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Tobias-Alexander Herrmann M.A.

Doktorand in Slavischer Sprachwissenschaft; wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter als Koordinator des Cologne Center of Language Sciences
Büro 4.03 im HoP (House of Prominence, Luxemburger Straße 299)
☎ (02 21) 470-89923


  • Seit April 2019 Promotion im Fach Slavistik
  • Regionalstudien Ost- und Mitteleuropa, Universität zu Köln
  • 2011-2012: Zwei Auslandssemester an der Karsluniversität Prag, Tschechien


  • Soziolinguistik
  • Genderlinguistik


  • Cologne Center of Language Sciences (CCLS)
  • JungslavistInnen

Emergence, construction and representation of non-binary identities in the Slavic languages

The project investigates how non-binary individuals construct their identities by linguistic means and which resources are employed to represent these people in the gendered languages of Russian and Czech. In some regard, this study pursues a novel approach by combining modern socio-scientific and poststructuralist perspectives on non-binary identities with the well-established tools of classical structurally oriented linguistic research.

Gender, among other socio-demographic categories such as ethnicity, social class and age, has often been linked to speakers’ (un)awareness towards linguistic variation. However, regarding gender as a fixed identity of people has attracted criticism (see Romaine 2003; Ehrlich 2004; Cameron 2007). In addition, several studies have shown that several factors mediate the relation between gender and language use (Nichols 1986; Cheshire 1987, 1999; Eckert 1989, 2000). Therefore, not only can social categories affect language, but language can also influence cognitive processes, an assumption based on Whorf’s principle of linguistic relativity (Whorf 1956). Since social categories are by their very nature socially constructed, this means that language also has at least an indirect influence on the construal of gender as a social dimension.

If language is not understood as a way of representation but as a means of construction (Hornscheidt 2006: 3), it can be assumed that linguistic variation does not only arise through the independent variable of gender, but that conversely a purposeful linguistic output helps to shape the social demographic category of gender in a certain way. Gender is typically understood as a dichotomous variable, but people who identify as non-binary demonstrate that gender represents more than two disjoint options. “[G]enderqueer or non-binary people are simply people who are not male or female [...]. In general, non-binary or genderqueer refers to people’s identity, rather than physicality at birth” (Richards et al. 2017: 5).

Against the background of the relationship between language and gender on the one hand, and the view of the social category of gender as a continuous variable on the other, the question arises which kind of linguistic variation can be found in the language use of people who identify as non-binary. Drawing on the classical sociolinguistic tradition, it is important to explore which variation occurs due to gender. Meanwhile, taking on a sociopragmatic stance, it is necessary to explore how variation is used to construct one’s own non-binary gender identity. Gender identity is one of a person’s multiple identities, with identity being “a state or process of relationship between self and other; identity is how individuals define, create, or think of themselves in terms of their relationships with other individuals and groups, [emphasis in original] whether these others are real or imagined” (Kiesling 2013: 448).

In the Slavic languages, grammatical gender as well as social gender are intertwined, for instance as gender assignment is driven semantically when it comes to persons. This is also reflected in the languages’ rich morphology, where the social category of gender is encoded in linguistic information in many ways. Conversely, morphology may equally point to social gender, a phenomenon Silverstein (2003) has dubbed referential indexicality or indexical order. Because of the indexicality of linguistic elements, referring obligatorily to either ‘femininity’ or ‘masculinity’ when used for humans, a simple question can be raised: How do non-binary people speak about themselves, how can they be addressed, and how can one talk about them, without misgendering, that is without aligning themselves or them, respectively, to the incorrect group or gender index?

