Please join the Linguistics Department on Friday, January 18, for a special presentation by Lal Zimman, Assistant Professor of Linguistics, University of California, Santa Barbara. Lal’s talk is entitled "Sociolinguistic Justice and Transgender Lives." The talk begins at 4 p.m. in room 4448 East Hall. A reception will immediately follow on the third-floor terrace of East Hall (just below room 4448). All are welcome!


Sociolinguistic Justice and Transgender Lives

Over the past decade, transgender people have moved from a marginalized position in American society to a level of visibility that Time magazine characterized in 2015 as a “transgender tipping point.” With this growth in visibility, we can see both increased sensitivity to trans people’s experiences and increased vulnerability to widescale transphobia, particularly at the institutional level. While trans issues were hardly on the political radar in the 1990s and 2000s, trans communities today have become a major target of exclusionary laws and practices.

Language has played a major role in the uncertain place of trans communities in contemporary American society; indeed, being trans is as much about language as it is about clothing, hairstyles, and medical interventions. We can see the crystallization of linguistic conflict on college campuses in particular, where discussions of names, pronouns, and identity labels have led to national, and even international, debates on questions like whether people should be given the power to select the pronouns others should use when talking about them. Yet Linguists have only rarely weighed in on these issues on the broad scale, despite possessing a number of tools and principles that can help us understand the language reform efforts in which trans people are engaged.

This talk focuses on three domains of language in order to explore the critiques being levied by trans language reform activists, the responses to those critiques by non-trans people, and how linguistics might inform these debates. The first aspect of language discussed is the English pronoun system – the highest profile and perhaps most contentious aspect of trans language reform in the United States. I discuss the political discourses surrounding pronoun practices and how trans activists are pushing not only for new pronouns, but new ways of thinking and talking about pronouns. The second linguistic issue is talk about the body. While self-identification is increasingly recognized as determining a person’s social gender, bodies are typically seen as having an “objective truth” that is not susceptible to self-definition. Here I explore the ways trans people are advancing alternative models for understanding “biological sex” that recognizes the highly social nature of human embodiment. The final aspect of linguistic structure discussed here is grammatical gender systems in languages that display much more extensive marking of gender than English does. Here I also reflect on language pedagogy and how the strategies for teaching these languages perpetuates trans exclusion.

Each aspect of language discussed in this talk highlights the material impacts that language has on trans lives. We can draw a direct line between language and trans people’s oppression, and for this reason we each have a moral obligation to consider the implications of our own language use. The talk concludes with a discussion of the relationship between linguistics and transgender communities, arguing that the relative absence of trans people from our discipline should push us to consider the potential exclusionary effects of our models of language and how our academic work might be used to empower this still highly marginalized community.