They/Them/Theirs Transcript

Megan Figueroa: Hi and welcome to the Vocal Fries podcast. The podcast about linguistic discrimination.

Carrie Gillon: I’m Carrie Gillon.

Megan Figueroa: And I’m Megan Figueroa. Carrie you just tweeted something amazing from our Vocal Fries Twitter.

Carrie Gillon: Might be one of my favorite tweets of all time. So I don’t know who this is but someone tweeted about how they’re in this all day meeting and someone just didn’t want to say quote Get your shit together. And so he said Get your poop in a group.

Megan Figueroa: Oh my God. And now. I’m like. And now I’m like imagining if this were like a teleconference or something. If you have like a little chat window or something. He would have like used the emote the poop emoji or something like it’s all I’m imagining.

Carrie Gillon: My God it is just such a disgusting image.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Oh my God.

Carrie Gillon: So yeah it’s just evidence that sometimes avoiding swearing is the wrong tactic.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And I can’t even see. I mean get your shit together. Could be offensive but it can be said where it’s like kind of funny or kind of like whimsical you go or you’re like OK we need to get like Get your shit together let’s work on this right. So it’s not like it would have been you know I don’t know.

Carrie Gillon: I can see how it might be inappropriate for some people just because they’re maybe very religious. But maybe you need a different turn of phrase then that does not invoke feces.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah I guess like get your poop in a group. It’s just like being a kid when you say H.E. double hockey sticks. Like I remember like saying that as a kid get your poop in a group is almost like childlike. For me

Carrie Gillon: It’s actually very kidlike yeah. Which is also weird.

Megan Figueroa: It is weird but kids talk about poop all the time.

Carrie Gillon: And now apparently so do we.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah I know. Sorry.

Carrie Gillon: to those who find this disgusting.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah I I used to not use the poop emoji at all and now I do. So I really it’s really growth in the area of feces for me so

Carrie Gillon: Nice. Well on that disturbing note. I had a dream a couple nights ago that the world was completely ending, that there were nuclear bombs just killing us all. And I woke up terrified.

Megan Figueroa: Well and then I woke up terrified today thinking that I’m going to die from the flu now. So.

Carrie Gillon: It is a bad one this year.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. So nuclear war the flu everything is a pile of shit.

Carrie Gillon: A pile of poop in a group.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah exactly. So yeah I mean either we’ll die from like a nuclear blast or maybe from the flu. That’s something to look forward to.

Carrie Gillon: I mean you have to die some way.

Megan Figueroa: It’s true it’s true.

Carrie Gillon: Might as well be in a conflagration I guess.

Megan Figueroa: Well I don’t know. Let’s hope that the flu shot helps me a little bit.

Carrie Gillon: Well it does. I mean okay I am not an immunologist but do say that the experts do say that if you get the flu shot even if it’s not that well targeted to the flu of this particular year, it still confers some protection. So it is still a good idea, even if you don’t think you need it as an adult. Just think about if you’re around any children or older people. Apparently like 30 babies have died from this flu in the United States.

Megan Figueroa: Now I mean I work I work with kids so I definitely get it for them as well but also those little shits are the ones that are giving me like everything.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah I have to say that one of the things I definitely do not miss about being in the classroom is I haven’t gotten the flu in the last two winters. And I think it’s because I just I’m not around students anymore and they’re you know adults. But.

Megan Figueroa: I mean it’s a cesspool. Universities are

Carrie Gillon: Yes.

Megan Figueroa: So we have a couple of housekeeping things.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. So a reminder that we have a Patreon now and if you subscribe at the 5 dollar level you’re going to get access to our bonus episodes and we’re recording our first real bonus episode after this. So should be up fairly soon before the end of January and I’m not sure when this episode is gonna be coming out. But yeah.

Megan Figueroa: February probably so it’s gonna be.

Carrie Gillon: So probably yes. The episode will be the first a bonus I think it it’ll be out sometime in January. yeah. You want access to the bonus episodes. That would be your option.

Megan Figueroa: Yes.

Carrie Gillon: And if you don’t want that and you just want to support us you can support us at the one dollar level or if you want a sticker the three dollar. And then you also get the sticker at the five dollar.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah the stickers very cute. is the. The fries. It’s I mean which is the best logo ever. And I always get compliments for that at least. And.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah me too.