The following sentences exemplify, (a) where gendering occurs and (b) how linguistic alternatives can be used to construct a non-binary identity:

(1)    a.    Včera ja poseti-l lekciju, no tam ja usnu-l. [Russian]
yesterday I attend-pst.m.sg lecture but there I fall-pst.m.sg asleep
‘Yesterday I attended a lecture, but I fell asleep there.’
(1)    b.    Včera mne dove-lo-s' byt' na lekcii, no tam mne priš-lo-s' usnut'.
yesterday me-dat.sg happened-pst.n.sg-refl to be at lecture but there me-dat.sg have to-pst.n.sg-refl to fall asleep
‘Yesterday I happened to be at a lecture, but I had to fall asleep.’ (Morosova 2019)

(2)    a.    Ona je velmi cílevědom-á. Nakonec vyhrá-la ocenění. [Czech]
she is very ambitious-f.sg finally win-pst.f.sg award
‘She is very ambitious. Finally she won an award.’
(2)    b.    One je velmi ambiciózn-í. Nakonec vyhrá-le ocenění.
? is very ambitious-f/m.sg finally win-pst.nb.sg award
‘They are a very ambitious person. Finally they (Sg.) won an award.’ (cf. Matuštík*ová 2020)


Example (1) demonstrates that an impersonal construction is used to replace the gendered l-participle (although this slightly alters the original meaning), while in (2) a new gender-neutral pronoun and an innovative l-participle is used, and the adjective is replaced by a synonym that does not indicate social gender. Hence, sentence (b), respectively, illustrates where gender-related variation may occur.

As a working hypothesis I posit that whenever linguistic features index the speaker’s social gender in a given language’s standard variety, variation occurs in the speech of a non-binary individual. However, this assumption is subject to the person’s desire to express their non-binary gender identity. I expect to find gender-related variation on the structural as well as on the interactional level, with both layers being used to make social meaning. Hence, to document, describe and explain non-binary individuals’ language use and the variants of their gender realization, both in interactional stances (micro) as well as in relation to the socioeconomic hierarchy including a fixed language system (macro), I adopt a sociopragmatic variational approach. A methodological asset of this study is the interdisciplinary combination of different qualitative and quantitative methods of the language and the social sciences, such as virtual ethnography, corpora, in-depth interviews, and surveys.


Cameron, Deborah. 2007. The Myth of Mars and Venus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Cheshire, Jenny. 1987. “Syntactic variation, the linguistic variable, and sociolinguistic theory”. Linguistics 25: 257–282.

Cheshire, Jenny. 1999. “Taming the vernacular: some repercussions for the study of syntactic variation and spoken grammar”. Cuadernos de Filología Inglesa 8: 59–80.

Eckert, Penelope. 1989. Jocks and Burnouts. Social Categories and Identity in the High School. New York: Teachers College Press.

Eckert, Penelope. 2000. Linguistic Variation as Social Practice. Oxford: Blackwell.

Ehrlich, Susan. 2001. Representing Rape: Language and Sexual Consent. New York: Psychology Press.

Hornscheidt, Antje. 2006. Die sprachliche Benennung von Personen aus konstruktivistischer Sicht. Genderspezifizierung und ihre diskursive Verhandlung im heutigen Schwedisch. Berlin, New York: Walter de Gruyter.

Kiesling, Scott F. 2013. “Constructing Identity”. In The Handbook of Language Variation and Change, edited by J.K. Chambers and Natalie Schilling-Estes, 448-468. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

Matuštík*ová, Katka. 2020. “Jak psát česky o nebinárních lidech?” [How to write about non-binary people in Czech?] <www.h7o.cz/jak-psat-cesky-o-nebinarnich-lidech/>. Accessed November 15, 2020.

Morosova, Ksenija. 2019. “Ne «М» и ne «Ž»: kak živёt čelovek s nebinarnoj gendernoj identičnost'ju.” [Neither “M” nor “F”: How a person lives with a non-binary identity] <http://www.sobaka.ru/city/society/84200>. Accessed October 17, 2019.

Nichols, Patricia C. 1986. “Women in their speech communities”. In Women and Language in Literature and Society, edited by Sally McConnell-Ginet, Ruth Borker, and Nelly Forman, 140–149. New York: Praeger.

Richards, Christina, Walter Pierre Bouman and Meg-John Barker, eds. 2017. Genderqueer and Non-Binary Genders. London.

Romaine, Suzanne. 2003. “Variation in language and gender”. In The Handbook of Language and Gender, edited by Janet Holmes and Miriam Meyerhoff, 98–118. Oxford: Blackwell.

Silverstein, Michael. 2003. “Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life”. Language and Communication 23 (3): 193-229.

Whorf, Benjamin Lee. 1956. Language, Thought, and Reality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.