Language shapes thoughts as thoughts flow into language; often we need a word for a thing before we can talk about it meaningfully. We deal with this a lot in academia – much of research is just spending time exhaustively showing a valuable purpose for a name, then putting that name to a thing. The word ludic has a sibling word, paidic, for example, but that word is far less well-known, far less well-shared than ludic.
Language changes what we know, what we can know. Language also is full of features, small and clever and insidious that guide what we can talk about, how we can talk about them.
You might know me as someone who has beef with the English language. A bunch of different, smaller beefs, but one of my beefs is that we have gendered pronouns and almost nothing else. This means that for people, expressing gender can often be about choosing pronouns, which is a feature of language that should be unnecessary.
In this tweet from last year, we see an example of a gendering that happens in English, a gendering that happens because of how we expect to interact with people. Crucially, using the terms sir and miss is seen as a mark of politeness. That is, to be polite, to be properly respectful, you’re required to make a judgment about a stranger’s voice.
This is a phenomenon that affects cis people as much as trans people, by the way! Infamously, Conan O’Brien used to share a story about how he was routinely misgendered on the phone for having a high voice. Many cis boys who are sensitive about their pitch as their voice is breaking grapple with how, on a phone, with nothing but a voice, they are sometimes called by someone striving to be respectful something that’s insulting.
This is ridiculous. This is a feature of our language that was doesn’t even vaguely fit alongside our modern life. If I talk to someone with a name that doesn’t come from a tiny window of cultural space, I’m not going to get cues from that.
I don’t have an alternative, I just think about it, as someone who calls people on the phone. Sometimes I have an interaction with someone for five minutes, and that’s it. In that time, I have to learn how they talk, learn how to decipher their particular slang, how fast they talk, how slow they talk, whether they take long pauses – and in that time, adding in how do I gender this person politely is really messed up.
Anyway, this is a thing language does. It’s annoying.
Maybe we should stop with ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am.’
But my habits are there, so … welp, I’m hosed.