Megan Figueroa: And then they’ll. And then they’ll say they actually like the podcast too.

Carrie Gillon: It’s okay if you like the design better than the podcast.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah it’s really good. So.

Carrie Gillon: It’s very it’s very cute. And thanks Chris for doing that for us.

Megan Figueroa: Yes. Thank you. So we have another interview today and I just want to say that we have met so many amazing cool people through our interviews. So I’m just really excited about this one. I think everyone is going to really learn a lot. And like it.

Carrie Gillon: Me too. Yeah So yeah I want to say also that I find it very it’s really fun to talk to people some of the people I already knew in real life like my friend Nicole, my friend Peter. Many I didn’t know, including Kirby, who we are interviewing today. So yeah. So it’s exciting. Yeah.

Megan Figueroa: So here we go.

Megan Figueroa: All right. So today we’re excited to welcome our guest Kirby Conrod. Kirby is a fourth year doctoral student focusing on syntax, in particular pronouns. They have a secondary interest in of gender especially as it relates to gender and LGBTQ plus identities. Kirby uses they/them pronouns. Welcome Kirby.

Kirby Conrod: Hi. Thanks so much for having me.

Carrie Gillon: Hi Kirby. Thank you for coming on.

Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And I realize this now Carrie that we’ve never said on the air.

Carrie Gillon: That’s true.

Kirby Conrod: That’d be great.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah. So she I think we’ve referred to each other as that. But it’s definitely a good practice tell people.


Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And also she. She


Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Yeah. Right. So that’s awesome. OK. So I want to start off with asking you Kirby a little bit about your research because I think it’s cool that you’re kind of like a syn socio person. That doesn’t go together a lot and I love it.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah. So I’m very interdisciplinary. I had get two advisors because it’s true that most socio don’t do syntax and most syntacticians don’t do socio. So I am looking at sort of complicating the way that we do formal syntax. You know I was trained as a formal in undergrad and most of my early grad education. And what kept coming up for me is this stuff where you know formal syntax will sort of make assumptions about the world that aren’t necessarily true. So this is the sort of thing where constantly you know in the intro text you’ll see something marked as ungrammatical where it says you know John loves herself and there’s a lot of social assumptions going into calling something like that ungrammatical. So one of the things that I’m interested in doing is sort of taking apart some of those assumptions and reworking the syntax in a way that reflects the way people are actually using things like pronouns to reflect their social realities. So so I am hoping to you know get a good syntax explanation for what’s going on in the social world.


Carrie Gillon: Cool, that sounds really interesting.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah it’s obviously relevant to a lot of people. It’s always been relevant to a lot of people. But I think that mainstream like pop like science stuff is actually really interested in that right now as well. There seems to be a movement to be interested in that. So could we start with let’s pretend that I forgot everything about syntax. Oh sure yeah. I mean we might we might have listeners that don’t know anything about syntax in fact we do. So let’s start off with. Will you tell us a little bit about English person pronouns.


Kirby Conrod: Sure. So English third person pronouns the singular ones are she, he, and for some people they. And then it things that aren’t people. So third person means that you’re not talking about yourself and you’re not talking about the person that you’re talking to. So it’s somebody that’s outside of the conversation and they may be standing right there or they may not even be in the room. And the way that third person pronouns get meaning is from an antecedent. So that means that either they get meaning from something that you said earlier in the conversation like a name or they get meaning from the the world knowledge that people have where they know who you’re talking about because they understand what’s going on. If you know me and my friend who are huge Lady Gaga fans are talking to each other and I suddenly you know see a thing on my phone and I say “Oh my God she dropped a new album” that’s something where the word she would be ambiguous to anybody else but to my friend who shows this interest with me they know who I’m talking about. This is a hypothetical example.


Megan Figueroa: Perfect.


Kirby Conrod: So so pronouns are the ideas that they’re kind of place holders for not having to say names over and over again and they get their meaning from names or from others sort of referring expressions.


Megan Figueroa: Oh yeah. And with. So with English third person singular pronouns there’s grammatical gender involved.


Kirby Conrod: So it’s not grammatical gender.


Megan Figueroa: Sorry. Sorry.


