Southeast Asian Linguistics Research Unit
Research Spotlight

Kathoey’s reinterpretation of Thai feminine pronouns and the construction of gender identity

The word kathoey in Thai refers to male-to-female transgenders who uses several aspects of femininity to identify themselves as male-to-female transgender. Because thai does not make use of overt markers such as suffixes to index the gender, one of the very few linguistic resources that the speaker can use for constructing their gender identity are self-reference terms such as /pʰǒm/, /nǔː/, and /dìchǎn/. In her article on linguistic construction of gender in Thai society that appeared in Language, sexuality and power: Studies in intersectional sociolinguistics,  Dr. Pavadee Saisuwan addresses how such limited resources can play such an important role in constituting gender identity, which is limitless?

Personal pronouns and self-reference terms in many languages are considered a direct way to represent or identify one’s gender identity. For example, using the Thai 1st person masculine pronoun /pʰǒm/ implies that the speaker wishes to align himself with the “male” section of the gender spectrum. Nevertheless, there are cases in which the speaker’s uses of personal pronouns and self-reference terms do not directly point at the gender identity he/she wants to represent.

Dr. Pavadee the writer explore the use of self-reference terms on three online websites. The first one is Thai LayBoYz.net, a transgender community website in Thailand especially for kathoey. The second website is Jeban, which is a website about women’s beauty trends. The last one is the beauty section from Pantip, Thai people’s Reddit-like online community. The self-reference terms from the online corpora data include personal pronouns, personal names, kin terms, combination of kin terms and personal name, and the fixed phrase ‘the post owner’, with personal pronouns as the most used. While epicene personal pronouns which do not specify gender of speaker are the most-frequently used pronouns in all of the website, the data show that feminine pronouns are widely used in TLB (26.45%), in contrast with Jeban & Pantip (3.13%).

Especially revealing is the finding that both women and kathoey use the same feminine pronouns but the stances exhibited were differently taken. The pronoun /nǔː/ used by women often tend to exhibit an affective or intimate stance. In contrast, the pronoun /nǔː/ used by kathoey does not always presuppose an affective or intimate stance. Using the pronoun /nǔː/ among other kathoey, they index themselves as younger and less experienced and imply a power asymmetry between the speakers.

Furthermore, Dr. Pavadee found that the pronoun /dìchǎn/, which is infrequently used among women to index eliteness, femininity, formality and empathic stance, making their words sound more convincing, is reinterpreted and constantly used by kathoey as an unmarked personal pronoun. The choice avoids implication of power difference or seniority and expresses informal femininity rather than formal or elite sense of femininity. Nevertheless, the full form and its reduced variant /dían/ and /dán/, which are usually associate with high-class people, are still used both by women and kathoey as a way to mock the high-class people’s speech.

From the data, we could see the process of kathoey’s reinterpretation of the social meaning and stances previously tied up with feminine personal pronouns, which, subsequently, functions as a part of their gender identity construction. This analysis is confirmed by results from a questionnaire designed to obtain perception of the self-reference terms’ social meanings. The participants, 17 kathoey and 19 women, perceive the uses and social meanings of personal pronouns in correspondence with the online corpora dataset. For example, both groups agreed that the use of pronoun /nǔː/ create a sense of humbleness, making the speaker sound more adorable. This is importaht because this term is rarely used as a solely femininity-indexing pronoun.

The pronoun /dìchǎn/ is also perceived by both women and kathoey as a pronoun for formal settings. However, many kathoey participants also reported that /dìchǎn/ is a term to index level of femininity among kathoey. For instance, a kathoey speaker reports that she uses the pronoun /dìchǎn/ in public to imply her femininity alongside with her feminine looks. Many kathoey participants also mentioned the femininity aspect of the pronoun /dìchǎn/ more often than do female participants. This suggests that they perceive the pronoun as belonging to women, which lead to the use of /dìchǎn/ to represent their femininity.

We can see very clearly from this study that kathoey index themselves to the gender spectrum and constitute their identity by adopting feminine personal pronoun. These phenomena demonstrate that language has a complex role in indexing gender. In kathoey’s case presented here, they select particular limited language forms, reinterpret them and use them in situations that differ from the situation they are conventionally used by cisgender women.

Athit Wu

Bibliography

Miyazaki, Ayumi. 2002. Relational shift: Japanese girls’ nontraditional first person
pronouns. In Sarah Benor, Mary Rose, Devyani Sharma, Julie Sweetland, &
Qing Zhang (eds.), Gendered practices in languages, 355–374. Stanford, CA: CSLI.

Miyazaki, Ayumi. 2004. Japanese junior high school girls’ and boys’ first-person
pronoun use and their social world. In Shigeko Okamoto & Janet S. Shibamoto Smith (eds.), Japanese language, gender, and ideology: Cultural models and real people, 256–274.New York & Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ochs, Elinor. 1992. Indexing gender. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin
(eds.), Rethinking context, 336–346. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Winter, Sam. 2003. Language and identity in transgender: Gender wars and the case
of the Thai kathoey. Paper presented at the Hawaii conference on social sciences, Waikiki http://web.hku.hk/~sjwinter/TransgenderASIA/paper_language _and_identity.htm. (February 23, 2012.)

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