Trans-English

It’s not just jargon. It’s dialect.

When I speak every couple of weeks with my young detransitioner friend Calvin, who lives in Washington State, I have to remind myself that the words he uses can have completely different definitions. He mentions an ex-boyfriend, and we chat for a while about their relationship; then, I suddenly realize that he’s talking about a female. It’s discombobulating. It strips away my ability to imagine the detail and texture of his life. The two women he was living with at the time — were they women women? Or something else?

This is a common problem for parents whose kids have declared themselves to be trans. They find themselves lost in a new and unfamiliar world. Lesbians might or might not have penises; boys might or might not have breasts. ‘He’ and ‘she’ have gone from reliable indicators of real-world categories to linguistic overgarments saying little about the bodies they cloak. ‘Can my friend come over this weekend?’ the boy asks his mother. ‘You’d really like him.’ ‘Fine,’ says the mother, barely looking up from the latest endocrinology paper her PhD-level research into gender has thrust her way. But when she opens the door that Saturday, ‘him’ turns out to look like anything but.

Much of the linguistic focus in the transgender debate has been placed on definitions, and the opening out of established categories to the point that they’ve become almost impossible to define. But it’s worth pointing out the vastness of the new lexicon of transgenderism. We now have enbies and biromantics, troons and truescum, deadnaming and misgendering, demiboys and acerosexuals, a head-spinning array of terminology which Generation Gender seems to take in its stride. The speech forms of online transgender communities are often quite intricate, finessing tiny distinctions between this and that; at other times, the philosophies they articulate are so wildly different that they barely sound like English at all.

This is what is usually called a jargon: a specific subset of words attached to a language for certain purposes, such as plumbing or violin-playing or biochemical research. Jargons can be quite expansive. Gastro-intestinal oncologists will have hundreds of vocabulary items which they don’t share with florists; florists in turn have their own lexicon, inaccessible to air traffic controllers; and so on. Scrolling through Twitter, you could be forgiven for thinking that Trans-English is the most developed jargon of all. The proliferation of new categories goes way beyond slang. It’s world-building.

But Trans-English isn’t just the addition of new words to the body of the lexicon. Pronouns are switching from a closed class (like prepositions) to an open one (like verbs), to which words can be added at will. Just as I can create the verb ‘to Pelosify’ (pick your meaning according to your political bias), so many speakers of Trans-English create ‘zer’ and ‘xim’. Equally, nouns have gone from uncountable (‘puberty’) to countable (‘a puberty I don’t want’), for ideological reasons indicating a deeper cognitive and even spiritual shift below. This is far more than a jargon; it is a change in syntax. Trans-English is a dialect.

I can see that some people might find this argument a bit dramatic, but I’ll defend it by pointing out that dialects aren’t just geographical. Dialects can also be based on class: some British English speakers eat dinner in the evening, while others eat it in the middle of the day. Arguably, in a few corners of the world, sex can be the basis of dialect: the Arawakan language Garifuna has certain words which only men use, and which have equivalents only used by women, including words denoting quite humdrum concepts. Imagine that all English-speaking men say ‘zucchini’, ‘sidewalk’ and ‘fender’, and all English-speaking women say ‘courgette’, ‘pavement’ and ‘bumper’. Feels like a dialect, right?

It’s not an obvious thought, but it’s possible to have different dialects spoken by people living in the same town, on the same street, or even in the same home. This will ring true for therapists working with transitioning kids. When the members of Generation Gender say ‘woman’ or ‘man’, they are depicting an internal sensation, which ultimately has to be taken on trust. For us, they imply — well, what’s in front of us. In some cases, even those detransitioners who believe that the ideology of gender identity has profoundly harmed them continue to use these words differently from their therapists. Just as Sting’s Englishman in New York must remind himself that an American’s ‘jelly’ is his ‘jam’, acquired dialectal forms can prove hard to shift. It’s strange to hear a detransitioner still using the language of transgenderism; but those of us on the outside of the transgender community have to remember that, while detransitioners may have moved on from the logic of self-ID, their friends may not have.

Whether or not you buy this thesis, trans-English can certainly require a lot of translation. And, like trans-Atlantic communication, both parties should have patience. I don’t expect Calvin to know what I mean by ‘Chancellor of the Exchequer’ (Finance Minister) or ‘sleeping policeman’ (speed bump); likewise, he shouldn’t expect me to know what badlands are (we don’t have them) or what filibustering is (our politicians don’t do that, or at least don’t gain any advantage from doing it). But, for the parents of trans-identifying kids, the onus appears only to be on one side: they are expected to amend their language to match that of their kids. It’s a kind of one-way behaviour which might seem a reasonable expectation, were the parents in some tiny and dwindling minority. But the truth is quite the opposite: why else would the New York Times propagandize these new definitions with such great force? After all, they don’t pump out endless thinkpieces on how Belgium is in Europe.

Parents should demand, then, that their dialects also be respected. They are not speakers of Pitcairnese who have to explain some local term only known to a handful of families. It is perfectly legitimate to insist that the meanings you ascribe to words are as valid as those which your sons and daughters ascribe — in fact, given the semantic wobbliness of Trans-English, it’s a politeness. You have the right of construal: the right to perceive and interpret the world around in the manner to which you are accustomed. When I say ‘sleeping policeman’, the speed bumps of American cities do not explode; when I say ‘women’ to exclude people who are 6'4" and have beards, no-one’s life is threatened. If we’re talking different dialects, let’s admit it. And let’s preserve the dialect of English which makes sense to us.

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