Merriam-Webster’s word of the year in 2019 was a simple four letter word: “they.”
The reason for the choice, according to the dictionary publisher, is that the pronoun – which for hundreds of years was used as a gender-neutral singular pronoun – no longer fills just that role, and has been increasingly used to refer to a person whose gender identity is nonbinary.
“Language changes,” said Jane Noll. “That's one of the beautiful things about language and language can change in a way that acknowledges people who maybe didn't feel acknowledged before. And I think that's pretty true in this case.”
Noll will soon retire as an instructor and coordinator of undergraduate affairs in the University of South Florida Department of Psychology. Since her dissertation 20 years ago on psycholinguistics and the role of gender in language, she's studied the use of words like “they” and how they've changed.
She said she’s not surprised “they” was chosen as word of the year, and was more pleased that Merriam-Webster officials recognized its importance.
“I believe their reason for (the distinction) was because so many people searched the dictionary for that word,” said Noll. “We're more frequently using (they) in natural speech as a singular pronoun … people are intentionally saying ‘I want to use it as my pronoun because I don't I don't identify as he or she, I am they.’ ”
As a cognitive psychologist, Noll is interested in how we comprehend these pronouns.
“We were told back when I was in school to use ‘he,’ because it will also include ‘she,’ and I never felt that really worked. And so a lot of the research that we did proved that out.”
In Noll’s research, people who gathered at the USF weekly market were asked for the traits of an educated person – no gender given, just a generic person. The answer wasn’t important however – but the pronoun they used was.
“And more often than not, they use ‘they,’” said Noll. “‘They’re someone who read a lot of books,’ ‘they’re someone who is very smart.’ They rarely said ‘he or she,’ only one or two people said ‘he,’ and they never said ‘she.’’
Further research again presented people with a sentence featuring a generic subject of an unknown gender – “Anybody who litters – they should be fined $50.”
While they read the sentence, people were interrupted with what’s called a lexical decision task, where they read a string of letters and had to decide if they made up a word or not.
“We found that when they had the singular ‘they’ in the sentence, they were just as easily to recognize a female words such as ‘queen,’ as they were a male word such as ‘king,’” said Noll.
But when the sentence was “he should be fined,” that differentiation disappeared. “When you read he in the sentence, you are much more likely to think he, a male, and hardly anybody thinks of a female.”
Noll acknowledges that some people will have difficulty accepting others’ use of ‘they’ as their personal pronoun, but she points something out.
“We have to remember, for many of us, it's been difficult all along to use ‘he’ or ‘she,’” she said. “To be respectful of people who don't identify as he or as she, I think we need to put forth the effort and it is going to be an effort for some people.”
“But it's always been that way in language, we have a whole history of language changes that have happened because people started saying it one way and then other people said, ‘Ooh, that sounds awkward.’ But it became part of the language.”