Kirby Conrod: This is one of those things- no I mean, I’m happy to talk about the different here, because it’s important. Grammatical gender is for languages like Spanish or French or Italian or German, where all the nouns have certain endings that you have to match your demonstratives and adjectives with, where it’s essentially a noun class. And the reason it gets called gender is because it tends to roughly line up with genders like male and female. But imagine you know giving male and female genders to everything in the world, like tables and chairs and books and such. So grammatical gender is the gender of tables and chairs and books and stuff, where we’re not really saying that books are female. What we’re saying is that books have certain morphological properties that want a certain kind of agreement. That’s not exactly the same as sort of real world gender and there’s a bunch of different names for real world gender. So so one of the things is that we want to be able to account for this kind of tables and chairs need certain flavors of adjectives to go with them in the syntax when we’re describing how words go together and what parts of words need to go together. But the fact that the same thing happens for reflecting real world people and real world genders sort of complicates it because when you get into real world genders it’s not just a noun class. It’s this whole social relationship. It’s it’s sensitive to context and it can change from place to place and time to time. So it gets much more complicated when we’re talking about the gender of actual human beings.


Carrie Gillon: Should we start talking about like trans issues or.


Kirby Conrod: Oh sure yeah.


Megan Figueroa: Oh I wonder if I could if I could say this because you said something on Twitter and I just want to say it as a question. I thought it was really important.


Kirby Conrod: Sure OK.


Megan Figueroa: So why is it important that trans linguists are the ones doing the work on trans language.


Kirby Conrod: So yeah this is an interesting question. On the one hand, I don’t necessarily want to tell people not to research trans language because it’s so so interesting. But on the other hand, for me and other trans linguists, what’s at stake in the research is really personal and really urgent. And there are certain sort of concerns that I don’t see cis linguists respecting and it’s not a matter of necessarily doing unethical research but not doing research in a way that really treats the trans subjects as real human people instead of guinea pigs. And the other important thing that I think distinguishes research from trans researchers is that frankly our research questions are more interesting. You know when I see when I see research on for example trans women’s phonetics and sociophonetics from cis gender men it’s almost always the research question is how well does this trans woman pass.


Carrie Gillon: Yeah.


Kirby Conrod: And to trans people, that question is a) not very interesting and b) kind of insulting.


Carrie Gillon: Right.


Kirby Conrod: You know where that’s the only thing that people are asking over and over is what do cis think of trans women’s voices. And like is it you know sort of interesting how a trans women don’t really sound like women. Like that’s not something that we want to see on paper over and over. We want to see trans women studied in comparison to trans women. We want to see trans women leading the research on trans women because it’s, for one thing, it’s just not happening. You know there are, as far as I know, no trans women in socio And this is a real problem, because socio is sort of the place where people are trying to sort out what is sex and what is gender, when it comes to the voice. You know we’ve been conflating those things for a really long time, where we assumed that you know certain things are due to this sort of amalgam of sex and gender, where some things are just sort of biologically due to being a woman, whatever that means. And the more we look into it the more it looks like that’s just not true. And the other thing is that some things that are sort of biologically determined by you know the length of your vocal folds, doesn’t necessarily tell people socially that you’re a woman and there are other qualities that tell people socially that you’re a woman. And so looking at how people negotiate that when they are assigned male at birth and have longer vocal folds and have a lower sort of basic pitch, but can still convey that they are women through their voice that’s very interesting to look at as in its own right without comparing them to cis women.


Carrie Gillon: Right.


Megan Figueroa: And can you real quickly define this for our listeners. Just in case. Yeah.


Kirby Conrod: So cis C I S. I have seen the sort of folk etymology that it’s an acronym. It’s not. It just means on the same side of. It’s the opposite of trans. So when I use this cis abbreviation I’m using it in the same way that I use trans as an abbreviation. So cis gender just means that your gender identity aligns with your assigned at birth.


Megan Figueroa: Perfect. Thank you. OK. So speaking of all of this like misgendering also something called dea and you can talk more about it or tell us what it is. I don’t want to define it. In case I get it wrong, but I want to remind everyone that it’s possible for linguists to be linguistic assholes and that actually happened recently on language log, which is a blog about linguistics where a very established linguist Geoff Pullum the cardinal rule and was a complete asshole.


Kirby Conrod: This is this is not unprecedented for him, as many many linguists are excited to tell me every time it comes up.


