20101007

Towards a new identity for "GLBT"

Speaking as a linguist, the “word” GLBT (read: (GL/LG)BT(T[T])(Q[Q/?])(I)(S)(A[A])(2)(&c)) is getting untenable. First of all, it just doesn’t end. Everyone always wants to tack the initials of more and more granular sub-groups onto the end of it, which may or may not be part of any of the groups before it. GLBT – Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender – is simple enough. Then sometimes we get an extra T for Transsexual. And a Q, for either Queer, which offends some people, or Questioning. I’ve also seen I for Intersexed, A for Ally or Asexual, another T for Transvestite, a ? instead of a Q for Questioning, and even a 2 for “two-spirit.” And this is to say nothing of the Curious, Unsure, Pansexual/Polyamorous (and I’ll have another rant sometime about the word polyamorous, and how people inventing new words should stick with a singular language root), or even Other.

Oh, but wait! You might also get smacked down for using any of these letters in the wrong combination with any number of groups, to the extent that we can’t even agree at the foremost level if it should start with GLBT- or LGBT-. (Sorry, B and T, but your positions as third and fourth seem pretty firmly fixed at this point.) And i would just like to posit that i fall into the “GLBT” camp, not because i’m advocating that gays should come before lesbians, but because “gl-” is a feasible word-initial combination while “lg-” is not. But regardless of what order you put them in, i consider this word to be phonetically unviable, phonemically confused, and generally linguistically unacceptable. Everyone represented by any particular letter in this group seems to be offended by some part of it, or lack thereof. Myself, i’m offended by it linguistically, aside from the fact that it’s just kind of ugly.

Of course, we have enough vowels to rearrange it into some sort of pronounceable word (Glibtacquo? Galactopigs? Wait, who am i forgetting?), but there are always going to be letters we don’t/can’t use and someone’s going to be determined to feel excluded, upset that they’re not first, upset that they’re last, or in some other way slighted.

What we need is a single, pronounceable, non-acronymic, non-agglutinative word to describe the GLBT+ community that isn’t going to offend anybody or contain bits of other words that might offend some of us, many of whom are already a little overly sensitive. They tried that already with “queer,” but there are some who feel like the word hasn’t been fully “taken back” yet, and so choose (yes, choose) to be offended by it, regardless of the context in which it’s used. I think that’s kind of stupid on some level, but on another level, i don’t really want anyone calling me queer, either, even if i fit the bill.

No, we can’t go on recycling old words to “take them back” and hope their meanings will just change overnight into some joyous hippie lovefest. No offense to hippies or lovefests: I’m a fan of both. And i do appreciate the idea of taking back words (like queer) to use them in a positive light in a way that drains them of the venom with which they are all too often used, both by those in and outside of the GLBT+ community.  But what we need is a blank slate word with no previous connotations or assumptions associated with it, which can act as an all-inclusive word to define our community. Or a word that has fallen so far out of use that any connotations have been wiped clean. Where do we find such a word? We ask a linguist, of course.

So where do we start?

Well, in english, we have a few different choices. English really is an amalgamation of germanic, italic, and hellenic languages, all of which play different roles in the language. Going back to its earliest history, old english (or anglosaxon) was a direct descendant of the west germanic branch of protogermanic, which in turn split off from indoeuropean sometime around 500BC. (And yes, I say BC, not BCE, but let’s just attack one acronym at a time, shall we?) For a while, probably while it was still mutually intelligible with other neighboring languages, we traded a lot of words back and forth with old norse, and probably a few others as well. Then, in 1066AD, english acquires a bunch of french via the norman invasion. (Which everyone says was french, but that was a little bit viking-related too; think about it: Norman. From Nordman. Norðman. Northman. cf. norðmaðr/norrœnr. That’s right – the normans were vikings who had settled in northern France, specifically, “Normandy.” But anyway, they spoke french by this time, so we introduce french and all of the delicious foods associated with it into the anglosaxon world). Thus, middle english was born, spelling went completely out the window, and we suddenly have duplicate words for animals and the foods we make out of them. But that’s a whole different post, too. Eventually, the Renaissance comes along, we dump a bunch of latin and greek into our anglosaxon/norse/french soup, and undergo the Great Vowel Shift thanks in part to the Black Death. Then the twentieth century comes along, complete with globalization and eventually internet, and we suddenly have bits of hundreds of languages seeping in from every major language in the world. So how do we decide?

Well, in my opinion, we should stick with plain old english; that is, an anglo-saxon derivative of a protogermanic word. Immediately coming to mind are words that have fallen out of use in modern english, like “blithe” (< OE blīþe < PGmc bleiþaz or blīþaz; “happy, joyful, blissful” cf. “gay”). Or maybe a nice compound like “elkind” (< PGmc alja, “other, different, foreign” + kundiz or kunþiz, “kind, type, sort; gender; child, kin,” cf. “kind,” “kin,” “kindred,” probably developing into OE ælcynd)... though it also sort of makes me think of “elf-kind,” which in itself is actually kind of cute. Or, perhaps, go with the short-vowel version (cf. “kin”) and use “elkin”? Hmm, perhaps no – it makes me think of “elk-en,” like we’re a bunch of deer or moose.

Now to take this linguistically one step further, a word like “elkind” has a fundamental problem, which is that it is a stressed syllable (el-) followed by a syllable with a long vowel (-kind), which according to the germanic rules of mora loss suggest that the long vowel should actually become short [ɛ́l.kɪnd], or it’s awkward to pronounce. Alternatively, the long syllable could become stressed, which is not the norm, but becoming more normal in english all the time since the introduction of non-germanic languages with words that have non-initial stress: [ɛl.káɪnd].

And for those of you who aren’t fans of traditional anglosaxon etymology, we could take those same ideas – like blithe – and take them back through indoeuropean to make something nice and latin out of them. Blithe < blīþe < bleiþaz < bʰleitos > ɸleitos > lat. flētus (> fletous? fletan?) or grk. φλιτος or φλισος (phlitos/phlisos > phlisan?)

Anyway, blithe and elkind are my two suggestions for now. I’d be interested to hear what others in the blithe/elkind and linguistic communities think about it. Then, of course, there’s the slightly more uphill battle to get it introduced into the language and get people to actually use it; maybe Dan Savage can plug it for us.

Please leave me a comment with your thoughts!