All About America

How 'They' Became Word of the Decade

By Dora Mekouar
February 18, 2020 03:54 PM

As a Ph.D. student in linguistics who identifies as a nonbinary, transgender man, Maxwell Schmid was thrilled when the American Dialect Society selected the word “they” (singular) as the Word of the Decade.  

“I think it's really amazing. I feel like we've (taken) this giant step forward,” says Schmid, who studies at the University of Delaware. “I think it brings a lot of visibility to the transgender community and gender-expansive community ... we're saying this is really important, and here's why it's important.”

Schmid personally uses the pronouns he and they. The American Dialect Society, which has a membership that includes professional and amateur linguists, academics, teachers and writers, also selected the term, “(my) pronouns” as its Word of 2019.    

Linguist Maxwell Schmid, who identifies as a non-binary, transgender man, welcomes the selection of "they" as the Word of the Decade. (Photo courtesy of Maxwell Schmid)

The selections are a nod to the growing trend on college campuses of sharing one’s pronouns. More U.S. companies are also beginning to encourage employees to use gender pronouns in their email signatures.  

It’s an acknowledgment of people who identify as nonbinary, which means they don’t strictly categorize themselves as a man or woman.  

“Often the word is meant to reflect something that was meaningful not just to linguists, but a word that was important in society that year or in that decade,” says Evan Bradley, an assistant professor of psychology at Penn State Brandywine.  

The selection indicates that American society is paying attention to how individuals view themselves in the context of gender.

“If you go back to the beginning of the decade and you ask someone, ‘What are your pronouns?’ most of my students would not have understood what I'm talking about,” Bradley says. “But now when I do that, most students today, they know what I mean. So, it's been a big shift over the past decade.”

Western Washington University provides examples of email signatures that include pronouns on a university website. (Courtesy Western Washington University)

Reed Blaylock, a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at the University of Southern California, was among those who voted for "they” as the Word of the Decade.

“I voted for ‘they’ because as a linguist, I like the idea of a pronoun — a part of speech that historically hasn't gotten a lot of attention from people in day-to-day life — suddenly being in the spotlight,” he told VOA via email. “ I also have a friend who recently started using they/them, and I thought they would appreciate it if ‘they’ was the Word of the Decade.”

Schmid, who doesn’t identify strictly as male or female, says using the correct pronouns is a matter of basic human respect.

“When I go out of my way and I say, ‘My pronouns are he and they, and somebody uses those pronouns correctly with me, then I feel seen, and I feel respected,” he says.  

Schmid is encouraged by Sweden’s adoption of a gender-neutral pronoun. In addition to “hon” (she) and “han” (he), the use of gender-neutral “hen” is slowly gaining more acceptance and occasionally appears in Swedish news articles.

“Society was actually able to adopt it, and then people's minds started changing,” he says. “Sometimes we think the opposite, that we have to wait for people to change their minds before something becomes implemented.”

FILE - In this May 17, 2016, photo, a sticker designates a gender neutral bathroom at Nathan Hale high school in Seattle in Washington state.

As to the future of gender pronouns, Bradley thinks the selection of they as the Word of the Decade might make Americans more open to using neopronouns, the pronouns used in place of he, she, or singular they, primarily by nonbinary people  

“I think the work that has been done on they, both by linguists and by activists over the past decade, has kind of laid a foundation or moved the window on the feasibility of neopronouns. So, I'm kind of curious what will happen with them,” he says. “Once people who don't use they in the nonbinary sense, once they learn how to do it, they might find it easier to use neopronouns, as well.”

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