language learning beyond the gender binary

Avid language learners and polyglots often end up in situations where we talk about the details of our lives for the sake of language practice.  Whether it is practicing in a conversation class or talking with a language exchange partner on Skype, at some stage in your language learning you’ll have to talk about your actual life, and at this stage you may start to notice that your learning materials have not enabled you to describe your own personal reality. Older materials will lack vocabulary about the technology that we use daily or you may not have the words to talk about your unique hobbies and interests. At any rate, the world of pedagogic dialogues and reading passages does not come close to reflecting the world in which we actually live.

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“…modismos…de frequente uso…que mayor importancia tienen” – Seriously!?

In my own studies, I’ve found this to be particularly true as relates to my own queer identity. This really hit home when I encountered a dialogue in a Swedish language textbook in which a man refers to his boyfriend. I realised that it was the first time I had ever encountered any LGBTQIA+ representation at all in language learning materials – and I have used hundreds of language books and courses. (Actually there was another instance, when I found maricón listed in a Quechua phrasebook under “useful expresions”, but that’s not exactly what I was going for.) It struck me just how invisible I felt in the realm of language learning materials, a realm that has always served as my most treasured personal refuge.

Not long after, another issue arose while I was having a Skype exchange. I can’t recall which language I was practicing, but I remember I was at a loss when I began to talk about a friend who does not identify as male or female. In English I would normally use the singular they (my friend’s preferred pronoun), but the language at hand was grammatically gendered, and I found myself being cornered into making choices about another person’s identity, which made me very uncomfortable. It became clear that having the appropriate language in English was not enough and that I would need to dig a little bit to find information on gender inclusivity in the languages I study as well.

English

The topic of gender neutral pronouns has received some attention in the U.S. media lately, but it is far from being widely acknowledged or understood. It is even farther from being included in reference materials. Singular “they” was declared 2015’s word of the year by the American Dialect Society, reflecting a growing need for and acceptance of gender neutral language and the inadequacy of a binary-based concept of gender. For some, singular “they” is a practical way to begin to remove gender biases and patriarchy from language. For others it is their preferred pronoun, reflecting the fact that they identify neither as male nor female. It is important to know, however, that “they” is only one of many non-binary gender pronouns used in English. The Gender Neutral Pronoun Blog gives a good rundown of many possible gender neutral pronouns.

Swedish

2015 was also a big year for the pronoun hen in Sweden. This pronoun was first proposed as a gender neutral alternative to hon (she) and han (he) in the 60’s. It gained popularity in the 90’s and early 2000’s, and in 2015 the Swedish Academy added hen to the 14th edition of their dictionary, Svenska Akademiens Ordlista. I’m not sure how widely it is used, but I am told that it is very widely understood. Even those who do not use it are familiar with it, and it is not a source of confusion, which is sometimes the case for those unfamiliar with singular “they” usage in English.

Finnish

Luckily for the queer polyglot, there are plenty of languages that have no grammatical gender, and Finnish is one of them. Finnish uses hän (the source of inspiration for Swedish’s hen) in the 3rd person singular and se in the spoken language. Neither bears any information regarding gender. Adjectives will not reflect gender either.

Bengali

Bengali is similar in this respect. There are no pronouns that indicate gender. In general, there is no grammatical gender either, with the exception of some vestigial words with masculine and feminine versions leftover from Sanskrit. In Bengali, the general 3rd person singular pronoun is সে /še:/. There are also উনি /’uni/ and ইনি /’ini/, which are used as honorific pronouns for any gender.

Chinese

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Chinese third person singular pronouns for men, women, gods/spirits, animals, and objects. All are transcribed in pinyin as tā.

In Chinese, there is no way to distinguish “he” from “she” as spoken, though there are different characters that are sometimes used. 他 /tā/ is used for both “he” and “she”, though 她 /tā/ is often preferred for “she”, the 女 radical meaning “female”. Interestingly, there is also 牠 /tā/, a pronoun for animals containing the 牛 radical, meaning “cow”. Finally, I recently learned of the less common 祂 /tā/, a respectful pronoun traditionally used for deities that contains the radical 礻, meaning altar or spirit. Personally, I would love to see Chinese-speaking queers adopt this pronoun in written Chinese, as a way to transcend the binary entirely in favour of the pronoun of immortals and nymphs ().