Carrie Gillon: Yeah he’s he’s he’s kind of known for being an asshole actually like yeah that is being curmudgeonly at least the very very least.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah. So not only did he mi someone but he also dead a former student. So can you tell us a little bit about what is and why this is so fucked up.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah so is a very visceral name and it’s using the name for somebody that they no longer use. And for trans people this is very sensitive. In some ways, it’s a safety issue of you know if I no longer use my name that my parents gave me at work and somebody uses that name for me in front of my colleagues. You’re potentially outing me as trans a way that you know. No it’s not legal in Washington state for people to fire me for being trans but that is not going to stop them. You know this is something that happens all the time. And so using a dead or a name that somebody is not using anymore can potentially put them in in material danger. And the other thing is that it’s psychologically very damaging for trans people who choose new names. Your new name is an important part of building an identity that’s under your control that doesn’t feel like it fits wrong. When trans people choose their new names something you know I know a lot of them go through a couple names before they sort of settle on one. And it’s something very very personal. Your name is so personal and being called the one that you don’t want to be called is basically saying to you you know I don’t care what you think you are. I know what you are. And it’s the most disrespectful way to refer to somebody and doing it in front of someone is awful. It has a huge psychological effect. Doing it behind their back is immensely disrespectful, because now what you’re doing is you’re telling other people with whom this person is acquainted, “I don’t care what that person thinks they are. I know what they are.”


Carrie Gillon: You know what this reminds me of a little bit is when people use slurs. It’s like very disrespectful and actually it just means that you’re the asshole.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah. I don’t know that I want to exactly compare these, because I think these are similar in effect but names are so personal. You know they are the same name is not going to affect everybody the same way but.


Carrie Gillon: That’s true.


Kirby Conrod: One person’s dead name may be another person’s chosen name. So it’s not like the name itself is what carries the meaning. It’s knowing that you’re using the wrong one.


Carrie Gillon: Right. Well I guess I guess in some other way a slur is not always bad if you’re in the in-group. It’s okay. So it’s not the word itself. It’s who’s using it. So that’s the comparison to me. But anyway.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah. And the same can be said about misgendering. Is that fair.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah. So I am hesitant to say that misgendering is exactly like a slur, because on the one hand it definitely can be used that way. You know one of my sort of early Twitter studies was about the way that people were tweeting about- I wanted to use sort of a famous trans person and this was almost exactly a year ago. So it was right when Chelsea Manning got her sentence commuted. And so a lot of people were talking about her on Twitter. And so what I was curious about is something that I was seeing is that you know people who really really violently hated her you know, tweeting death threats at her. sometimes still called her Chelsea but were using he. So this was really interesting to me. So dead naming and misgendering are a little bit different linguistically. And that’s because names and pronouns are a little bit different linguistically. So you can use deadnaming or misgendering to accomplish the same effect, which is you know threatening a trans woman’s life. But the sort of the grammatical constraints on pronouns are a little bit stricter. So I pulled a whole bunch of tweets talking about Chelsea Manning and using her name and her you know and different pronouns about her, and I compared you know who is using her chosen name versus who is using her deadname and who is using he versus who is using she. There was also some people using it. I didn’t include that data because it made me sick to my stomach.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah.

Kirby Conrod: So that you know that’s a separate project that I need a lot more therapy before I can do.

Megan Figueroa: Right.

Kirby Conrod: But what I found was more people were using her her chosen name even when they were still misgendering her.

Carrie Gillon: It’s really interesting.

Kirby Conrod: So people were calling her Chelsea and he. So one of the conclusions I kind of drew from that is that the difference between a name and a pronoun is that a name is a lexical item, it’s sort of a real contentful word with real semantic sort of weight to it. A pronoun is a grammatical word. So changing grammatical words happens a little bit slower and people report more difficulty with it. This is something that Geoff Pullum reported when he was busy misgendering this poor person in a news article where he you know reported, “I find it really ungrammatical to use this person’s chosen pronoun, which is singular ‘they’ with their name.” People don’t report using the wrong name is feeling ungrammatical only the pronouns. So the difference between names and pronouns is that pronouns are more deeply embedded in the structure of how our language works. They’re more one of those sort of fundamental building blocks of syntax, whereas names are you know there are hundreds thousands of names that we have to learn every day and we’re always encountering new ones and they have unique meanings and they are not sort of structurally sensitive in the way pronouns are. But it’s true that using a deadname and using the wrong pronoun can accomplish the same effect, which is that you can be really really transphobia on Twitter.

