I myself forgo singular they/them in favour of ey/em because I prefer the way they sound and because ey/em is conjugated singularly, which makes it less objectionable in my experience.

I’ll give you an extra tip, though, since you might find it relevant: Different pronouns may have different origins that may affect how people who use them feel about them. For example, ne/nem was created in science fiction and may retain those science-fiction origins for some people. As another example, per/pers and hu/hum are based off of words (person and human), so some people may be cognizant of that when they choose those pronouns. One of my friends who uses ae/aer pronouns knows that they were coined in a science-fiction novel and loves that aspect of them, since ae’s a nerd, but another friend wasn’t aware that they were coined in a science-fiction novel until I told aer. Generally, I would say that most people who use neopronouns aren’t aware of their origins since they’ve gained such traction as “alternative pronouns” divorced from context and coining. Or else they might use “nounself” pronouns with forms like bun/buns/bunself where the origins are evident.

Sorry if this isn’t as relevant as I hoped, I’m a first-time poster.

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  • But the question is whether a trend has emerged wherein one pronoun refers to one segment of the LGBTQIA community. – mRotten Oct 18 '19 at 14:16

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