What Are Neopronouns? – The New York Times

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A personal pronoun is a form of speech that stands in for a person or group of people. She is having opinions online; they are fighting in the comments; and, of course, as in the Prince song made famous by Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares 2 U.”

Nonbinary pronouns, as well — often the singular “they” and “them” — have become widespread. A 2019 Pew Research study found already that one in five Americans knew someone who uses nonbinary pronouns.

And then there are neopronouns.

A neopronoun can be a word a created to serve as pronoun without expressing gender, like “ze” and “zir.”

A neopronoun can also be a so-called “noun-self pronoun,” in which a pre-existing word is drafted into use as a pronoun. Noun-self pronouns can refer to animals — so your pronouns can be “bun/bunself” and “kitten/kittenself.” Others refer to fantasy characters — “vamp/vampself,” “prin/cess/princesself,” “fae/faer/faeself” — or even just common slang, like “Innit/Innits/Innitself.”

Neopronoun users may publish strict boundaries and preferences around behaviors, enthusiasms and hatreds. Many of them have defined lists of behaviors they find unacceptable around privacy or cruelty — sometimes referred to as “DNI” lists, short for “do not interact” — which they often outline in posts on Carrd, a service that makes single-page websites.

Online conversation gathered steam in November with some contentious TikToks about neopronouns. (“Bro, neopronouns are gonna break the English language,” said a young TikToker in November who goes by @Pokebag in a video that racked up hundreds of thousands of likes.)

But noun-self pronouns are not exactly new; they emerged from an online hotbed for avant-garde ideas around gender expression. “The noun-self pronouns emerged on Tumblr, starting around 2012, 2013,” said Jason D’Angelo, a linguist and queer scholar who has a substantial following on TikTok for videos about gender and identity issues. “They’re a unique way of exploring people’s understanding of their own gender.”

Mx. D’angelo (who takes the nonbinary references themself) said the social media discourse around neoprounouns “died off” to some extent around 2014, before resurfacing recently; they theorized that increasing interest may be a result of the coronavirus forcing people indoors.

“When we go about in the world, we have to perform gender in ways that are typical and normative over and over and over again, but because a lot of us have been in our houses for the last year, we haven’t had to perform them,” they said. “So the link between the performance and the self is weakened.”

That’s OK. Horror at noun-self pronoun usage is so common that it has spurred a meme in the neopronoun community. In it, people compare neopronouns to all kinds of things we take for granted.

Neopronoun users say new terms allow them to engage with gender — or other aspects of identity — in a way that aligns with how they feel.

In some cases, neopronouns are met with frustration because their use shows people divorcing themselves from continuing, unfinished gender business between men and women. Neopronoun users are trying to “construct something new and different that doesn’t have the same societal issues,” Mx. D’angelo said, as the traditional gender binary: “It’s almost like gender abolitionist.”

Considering their Tumblr origins, it’s not surprising that many noun-self pronoun user interests’ overlap with fandoms, including anime, K-pop and Minecraft YouTuber stars like Dream. Intense fandoms are rife with neopronoun use.

Neopronouns are also prominent among some communities of young people who identify as neurodivergent, which includes diagnoses or descriptions like Asperger’s syndrome and autism.

Mx. D’Angelo said that one reason people on the autism spectrum may use neopronouns could be “because they feel like their relationship with gender is different than the neurotypical one.”

Neopronouns give people who feel different from the rest of the world a way to avoid all its boxes at once.

We wanted people to tell us in their own words about why and how they used neopronouns. Because they are very young, we agreed to let them use only their first names.

“Being neurodivergent, I tend to perceive how a word makes me feel rather than just seeing the word,” the noun-self user Gum, 13, wrote in a direct message on Twitter. “I chose my bink/bonk pronouns because they remind me of clowns. Clowns and harlequin dolls make me very happy.”

“Being neurodivergent, you are more likely to have a complicated relationship with your gender identity and expression, and pronouns are just one part of gender expression,” Elijah, 17, wrote.

“When I first encountered them I actually didn’t agree with them,” wrote one 15-year-old neopronoun user. “Eventually I met a lot of people online who used them and decided to educate myself further and realized that they were perfectly valid and just another way of expressing your gender to others. I chose the ones I use as I feel a connection to them, EG vamp/vamp pronouns — I feel a connection to vampires and that in a way feels connected to my gender.”

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