Megan Figueroa: Thank you for sharing some of your research. I wanted to bring up Chelsea Manning stuff, so I’m glad it got in there.

Kirby Conrod: Oh yeah absolutely.

Megan Figueroa: Perfect. Yeah. So along with that in response to Geoff, you shared an article on Medium. And you said something that is so perfect and beautiful. You said quote “I am absolutely being prescriptive here the same way it is technically prescriptive to tell you not to use racial slurs. I am prescribing basic respect.” I really really appreciate that you said that and I think it goes along with what we’re trying to do with the Vocal Fries. So yeah that was awesome. And since misgendering causes real harm, I notice that you have another article on medium that is basically a quick primer on how to respect someone’s pronouns. Will you shared steps with us here and we’ll also link to it.

Kirby Conrod: Oh yeah. So this is I would love more people to know about this. I want this you know handed out on little index cards to everybody. When people are having a hard time switching pronouns, they report you know sort of grammatical problems and they’ll use this like “oh it’s ungrammatical for me” or “it feels grammatically wrong” as a way of sort of excusing misgendering you know their friends and loved ones. And so I basically wrote this guide as like a subtweet at my parents, who are now trying a little harder. So the first thing I said is you know slow down. This is the easiest one. And it’s also the one that people get the maddest about. People get really really mad when you tell them to slow down. But I think it’s not unreasonable to say you know think before you speak. It’s not that big an ask you know and so slow down plan your speech. Think about what you were going to say and what this may mean is that you talk a little slower for a while and it may be frustrating to you. And I’m going to tell you tough shit.


Megan Figueroa: Yes yes.


Kirby Conrod: If you know misgendering is so deeply embedded in your language that you seriously can’t get rid of it without really slowing down, then what you need to do is really slow down and just get over it. The next thing that I tell people and this is one that is something that people think they do but they super don’t. So if somebody corrects you on their pronouns you have to stop talking and listen to the correction. So this happens to me constantly. And I think it’s something to do with how people negotiate turntaking in conversation, where if somebody is in the middle of a long sentence and they misgender me, I will just quickly sort of blurt out “they”. It’s like an instinct for me. I kind of can’t stop myself and I’ll do it like when I was sort of first testing out these pronouns especially in professional contexts, I was sort of timid and quiet and I didn’t do it all the time. I’m much more rude and loud now and it’s helping. So trans people out there I suggest being rude. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve done this where somebody is talking and I very loudly say as they’re talking “they” and they keep talking as if they have not heard me. And in fact sometimes when they stop talking I say “you used ‘she’. Did you mean ‘she’?” And they said “oh I had no idea.” Like they really don’t hear me when they’re talking. So this is something that people cis people need to work on is if somebody is trying to correct you, you need to let them correct you. And if you are actually trying to do a better job this shouldn’t be something that you are you know stamping your feet about is. You know if you’re corrected you have to actually let people interrupt you. And it means stepping down and being a little bit more humble and careful. But it’s important. And then the other thing is that I have a lot of people who say “you know I’ll try, but you know correct me if I get it wrong.” And then when I correct them they don’t acknowledge it at all. So if you ask for corrections you should be trying even harder to listen to them. The third thing I say is one that I think you know Geoff Pullum in particular needs to listen to and it’s don’t make excuses. So if you are friends colleagues family with a trans person, even if their pronouns are hard for you, you telling me how hard my pronouns are for me doesn’t help me in any way. You know I hear it from everybody all the time and it sounds like you’re trying to get out of it. It sounds like you’re trying to weasel your way out of a homework assignment that you don’t. And I’m a T.A. I don’t like hearing this. So but like trying to make excuses for yourself to make up for mistakes that you’re going to make in the future. On the one hand I can understand why you’re trying to do this. You’re trying to convey like oh I’m not transphobic. It’s just that I have this problem, but the effect is the same.


Carrie Gillon: Yeah. People are really obsessed with intentions like intentions matter more than anything. And I don’t want to say they don’t matter at all. But you can’t say they matter more than anything else. That’s completely unfair.

Kirby Conrod: Somebody just telling me “I’m not transphobic, therefore I’m going to refuse to use your correct pronouns” is like “Oh so you’re just going to talk exactly like transphobes do”.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah.

