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Many non-binary people now request that new third person pronouns (neopronouns) be used to refer to them, for example xe or ze. These have not been widely used by English speakers yet, but it's still too early to say whether they might in the future.

Non-binary gender is a fairly recent concept for many people in western societies, but other societies have long had similar concepts, which anthropologists have termed third gender. Note that not all those who would identify with one of these would identify with the western terms transgender or non-binary gender.

Seeing as these third gender ideas have been around for thousands of years, I would like to know if there are any languages which have fully incorporated (ie, fully grammaticalised) neopronouns for non-binary or third gender people? I am specifically interested in pronouns that are used strictly for non-binary or third gender people, and not ones that are also used in a generic or indefinite manner (as the singular they is in English.)

  • You presumably know about noun class systems such as Bantu and non-sex distinctions like animate / inanimate. So what are you asking? – user6726 Oct 11 '19 at 1:07
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    There are plenty of languages whose 3rd person singular pronoun does not indicate gender, does that count as "non-binary"? – Gaston Ümlaut Oct 11 '19 at 3:03
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    @GastonÜmlaut Only if it's for a distinct socially recognised identity. – curiousdannii Oct 11 '19 at 3:05
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    @WavesWashSands Few people will have really internalised it into their idiolect, and remembering the various inflections of xe and the other neopronouns won't be innate for very many people. So what I'm interested in is if there are examples of the grammaticalisation process being complete, where essentially everyone in the speech community learned these pronouns as children and use them with some regularity. Yes I agree the NB they is different from the generic they. – curiousdannii Oct 11 '19 at 7:27
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    The way to give an answer to this question would be either to name such a language (and show that it has pronouns that act this way) or, what is more likely but also way more laborious, point to a language corpus and claim that none of them have such pronouns. I claim 'there are none': wals.info/feature/30A, wals.info/feature/31A, wals.info/feature/32A. But you are looking for neo pronouns, and that is not captured in WALS. So your question is even harder to answer. – Mitch Oct 11 '19 at 21:26
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The case of hen in Swedish is the closest example I know of. hen does have a generic usage for people of unknown gender---so it does not fit your question exactly---but in most cases without explicit metalinguistic commentary, it's impossible to know whether a grammatical gender system arose due to social gender forces. We would not want to say Finland has no social gender simply because their language doesn't mark gender in its third person pronouns, so we would not want to claim the reverse even if we came across a language with multiple personal pronouns. This doesn't mean there are no examples of language users explicitly adopting a pronoun for non-binary gender reference.

In the last few decades, Swedish speakers have borrowed the Finnish hän as a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. Finnish, a language neighboring Swedish, does not mark gender in its third person singular so its pronoun was seen as a good candidate for a new gender neutral pronoun. Adoption was resisted for a while, but in the last decade has seen widespread usage. It has been recognized by the Swedish Academy and is included in their glossary of the Swedish language, and the Swedish Language Council has commented on the proper inflections of the pronouns.

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  • Doesn't really meet the criteria I set, which is for a pronoun solely for non-binary or third gender. – curiousdannii May 27 at 23:23
  • Then the answer is likely no. Neopronouns are, by definition, new. As a phenomenon, they're restricted to a small number of global languages and cultures in a narrow time frame. Given those restrictions, the odds of a language incorporating neopronouns soley for non-binary gender is incredibly low; the closest example of this happening is Swedish. – Christian May 27 at 23:42
  • But third genders have been recognised in many cultures going back thousands of years. Neopronouns are a modern phenomenon, especially where there are multiple options in one language, but it's not impossible that a single pronoun was created for third gender people in some language of the past. – curiousdannii May 27 at 23:55
  • Your question specifically asks about neopronouns. My answer already addresses why making assumptions about the social structure of ancient linguistic communities based on linguistic gender marking is a bad idea. – Christian May 28 at 0:17
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    @curiousdannii There are no pronouns solely for non-binary or third gender, even including recent neologisms in English like xe. Anyone of any gender can chose to prefer those pronouns even if they do not consider themselves non-binary or third-gender. The same is true of any pronoun in any language – that is the very nature of the trend to separate pronouns from biological sex. – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 28 at 5:57

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