Activism through Grammar: Why 2015’s Word of the Year is Revolutionary

Gender fluidity (Author’s Note: I am a genderfluid user of they/them/theirs pronouns. Though this post will focus on ‘they’ as a gender-neutral pronoun, it is not the only gender-neutral pronoun out there. ‘They’ does not carry higher legitimacy than any other pronoun.)

For twenty-six years, the American Dialect Society has met to decide what would gain the prestigious title of ‘Word of the Year.’ Over the years, various subcategories have come to fruition, such as ‘Most Useful’ and ‘Most Creative,’ but being the WOTY is truly the most coveted spot. This year, hundreds of linguists travel from all over the world for this event, including myself. It’s very much like the linguist’s Oscars. These people care deeply about language and how it functions in our lives. Most sociolinguists focus their work around how language is used to either uplift or oppress. They work tirelessly to destigmatize dialects and dismantle language oppression. To a degree, choosing the WOTY is a manner of activism. 2014’s choice, #BlackLivesMatter, made a statement about how language could bring together people from across the globe to take a stand against racial oppression. This year, the American Name Society took a vote on the Name of the Year. ‘Caitlyn Jenner’ was chosen to denote the important role a name plays when it comes to expressing one’s gender identity.

This was the year of ‘They.’

The gender-neutral singular pronoun, had gained both the title of “Most Useful” and the coveted WOTY spot with an overwhelming majority. ‘They’ as a singular pronoun has been a part of our language since the 1400s; most notably in the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer. Though many critics denote it as a plural-only pronoun, it’s been used in either form since it’s inception. Yet, 2015 was the year that it really gained traction as a pronoun for non-binary identities. The success of ‘they’ over many other gender-neutral pronouns is due to the fact that it already exists in our language as such.

Hundreds of linguists and self-proclaimed grammar geeks took it upon themselves to say it’s time to stop using grammar as an excuse to misgender. They also made the important distinction that a personal pronoun does not have to be validated by linguists in order to be a way in which you express your identity. Language does not define us, we define it.

‘They’ is here to stay.

(To read more about the event you can visit the ADS website here: http://www.americandialect.org/2015-word-of-the-year-is-singular-they)

By Talia Betourney