Kirby Conrod: But you’re not transphobic so I’m not allowed to be mad at you. Yeah. And so the thing about don’t make excuses is that what I’m hearing is don’t be mad at me for sucking really bad. And I don’t think that’s fair. I think I’m allowed to be mad at you. And you know that anger is not coming out of like I’m offended or you’re being politically incorrect. That anger is coming out of like you’re hurting me you’re hurting my feelings. This is personal.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah. And you should know that you’re hurting someone’s feelings like it. Yeah you’ve told them.

Megan Figueroa: Right. And if you don’t care you’re you’re being an asshole or a sociopath.

Kirby Conrod: So. So if you don’t care you don’t get to claim that you do care and you care you have to try harder.

Carrie Gillon: Yeah.


Megan Figueroa: Right. Yes.


Kirby Conrod: And then my last tip is that if you hear yourself mess up correct yourself briefly and don’t make a big deal out of it. So I cannot stand when I’m trying to have a normal conversation someone slips out “she” and then stops everything that we’re doing to be like “Oh my God I’m so sorry I’ve been trying so hard but it’s so hard for me you know it’s just so weird and wrong and I’m having you know and I just need to.” And it’s like. And now the conversation is about you sucking at pronouns rather than the normal conversation that we were having before. If you mess up correct yourself briefly and move on.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Instead of someone to do emotional labor for you basically.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah So this is something that just I can’t I can’t stand it when people make a huge deal out of it to the point where I have to comfort them you do have to correct yourself if you hear yourself mess up and just keep going without doing anything and then you know you come up to me like an hour later and say oh I messed up I’m so sorry. It’s like a little late then because everybody else in the room heard you say the wrong thing and that’s you know reinforcing to them that that’s the thing to say.


Carrie Gillon: Yeah.


Kirby Conrod: And so this is something that it really frustrates me when when especially faculty do this, because there’s this power imbalance right. You know I’m a grad student and they’re professors so I don’t I don’t get to tell them what to do, but on the other hand people are following their examples so if a professor mis me in front of some undergrads in a class that I’m teaching that is teaching the undergrads that it’s OK to call me the wrong thing. And not acknowledging it in the moment is telling everybody in the room that it’s not that big a deal. And it drives me crazy. So you know correct yourself in the moment, but don’t derail the conversation to do so.


Carrie Gillon: Yeah, I think that’s an excellent point.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah I really love those tips and so I’m glad that we can help get them out on the way that we can help get them out through the Vocal Fries. But we will link to it obviously, we’ll tweet about it. And so thank you for sharing that with us.


Kirby Conrod: Oh yeah absolutely. Thank you for bringing it up.


Carrie Gillon: So I’d actually like to talk about “they” little bit more in detail because I think it is kind of interesting. So you have this abstract that you sent to us about changes in singular “they” and just the difference in ages. So people in their 20s are using “they” way more than people in any of the other age groups according to this.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah. And impressionistically, if you think about it, if you think about who you know and who’s doing it, it’s true right. You know this to be true. Like you know that it’s people under 30 right now who are doing this thing and are not finding And so what we socio to call that is a change in progress. And it’s a very steep one. You know there’s a huge difference between people under 30 and people over 30. And so part of that might be you know the number of subjects I have and stuff like this and you know I have to do more math but it really looks like there’s this like sudden cut off around you know whatever birth year it is nineteen eighty eight I guess. Like you know where people under that age are fine with it and people over that age struggle with it. And part of the interesting thing about this data that I’m talking about is that this is not me asking people to tell me if it’s grammatical. I’m not asking them to think about it. This is data about people using it naturally in a normal conversation. only is it grammatical for them but it is an organic and ordinary part of their language you know. And I think that’s really important to drive home is that this is not a big deal for the people who have this part of the grammar for the people who are leading this language change. It’s not a big deal. It’s not something that they’re thinking about. It’s not something that they’re doing on purpose. It’s not something that they’ve decided to be politically correct about. It’s just a part of their ordinary unconscious language use. And that’s the future that’s going to be that’s going to be normal in 10 years 20 years. It’s it’s on its way to normal now. And so I think that’s something that for me it makes me feel really hopeful that there’s going to be serious change and that the generations that come after this are not going to have to have this fight.


Carrie Gillon: I hope so.


Kirby Conrod: Because the language is on its way to changing.


