Short answer: Yes.
Glad we dispatched with this important question so quickly. Feel free to click away to this story about the most popular gender-neutral baby names. Oh, you’re still here? Hmm, well I was going to talk about gender-neutral words for your spouse’s sibling and the World Atlas of Syntactic Structures, if you’re into that. But before I start, let’s get on the same page about a few things.
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First. Despite the assertions of grammar sticklers and mansplainers, language is messy, mushy and never completely baked. It’s less of an item with defined boundaries and more of a Bronte-esque foggy morass. Which is what makes it so great! It’s fluid — like gender! The Oxford English Dictionary, arguably the stodgiest yet most official sanctifier of the English language, makes revisions on a quarterly basis. Their most recent update pumped the dictionary up by 1,400 new terms, including “Twittersphere” and “bae.” So, language is nothing if not ever-changing and adapting.
Second. Gender-neutrality in languages is not new, and it’s not weird. Some languages have three or more “genders” — some are entirely lacking gender. As this very in-depth article by Gretchen McCulloch points out, “of the 257 languages surveyed in the World Atlas of Syntactic Structures, 112 of them have some system of grammatical gender. That’s 43%.” Unlike bae, bromance and cannabis cafe, gender-neutral pronouns are not new to the English language. Shakespeare used “they” with singular antecedents, as did Chaucer.
Third. The relationship between language, meaning, and culture has been a popular and confounding matter for folks in anthropology, sociology, linguistics and philosophy for potentially close to as long as language has existed. So, let’s merely agree that language and culture have a complex bond, and that how we view the world is affected by language and our language is affected by how we view the world.
To whit, as our culture has shifted to create greater space for women and queer/trans/nonbinary folks in the workplace, the halls of government and in new relationship structures, our language has shifted as well. As early as 1901, the marriage-neutral honorific “Ms.” was proposed as an equivalent to Mr. Though it had been batted around since the late 1970s, the gender-neutral “Mx” recently joined the honorific ranks and was added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary in 2017. We have grown increasingly comfortable with inclusive terms for roles like police officer, fire fighter, meteorologist, and congressperson. In more intimate settings, “partner” (rather than girlfriend or boyfriend or husband or wife) has gained so much ground that it’s now meme fodder.
“It’s going to sound simplistic but, the words you use matter,” said Efrén Pérez, a professor of Political Science and Psychology at UCLA. Last month, Pérez and co-author Margot Tavits, a professor at the University of Washington St. Louis, published research on how using gender-neutral pronouns effects gender equality and tolerance.
“A lot for the initial pushback to that gender neutral pronoun was ‘how could this really matter? It’s the P.C. police going crazy,’” said Pérez. “What our evidence shows as well is, dramatic shifts, no, but meaningful shifts nonetheless.”
The researchers conducted three large-scale experiments in Sweden, following the effect of introducing hen, a much-talked about gender-neutral pronoun. What they found was that having and using this gender-neutral pronoun, made people less likely to default to male, or to any particular gender.
“Language makes associations of things or categories mentally salient for you,” said Tavits, “It makes certain associations front of mind.” When you un-do those associations, or expand to allow for inclusive, neutral options, speakers form new habits of mind. Not only did Tavits and Pérez’ research demonstrate a shift in how readily male-coding came to mind, participants showed more favorable attitudes toward LGBT individuals.
“Research shows that anti-LGBT sentiment is rooted in people’s traditional view of gender roles,” said Tavits, whose first language is Estonian, which effectively has no linguistic gender. If you think men should be X and women should be Y, then those who don’t conform to X or Y cause a sense of violation, linguistic or otherwise. But expand the linguistic possibilities, and you create space for other ways of being.
“If the roles don’t exist than the people who don’t fit the roles aren’t violating anything,” said Tavits. By removing baked-in expectations, you’re linguistically creating space for a broader range of possibility.
If the introduction of hen could have a marked effect on Swedish adults, imagine the impact linguistic shifts could have on children.
That’s where we all come in. Alongside movements for gender-inclusive pronouns, members in the queer community and beyond have begun raising the question around inclusive family terms. In English, we already have some: sibling, parent, cousin, child, grandparent. Yet there are gaps. What to call your the nonbinary sibling of your parent, for example? Auncle or Untie has been proposed, but I failed to encounter anyone using them and frankly.
More widespread in usage is a gender-inclusive term for your siblings child, “nibling.” Nibling was coined in 1951, but now, as child-free millennials obsessively post about their siblings kids, it has grown in popularity. Alternately, the tumblersphere has offered us chibling or sibkid for child of a sibling; grandy for any grandparent; titi or zaza or nini in the place of parent’s sibling.
Where words fail us, we must create new words. It’s weird, but it’s also painfully normal.
“There are still plenty of folks that get weirded out, it’s not something they’re accustomed to,” said Efrén Pérez. “But in Sweden, they practiced, they made it less weird and now it has shifted their culture.”
Basically, practice makes…well, if not perfect, then less weird.
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