When gender changed between past and present

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eldin raigmore
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When gender changed between past and present

Post by eldin raigmore »

Does any natlang or conlang have any pronouns for use in past-tense (or future-tense?) clauses, to indicate what the gender of the antecedent was (or will be?) at the time being spoken of, while also respecting the gender self-identification of the antecedent at the time of the speech act?

I have a grandnephew who was born physiologically female and still is physiologically female. (He wouldn’t have the money or the age to get gender-reassignment surgery, and as far as I know hasn’t expressed any desire for it, anyway.) His stepmother, who is my niece, has told me he prefers “he/him/his” pronouns. This is a recent decision, though I imagine his father and twin sister and stepmother have been expecting it for a couple of years.
Whenever I talk about past experiences he and I had together, when he was still self-identifying as a girl, I feel the lack of a way to call him “him” while at the same time recognizing that back then he was calling himself “her”. As far as I know nobody else notices me hesitating to give priority to his current choice; it seems obvious that’s what I should do. But I wish modern English had a sufficiently quick way to acknowledge that back then a different choice would have been the polite one.

I have another grand-nibling — the second-cousin of the boy above — who has always been physiologically male, who has recently declared they are not yet old enough to decide on a gender. Their parents, and their grandmother my sister, have decided to use “they/them/their” pronouns to refer to that grandnephew (I think they’ve only decided to change the pronouns, not the nouns —— I could be wrong; I should check next weekend before the Among Us game). It is my impression that they(singular) happily endorsed the decision that they (plural — that is, all the adults involved) recommended to them, rather than insisting on the change of pronoun; after all, their assertion is that they’re still too young to decide.

Theoretically there could be a scenario in which the speaker knows what the gender of the referent in some future clause will be, and knows that it will be a different gender than what it is now.

....

As far as I know the phenomenon of changing gender is a very novel thing linguistically.
Is that perhaps not so? Does some older natculture both have experience with genders changing, and also speak a language with genders?
If so, what’s their answer to my questions?

And whatever the case with natlangs, does anyone have a conlang that solves this problem?
Khemehekis
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Re: When gender changed between past and present

Post by Khemehekis »

eldin raigmore wrote: 19 Jan 2021 01:11 And whatever the case with natlangs, does anyone have a conlang that solves this problem?
In Kankonian (and a number of my other conlangs, such as Shaleyan), this isn't a problem to begin with, because pronouns are all epicene.
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sangi39
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Re: When gender changed between past and present

Post by sangi39 »

Seems this post has appeared three times across the Board. Since this one has been replied to first, I'll delete the other two [:)]
You can tell the same lie a thousand times,
But it never gets any more true,
So close your eyes once more and once more believe
That they all still believe in you.
Just one time.
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Re: When gender changed between past and present

Post by eldin raigmore »

Khemehekis wrote: 19 Jan 2021 01:19 In Kankonian (and a number of my other conlangs, such as Shaleyan), this isn't a problem to begin with, because pronouns are all epicene.
I expected as much from some conlangs and most natlangs.
That’s escaping the problem rather than solving it, for my purpose here of asking this specific question.
Some “reformers” of English would recommend English do the same; but my one grandnephew definitely wants to be he/him now and definitely used to be she/her, so that wouldn’t satisfy him.
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eldin raigmore
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Re: When gender changed between past and present

Post by eldin raigmore »

sangi39 wrote: 19 Jan 2021 01:36 Seems this post has appeared three times across the Board. Since this one has been replied to first, I'll delete the other two [:)]
OK.
I read the stickies of all three subfora, and this question didn’t fit any of them; but I didn’t think it belonged in Everything Else either.
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Re: When gender changed between past and present

Post by Khemehekis »

Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if in future English, everyone was a "they", because the plural "they" had followed the pattern of "you" and come to be both plural and singular. "He" and "she" would become as archaic as "thou" and "ye", but at least one wouldn't need to ask a person their pronouns anymore.

However, I could see "it" surviving, especially for abstract uses like "It's raining" or "It's been a long time".
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Re: When gender changed between past and present

Post by dva_arla »

I won't expect hardly any natlang to adhere to such gender-arrangement you propose, since the scenario you posit doesn't happen often enough in the history of mankind.
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Re: When gender changed between past and present

Post by eldin raigmore »

dva_arla wrote: 19 Jan 2021 09:26 I won't expect hardly any natlang to adhere to such gender-arrangement you propose, since the scenario you posit doesn't happen often enough in the history of mankind.
I expect if one does, it’s an innovation going back to the 1950s at the very earliest.
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Re: When gender changed between past and present

Post by Salmoneus »

On the contrary, gender-changing is very common. Well, it's "oh, it's that thing again" common, though it's not "oh not another culture with that thing" common. European cultural imperialism, however, has made it much less frequent.