Carrie Gillon: I mean for me “they” is totally acceptable. I’ve always used it and I’m in my 40s but I think of the people in their 20s are using it probably a lot more and a lot more contexts than I am I’m guessing.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah. So one of the things that probably is affecting this is how many non people do you personally know.


Carrie Gillon: Right.


So this is something that Lauren Ackerman’s work is looking at is you know how many non people you personally know does affect how you feel about this variable. This this this use of a pronoun and one of the other things about the sort of stark difference between people in their 20s and the rest of my subjects is that the people in their 20s probably know a lot more non people and knowing non people gives you occasion to talk about them. You know in these conversations that we were having in my soc interview. We’re talking about you know what mutual friends do you have. I’m interviewing people in Paris so I’m a conversation with two people at once and I’m asking you know tell me about your mutual friends. Tell me a fun story of like a time you shared together and this is something where they’re using “they” because they as a normal part of their social landscape. They’re using “they” because they need it to reflect the identities of the people they know and hang out with and like and want to talk about and this is one of the ways that I think that you know s who don’t go out and listen to real social language aren’t going to pick up on because they’re not hearing the way that language changes to adapt to its environment. And so in this case the environment is having a lot of non friends. And the way that language will adapt is like I guess this is fine now and whatever grammatical changes have to happen in my brain to make it find they will just happen.


Carrie Gillon: Right. And also also you you point out that the that gender identity also affects the use of this. So obviously people are going to use they more often but women seem to use it a lot more than men do.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah. So there are a couple of reasons that this might be the case. The first reason is that so women using sort of innovative form of language more than men is not uncommon and socio have a lot of different theories about why this may be having to do with sort of social capital and using new language to show that you have sort of social worth. So that’s you know one theory about why women are further ahead in a language change than men. But I think the fact that non people are even further ahead shows a couple of things. One people are aware of this change. This is not happening unconsciously and non people have a lot of a lot at stake in this change. So it makes a lot of sense that they would be further along in just using it. people probably have more non friends and so they’re just using it because all their friends. You know I. I personally have at least six, which is a lot more than most people you know. Can you. Do you personally know and are you personally close with more than two non people?


Megan Figueroa: Being personally close? I guess not.


Carrie Gillon: Not no.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah it’s it’s not that common right now. So obviously non people like to hang out with other non people because they get us and they are not dicks to us all the time.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah. Which is completely understandable. Yeah


Kirby Conrod: So you know it’s the sort of thing where you know social network is definitely going to be a factor here but it may also be the case that soci have to start making room for other genders in our studies and not only that I think sociolinguists to start actively recruiting other genders because as far as I know no published journal article has an other category with more than one or two participants and that to me is saying that we just don’t know or care about these populations. And I think that that doesn’t make any sense. I think that this this sort of the membership of non people is going to only grow over time. And I think that having space in our research for talking about what our non binary people doing compared to other people is going to be interesting and fruitful.


Megan Figueroa: Definitely.


One last point to be made about singular” I think is it’s actually kind of old. Maybe not so much in all of the uses of it but for example like everyone loves their mother instead of everyone loves his or her mother like that’s what most people use. And so people do have singular “they” even if most people have singular “they” even if they think they don’t.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah.


Megan Figueroa: And that’s why it’s also if you know I agree that that’s the case. That’s why I also agree it’s if you’re arguing against this change you’re just being a fucking asshole.


Carrie Gillon: Agreed.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah.


Kirby Conrod: So arguing against this change I think – I don’t want to have a whole podcast about how Geoff Pullum is an asshole but here’s the thing.


Carrie Gillon: Neither do I. But it is what it is.


Kirby Conrod: You know he and others like him. So you know I hesitate to like bring up examples in my personal life but I know he is not the first old man I’ve met who has had this exact argument with me. He’s this is just the most public argument that I’ve had to this effect but arguing against the change is different than saying I’m not a member of the leading force of this change. And that’s okay. You know it’s okay to say “I am a speaker of a more conservative dialect. It really sounds weird to me.” It’s not OK to say “therefore it’s fine for me to misgender people in print.” Having grammatical difficulties is a different thing than misgendering someone in print.


Carrie Gillon: Yeah. Yeah. If you have time to think about it and to fix it.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah you have time to think about it and to fix it. And and you know my Medium post about how to how to be better is if you have time to a) give yourself time to think about it and b) fix it if you can. And that’s that’s where these people are messing up. It’s not that they’re having difficulties it’s that they’re not putting even the minimal effort into being respectful despite their difficulties.


