A couple of days ago, in a conversation I was in, the question came up of how to refer to one’s nonbinary relatives. While it’s true that there exist gender-nonspecific terms for most relations (e.g. “sibling”, “parent”, etc.), there don’t appear to be terms in common use that refer explicitly to nonbinary people, even in queer parlance.
Thus, being the conlanger that I am, I decided to come up with a few such terms on my own, and to try to make them similar enough to the existing English kinship terms that they would be recognizable as referring to the relationship that they did, even to a person who was hearing them for the first time. I ended up creating terms for five categories (a nonbinary parent, sibling, child, sibling’s child, and parent’s sibling), and ran a brief survey on Tumblr to determine if English speakers could identify which terms referred to which categories.
Of the 78 people who took the survey, 88.5% indicated that they were native speakers of English, and 55.1% indicated that they felt they knew how the novel words were supposed to be pronounced (39.7% said they only felt they could tell sometimes). Below, each group of words is discussed in greater detail.
Pronounced /’vɛðəɹ/, this word was intended to refer to one’s nonbinary parent. I actually coined this one long before the conversation that led to this survey, after reading an exchange where a person* suggested that the term “baba” would be a good choice for what a baby might call their genderqueer parent; I then backformed that to a hypothetical word that shared the “-ther” suffix found in “father” and “mother”, and began with the one labial fricative that didn’t already begin a kinship term in English, i.e. /v/.
A solid 65.4% of respondents got this one “correct”, identifying it as referring to one’s parent. However, there was a substantial minority (14.1%) who voted for “parent’s sibling”, and smaller minorities who chose the other categories, as well as variations on “I don’t know” and one freeform response.
Sether, Sebber, Sither, Bruster
All of these were intended to refer to one’s sibling. Respectively, they are pronounced /’sɛðəɹ/, /’sɛbəɹ/, /’sɪðəɹ/, and /’bɹʌstəɹ/. All are essentially portmanteaus of “brother” and “sister”, with “sebber” also being influenced by the word “sibling”.
Although a majority of respondents chose the “sibling” option for all four of these, that majority was largest (87.2% and 84.6%, respectively) for “sither” and “bruster”. Only 65.4% of respondents chose “sibling” for “sebber”, with the rest divided between the other four official options and a number of (sometimes humorous) freeform responses. Interestingly, although a majority of individuals (56.4%) got “sether” “correct”, a large minority (21.8%) indicated that it referred to one’s parent.
Tozzer and Tother
I intended for these terms to be pronounced /’tɑzəɹ/ and /’tɑðər/, and refer to one’s child. However, in neither case did a majority of respondents choose this option (although “child” did represent the largest group of responses — 24.4% — for “tozzer”; “parent” and “sibling” received 16.7% and 14.1% respectively). “Tother” received a clear majority of responses in favor of it referring to one’s parent (52.6%), with another large chunk of responses (19.2%) in favor of “sibling”. One freeform responder indicated that they thought “tother” should rhyme with “mother”, which may have contributed to the preponderance of “parent” responses.
One complication that I, as an American, did not anticipate is that the word “tosser” is apparently an insult in Great Britain. This was pointed out multiple times in the freeform responses to both of these words. I did notice that “tozzer” sounded a bit like “tosser” while creating these words, but was not aware that it was an insult. Both terms come from playing with the sounds in “daughter”, adding elements from “father”, “mother”, and “brother”, plus a healthy dose of random variation.
Prnounced /neɪθ/, and referring to a sibling’s child, this is the term that I hypothesized would produce the most confusion among respondents, but it seems to have been clearer than I expected: 61.5% of answers went to the “sibling’s child” option, with minorities of 15.4% and 11.5% for “child” and “parent’s sibling” respectively.
I coined this word by playing with the vowel in “niece”, and then changing the sibilant /s/ to /θ/ in order to resemble, but not match exactly, the /f/ (written “ph”) in “nephew”.
A portmanteau of “uncle” and “aunt” with the stressed vowel changed to /ɛ/, and pronounced /’ɛntəl/, this word was meant to refer to a parent’s sibling, and 78.2% of respondents agreed. Of the remaining answers, about half chose “child”, with the rest being split between the remaining options and freeform answers of “grandparent” and “grandchild”.
Most of the terms I created produced the desired associations in readers, although there was a lot of uncertainty with some of them. “Tozzer” and “tother” were totally off the mark, but this is probably explainable by their similarity to “tosser”, and the fact that “tother” can be read as rhyming with “mother”, neither of which I anticipated when I coined those two terms.
I’m probably going to start using “vether”, “naith”, and “entle” when I need them. I would also like to work one of the “sibling” words into my vocabulary, but choosing one is going to be difficult, since my personal aesthetic favorite (sether) is also the least obvious of the four options surveyed.
Finally, it’s very clear that we need a new word for one’s nonbinary child. I’m currently at a loss for ideas — I thought about trying to derive a term from the Proto-Indo-European *dʰeh₂ylios, but couldn’t come up with anything that felt like it would evoke the concept of a child, at least not to my own brain.
I’d like to see how much of a correlation there is between getting the “correct” answer for a particular word, and being a native speaker of English. This isn’t conceptually that hard to do, but I’ll need to play with the data a bit, and I’m exhausted and wanted to get *something* posted tonight. I’ll try and post an update in the next couple of days. I’d also like to provide actual charts with the data I received, but Google Forms doesn’t provide an easy way to export them as images without going through at least one WYSIWYG editor.
*If the person in question sees this and asks me to cite them by name, I will do so. I’ve decided to keep them anonymous for now for privacy’s sake.