In a lot of cultures with (using the term for the sake of convenience, in a broad sense, despite possible translation issues, and meaning no offence) "transgender" phenomena, the change is not recognised. There's a kind of re-writing, in which we have always been at war with Eurasia: despite what you may think you remember, the person was always what they are now. Our culture is one of these: if your nephew is "he", he has always been he, and it's greatly taboo to suggest that he was ever "she". If really pressed, I think the most common line would be that he always ought to have been known as "he", but some people (possibly including himself) just didn't realise it at the time. Not all transgender people in our culture actually feel this way, but this is the current convention our culture employs. This can cause linguistic issues, yes, but they're rarely catastrophic, so it's more important to avoid giving offence. I suspect that if you feel it's too sensitive to directly discuss this with your nephew, then it's too sensitive for you to just experiment with either.

[A similar but more problematic issue is the question of names. It's become taboo to "deadname" people by calling them the name they used to go by - fair enough. But some people take it to the extent of treating it as taboo to even mention that they previously were known by another name, which is fine if it's someone you know, but can be really problematic if you're behind the news. Recently, for instance, there were lots of stories saying that Elliot Page had declared he was a man, and wanted to be known as Elliot - which kind of didn't feel like news, given his name! The first article I read refused to acknowledge that he had ever been known by any other name, and although it mentioned some of his filmography in an attempt to give us some idea who he was, none of it immediately rang a bell, so I legitimately didn't know who they were talking about, which kind of defeated the point of having a news story about him. The second article I saw grudgingly buried a "at a time when he was commonly known as Ellen" deep into the story, at which point I finally knew who they were talking about. Thank the gods he didn't change his surname at the same time. Personally, I suspect that society is overreacting here, having recognised that people had previously been offensive by insisting on the old name at all times, and that eventually when things settle down, we'll be able to at least mention prior biographical facts (like the name on an Equity card) when it's genuinely called for, without fear giving offence - but for now it's better to be safe than sorry, I guess.]



However, there are also many cultures in which people do clearly change their gender. This usually happens when a woman becomes a man, because a man is socially required, despite having previously fulfilled roles that only a woman can, in that society, hold. The textbook case are the Nuer, in which a woman is sometimes required to become a man in order to marry a woman and beget children upon her, in order to maintain the patriline. The Nuer believe(d?) that women aren't biologically capable of impregnating other women, and hence of marrying them - therefore, when there is no other way for a man's name to be passed on because he has no sons, and therefore his daughter or sister has to impregnate a woman to create his heir, she has to become a man. So far as I'm aware, this is not regarded as the revelation of something that has been true all along, and she may even sometimes have had children herself in the past, though as I recall it's most common for older women who are currently barren. [the Nuer also have an alternative, back-up plan if there's no appropriate female relative, but there were once male relatives: the dead male relative can simply marry and impregnate a woman himself. This "ghost marriage" also, surprisingly, can legally happen in French culture, but very rarely]

The European example is Albania, where until recently it used to be common for women to become men. I can't remember the details, but it was connected in some way with Ottoman military obligations - along the lines that if a family was called upon to provide a man for the army, but the men were all too old or ill, a woman could become a man and take his place, and would be treated as a man from then on. [obviously, the general substitution thing is common worldwide (it's the story of Mulan), but usually it's secret, and involves 'pretending' to be a man, often pretending to be a specific man, and is rare, whereas in Albania it was commonplace and didn't require pretending.] However, it's a long time since I read about it and I could be getting the details wrong.

Anyway, I don't know how the languages of cultures where women can become men treat the transition. It's also possible that there are still taboos about it - even if a culture doesn't insist that the man was always a man, it may still be impolite to mention the time when he was a woman.


However, very similar things do happen regarding politeness. Many languages have different pronouns depending on a person's absolute or relative social rank, and this can change over time. I suspect the general pattern is as it is in English: you use the pronoun they now merit. This seems in line not just with politeness (if someone used to be a peasant, don't bring it up!), but also with deictic principles (identify the distant by relation to the immediately present... likewise, you point and say "this cow used to be a calf", you don't usually point at a full-grown calf and say "this calf has become a cow!"). In English, this can occasionally cause confusion - for instance, if you're talking about the current king's actions at a time when they weren't yet king, and the previous king enters the story, it can be confusing to say "but His Majesty disagreed with His Majesty". But that's really no different from any underspecifying pronouns, and is resolved by using more names or descriptions instead of pronouns - "His Majesty King Gustave disagreed with His Majesty, His Majesty's father". So I would suspect that similar principles apply crosslinguistically even when a change in gender is culturally recognised.
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eldin raigmore
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Re: When gender changed between past and present

Post by eldin raigmore »

Thanks, Sal. That helps.
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