Relational Speaking

June 21st, 2023
contra, ling, satire, they
Relational speaking is a style that emphasizes flow and the relationship between subjects, rather than using pronouns to refer to entities in the discourse. It is appropriate for a wide variety of contexts, as it makes no assumptions about the gender of your referents. Relational constructions have always been a part of English: consider a casual "Want some fries?" or a command of "Don't look!" There are linguistic communities that have used relational, or as linguists call it, "pro-drop" speech for centuries, but until recently in English it was the exception rather than the norm. In the past five years or so, a number of us have intentionally developed relational styles, and in the past two years this style of speech has gained significant traction among the community interested in gender-free speech. Gender-free English has a much longer history, of course, but it has typically relied on pronouns—xie/xer, they/them, etc.—to refer to people. Some of those traditions came out of explicitly LGBTQIA+ communities, but over time, gender presentation has changed across the board. Gender-free speaking strategies reflect an awareness that appearance is no longer a useful indicator of gender or pronoun preference.

In the past, gender was undeniably a useful reference, but one cannot emphasize enough how little meaning terms like "he" or "she" are when a person's name or appearance does not clearly indicate which applies. In fact, they aren't just meaningless—they can actually cause problems; it's likely that in conversations in gendered spaces you've seen well-meaning people try to correct pronoun usage that, in fact, was already correct. And while alternative pronouns, like using they/them for everyone, avoid the problem of being discriminatory and exclusionary, they keep us in a frame of pronoun reference, with all its historical baggage, instead of embracing a relational approach.

It's possible that you are looking for a more visible or immediate shift to gender-free speech, as a way of asserting your or your organization's commitment to inclusivity. Relational speech has been criticized for its invisibility, which strikes some people as a pandering concession to linguistic conservatives who are resistant to being referred to as "they". Experience tells us that the people who are angry about gender-free speech do not perceive relational speech as conciliatory: we have been accused of creating "a war" with our words. As that language suggests, it is an emotional subject, and as a result sometimes impervious to logic: people who are unhappy about being inaccurately labeled with "plural pronouns" see no contradiction, for example, in insisting that others accept being labeled with inaccurate gender terms. Confrontational or otherwise, though, relational speaking is not just a move away from gendered language. It also offers us opportunities to reframe and enhance our conceptual understanding of the geography and geometry of language. I hope that this text is persuasive on relational speech as a more radical rethinking of English, moving away not only from heteronormative paradigms of speech, but also from binary thinking in general.

Continue reading: Chapter 2: Pro-Drop English


The above is playing off positional calling advocacy, and especially Dancing the Whole Dance (my review). Just as I'm in favor of contra dancing switching from Gents/Ladies to Larks/Robins, I'm in favor of English switching to using "they" for everyone. I do see a small space for pro-drop English and positional calling, in allowing someone to, by putting careful attention into their words, avoid gendered references in environments where explicitly gender-free language would elicit a bad response. Overall, however, I don't think either is a good direction for the dance/language as a whole.

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