Megan Figueroa: Exactly. And that’s I think a good point because we don’t want to scare our listeners and say like “you are going to fuck up and you’re terrible.” It’s more like “you’re going to fuck up but please like you know be respectful and you know follow the tips that that you shared you know like don’t make a big deal about it.”


Carrie Gillon: Yeah I definitely have fucked up on this score. I misgendered somebody once and you know I apologized and used the correct pronoun. It’s really not that hard.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah right.


Kirby Conrod: And I think I think the most important thing is that people need to not get defensive and that defensiveness comes out of this place of insecurity of like you know “if I mess up and you call me out on it you’re you know saying that I’m unhip or I can’t possibly be friends with you” or something like that that sort of social fear of like you’re gonna stop being friends with me because I messed up once. That’s not the case. But if you’re messing up over and over again and clearly not trying to fix it then it’s like well all right you know what are you doing here. So. So you know messing up and fixing it is is infinitely preferable to arguing with me about why you should be excused.


Megan Figueroa: Yes.


Carrie Gillon: Good. Good point. Yes exactly.


Megan Figueroa: It’s like everything in life really. Right. Come on do. Was there anything else Carrie that you can think of or Kirby that you want to say that we’ve missed that we kind of glossed over or didn’t bring up before we wrap.


Carrie Gillon: I don’t have anything more so.


Megan Figueroa: I think this was really good. PS.


Kirby Conrod: Oh thank you.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah yeah yeah.


Carrie Gillon: Okay awesome.


Kirby Conrod: Yeah. Can I give some shout outs to some other research that I think is important?


Carrie Gillon: Yes.


Kirby Conrod: So Lauren Akerman Lauren Akerman was just featured today this morning in a article in The Economist for her work on singular “they”. She’s working on more of said of the processing side. So she’s looking at how people deal with singular “they” when it’s used to them. And this is important work in sort of figuring out you know who is it grammatical for Who is it not grammatical for. Because the way that we process sentences shows what’s going on in our brain and what we’re okay with. And that’s really important. And then the other linguist that I want to do a shout out to is Lex Connolly who is not only looking at sort of the naturalistic use of singular “they” but also other non-binary uses of language in other languages. I think that their work is also really important to look at. They’re also a good student so they’re sort of in the same spot of me as me of like there’s stuff forthcoming very soon. But yeah. So those those are the researchers that I really want people to know about with pronouns. I want people to pay attention to the research on this before making declarations about what’s going on a) and b) I want people to support non-binary researchers who are researching this because you know we’ve – what’s the idiom – we’ve got skin in the game.


Carrie Gillon: Exactly.


Megan Figueroa: Yeah.


Kirby Conrod: You know this matters for us this matters this matters for me personally. This is I’m researching this because I spent my whole first year at grad school wondering you know why are some professors really really good at gendering me correctly and some professors have never gotten it right even once. And and this is a really personal question for me. And you know there’s clearly something going on. So. So looking at the language science of what’s going on is going to be really important in the next few years. And I want people to prioritize trans linguists who are doing that.


Megan Figueroa: And of course the Vocal Fries will be happy to tweet any of your tweets that tell us about your new research that’s coming out.


Kirby Conrod: Thank you.


Megan Figueroa: We’ll be we’ll be looking for that.


Megan Figueroa: Will also add all that information that you just gave on our Tumblr.


Kirby Conrod: Oh thank you.


Megan Figueroa: We were so happy to have you Kirby.


Carrie Gillon: Yes. Thank you so much. And for our listeners you can find them on Twitter and on Medium. So again we will link to all of that.

Kirby Conrod: Thanks so much and thanks so much for having me. This was really fun.

Carrie Gillon: It was. Thank you. All right. Don’t be an asshole.

Megan Figueroa: Do not be an asshole. Kirby would you like to say that?

Kirby Conrod: Yeah. Don’t be an asshole.

Carrie Gillon: Bye.

Megan Figueroa: Alright, bye.

Carrie Gillon: The Vocal Fries Podcast is produced by Chris Ayers for Halftone Audio. Theme music by Nick Granam. You can find us on Tumblr Twitter Facebook and Instagram @vocalfriespod. You can email us at


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