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Sally McConnell-Ginet

Cornell University

Monday, March 28th at 2:00 PM in AP&M 4301. 

Semantics and Pragmatics in/of Transition

Abstract: Transition is change. Over the past few decades, formal semantics and pragmatics have become increasingly intertwined.  There is emphasis on modeling discourse and evolving interpretation as linguistic communication proceeds, and both context and change have become central to analysis of meaning.  Similarly, scholarly approaches to gender and sexuality usually now understand cultural and bodily/biological concerns as enmeshed rather than as clearly separable.  Gender and sexuality practices are also in transition, rapidly changing widespread assumptions about possibilities for lives that do not fit normative models.  Amazon’s popular “Transparent” with Jeffrey Tambor as transitioning Maura Pfefferman, Laverne Cox as transgender woman Sophia Burset in “Orange is the New Black,” newly transitioned Caitlyn Jenner on the cover of Vanity Fair and on “I am Cait”:  in the last couple of years transgender people have become widely visible to the general public, and there is increasing support for gender/sex transitioning.  At the same time, transgender teens remain at high risk of suicide or violence from cisgender peers, trans women are harassed by airport screeners, and gender panic stampedes many into voting down legislation forbidding discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  This paper focuses on linguistic challenges facing those whose life histories include transition to gender/sex identities distinct from those assigned them at birth, challenges also encountered by those speaking to and of them.  These include disputes over criteria (and semantic authority) for assigning gender/sexuality labels (pasted on people and public toilets), transitions in family-centered talk (changing kin terms and names when assumptions of gender/sex permanence are disrupted), and evolving 3rd-person non-binary pronouns referring to single individuals (asking for “preferred gender pronouns” and debating they’s travel to a wider range of singular contexts).