Precision of Language

This weekend I debuted a presentation I have been working on for a few months about semantic differentiation. I was so nervous that no one would show up and any who did would have a deer-in-headlights response, but thankfully it was very much the opposite. The small room was crammed full of at least 40 people who created such an engaging discussion that I had to skip over half of the presentation just to get in all the comments and insight. The audience was very varied too, comprised of leaders in the local or broader trans movements (fanboy moment: Mara Keisling was there and said it was awesome!) to some newly out folks who wanted something beyond Trans 101, and to some great representatives of intersectional identities like asexuality, trans youth, and others.

I begin this entry with mentioning my workshop because it highlights some of the internal conflicts (or perhaps "contradictions" is a better word) that we often have but don't talk about. In this case, it is the balance between descriptivist approaches in training and the personal precision of language.

In introductory linguistics, you'll hear about two approaches to studying language use. The older is the prescriptivist approach; think a vintage grammar book that tells you not to end sentences in prepositions. The newer and more progressive approach is the descriptivist approach--the way people use language is correct for them, and our job isn't to teach them other ways of using language, but to document it accurately and ensure that it is treated fairly. You can look to historical legal cases about usage of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) for some examples of why this approach is important for protecting cultural heritage and identity.

My workshop on semantic differentiation was in many ways a gentle reminder to social justice advocates and activists to use descriptivist approaches. Simply put, when someone uses a word in a way you don't, ask them why they do it rather than "correct" them. (And this applies to more than just words.) Why is that? Well, differentiation means basically a shift in meaning, and refers to when a word takes on multiple meanings that are very similar but can be interpreted in vastly different ways. This Wikipedia article on differentiation has a great and succinct summary. In the queer community, it's important to understand that because highly personal vocabulary is used in extremely different ways by many people, often separated by the smallest implications in meaning that shift from subcommunity to subcommunity. A good trainer, in my opinion, will explain this when defining terms, giving commonly accepted umbrella definitions, but pointing out that words are often used in different ways by different people.

And now to expand on one of infinite different ways, I'm going to talk about precision of language.

This term isn't anything from school. It's actually from The Giver, one of my favorite books. Precision of language is one of the rules in this highly constructed dystopian society, and probably because of the drama, hurt, frustration, and misunderstanding that differentiation can create in even small communities. One of the many instances where this language requirement is mentioned follows:

[Jonas] has been trained since earliest childhood, since his earliest learning of language, never to lie. It was an integral part of the learning of precise speech. Once, when he [was four], he had said, just prior to the midday meal at school, "I'm starving."

Immediately he had been taken aside for a brief private lesson in language precision. He was not starving, it was pointed out. He was hungry. No one in the community was starving, had ever been starving, would ever be starving. To say "starving" was to speak a lie. An unintentional lie, of course. But the reason for precision of language was to ensure that unintentional lies were never uttered. (Lowry 71)

Though we don't use this vocabulary to talk about it, I think one of the driving forces behind extremely precise terminology for identities is to prevent lying about identities. It's not that some word "only kind of works" or the like, rather that one term over an other is outright incorrect.

There are lots of reasons for that, from simple personal preference to actual lines that need to be drawn. In my workshop a parent of a trans child said that "affirmed gender" is close to being the exclusive term to talk about a trans child's identity--to say anything else would be sexualizing. Other people talk about misconceptions that they would like avoided, or about how they understand concepts like sex or gender (or anything else of importance).

Because our understandings and priorities differ so much person-to-person, our terms for ourselves become highly politicized, even if unintentionally. So something that I've done for myself is put a lot of intentionality into my terms. I still don't know what I will ultimately prefer. But I know what works for me in this moment and how I feel when such words are used.

For a long time I was very clear that I was "FTM" with no qualifiers. I was a girl, I would be a man. I sometimes played with terms like "female man" and other things that were a little more accepted around the decade ago that I was coming into my identity. When dysphoria got tough, I would change my preference to something less invoking of my body, phrases like "trans guy" or "just a guy kthnx." Later on my comfort levels would change again, and I'd search for something that got at the delicate balance of gender I was feeling inside myself. "FAAB guy." "Just trans." "Guy but not in the male sense." Lots of qualifiers, lots of diving toward precision. But every day I change into someone new, and every day each word feels not quite right. Words that seem to describe more fact than sociality seem to always stay through each change, and often the precision still comes from addition.

Not to give too much away, but in The Giver it turns out that Jonas's instructors were wrong about if anyone in the community had been or ever would be starving. In a world of control there was no account for change. This is also something that happens in trans organizing--when something is clear and can be understood, it gets set in stone, even when evidence is presented to the contrary. The old narrative was that trans people have "always known" they were trans; in some circles now, the narrative is the opposite, that anyone who "always knew" is likely telling a lie. The in-between is quieted, the fluidity frozen, and the pendulum isn't going to swing back toward the middle anytime soon in some of these subcommunities.

But for many, in my opinion, it's by opening up and recognizing those areas where momentary and ever-changing precision occur that we can work toward systems where we are all better understood by each other and by our world. We are always changing, and not just in our gender or other identities. As Billy the Kid says in the film I'm Not There (2007), "I can change during the course of a day. I wake and I’m one person, when I go to sleep I know for certain I’m somebody else. I don’t know who I am most of the time. It’s like you got yesterday, today, and tomorrow all in the same room. There’s no telling what can happen."