How we got here: Short-scale change in identity labels for trans, cis, and non-binary people in the 2000s

Lal Zimman
The 94th Annual Meeting of the Linguistic Society of America,
Google Scholar


Compared to the study of phonetic and grammatical variables, lexical variation remains a marginal domain of research on language variation and change. While phonological and morphosyntactic variables demonstrate the patterned regularity of language change, the lexicon exists above the “level of awareness” (Silverstein 1981), making it open to self-conscious intervention on the part of speakers. By contrast, politically-minded approaches to language – such as feminist and queer linguistics – have often focused on the lexicon as a level of language in which oppressive ideologies are encoded referentially, as well as indexically, but also through which speakers can exercise agency and political resistance. This talk presents a corpus-based sociolinguistic analysis (Baker 2010) of changes in identity terms for transgender, cisgender, and non-binary individuals. We examine data from four online communities on the social media blogging site, – one for trans women, one for trans men, and two for genderqueer and non-binary people – all of which were popular in the 2000s. We use innovative methods for corpus creation and analysis that utilize general purpose cloud computing tools in order to track changes in norms surrounding identity terms for these groups. The analysis centers around three questions: 1) What are the most popular terms for trans, cis, and non-binary people in these communities of practice (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992) and how did this change over time? 2) How are the changes observed in the dataset – e.g. the increasing presence for transgender over trangendered – relate to sociopolitical changes trans people experienced during this time? 3) What differences can be observed across communities for trans men, trans women, and non-binary/genderqueer people? This paper makes several contributions to the study of language in its social contexts. First, it complements qualitative examinations of identity labels in language, gender, and sexuality studies (e.g. Chen 1998, Hazenberg 2017) by quantitatively tracking the process through which new lexical items spread throughout communities of practice and identifying key time periods when new labels came into use. Second, it explores differences across trans communities that cater to different identity groups, revealing the social differences and similarities that structure “the trans community.” Third, it presents new methods for corpus creation and analysis. Finally, it explores short-scale language change in a case where speakers agentively shape the course of that change. Far from a unique case, this instance of linguistic intervention highlights the highly political nature of lexical change. < References Chen, Mel Y.-C. 1998. “I am an animal!”: Lexical reappropriation, performativity, and queer. In Suzanne Wertheim, Ashlee C. Bailey & Monica Corston-Oliver (eds.), Engendering Communication, 129–140. Berkeley, CA: BWLG. Hazenberg, Evan. 2017. Naming ourselves: Trans self-labelling. In Evan Hazenberg & Miriam Meyerhoff (eds.), Representing Trans: Linguistic, Legal, and Everyday Perspectives, 204–225. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press. Eckert, Penelope & Sally McConnell-Ginet. 1992. Think practically and look locally: Language and gender as community-based practice. Annual Review of Anthropology 21:461–490. Baker, Paul. 2010. Sociolinguistics and Corpus Linguistics. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Silverstein, Michael. 1981. The limits of awareness. Working Papers in Sociolinguistics 84:1–30.