These particular languages don’t present much of a challenge, and perhaps the majority of the world’s languages do not have gender distinctions built into them. But what do we do with languages that are heavily gendered at a grammatical and lexical level? Which verb and adjective forms do you use to talk about a person for whom none of the options are appropriate?

Gender_in_Pronouns
Photo credit: M.Haspelmath, M.S. Dryer, D. Gil, B. Comrie (2005): WALSin, The World Atlas of Language Structures.

Romance languages are probably some of the more commonly studied gendered languages. They will typically reflect gender in their pronouns, adjective endings, and noun endings. That makes for a large portion of the language that has to be navigated with care and creativity in order to remove or neutralize gender signifiers.

Spanish

In Spanish there are a few very common ways to do this in writing. Typically, masculine words are indicated by an -o ending and feminine words by an -a (there are exceptions), so one will often see an –@ used instead to represent both endings with one symbol. Hence, Hola tod@s would be used to address a group without resorting to the masculine todos as the default pronoun for mixed company, as is done in many languages. One clear problem with this is that it cannot be pronounced. A more important problem is that it still functions within a gender binary and excludes anyone who identifies elsewhere along the gender spectrum. This is often solved with the use of an –x instead of an -o or -a, as in queridxs amigxs, “dear friends”. This, however, brings us back to the problem of pronunciation. Furthermore, neither of the above solutions have any bearing on pronouns.

Elle (plural elles) has been proposed by blogger Sophia Gubb as a gender neutral third person pronoun for Spanish and is probably the most widely used. Along with this pronoun ending come the noun and adjective endings -e (singular) and -es (plural) and the articles le, les, une, and unes. Thus we have les chiques instead of l@s chic@s or lxs chicxs. It is easy to pronounce, very systematic, and easy to use given the willingness to do so. You can watch a good video about this below:

Unfortunately, usage of this type of language is still very limited, and many who are not open to the idea will simply tell you that it is incorrect. There is no recognition of elle or the grammatical forms that accompany it by the Real Academia Española, but people are pushing for this. I even found a petition that you can sign to get RAE to officially recognize elle or some other gender neutral pronoun.

Hebrew

If Spanish presents challenges to de-gendering language, then Hebrew presents near impossibilities. Not only are third person pronouns gendered (masculine and feminine), but so are second person pronouns, all nouns, adjectives, and conjugated verbs. The language is teeming with gender assignment. One thing that is sometimes done, especially in the world of academia, is to always use feminine forms for the default, a choice in solidarity with feminism. However if we are talking about a non-binary individual, not the default concept of a person, what can we do? How will that person speak? Keep in mind that all of their first person verbs will have to be gendered as well. What choices can be made?

First of all, many people will opt to use impersonal grammatical constructions in the place of first person verb forms. One could say נראה לי, “it seems to me”, not reflecting any gender, rather than אני חושב, “I think (masc.)” or אני חושבת, “I think (fem.)”. This kind of approach, which I found mentioned here, is a great way to circumnavigate gender markings, but it is limited. You won’t always have a natural sounding impersonal construction at your fingertips for every given situation. There are not a lot of other options other than to alternate between both masculine and feminine verb forms, even within the same sentence. One might use a first person masculine verb form in the first clause of a sentence and then a first person feminine form in the second clause. Even if this tactic is still based in the gender binary, it definitely throws a wrench into the conventions of it, ultimately queering the language.

Esperanto

Thinking about all these obstacles created by natural languages, I became curious about the concept of gender in Esperanto, a constructed language. Proposed as a utopian world language, it would stand to reason that it should be flexible enough to adapt to changing visions of utopia. Esperanto is actually a fairly gendered language, having separate words for he (li) and she (ŝi), as well as words for females that are based off of a male root word plus the feminine suffix -ino. For example, the word knabo means “boy”, based off the archaic German Knabe, and knabino, with the added suffix, means “girl”. In this case we can use the word infano to simply mean “child”, but what about words like instruisto and instruistino (male and female teacher, respectively)? Is the default form always male? Some people will say that you don’t have to use instruistino and that instruisto can be used for anyone regardless of gender. Others go further and propose that instruisto be used as a gender neutral form and that suffixes be used to indicate a specifically male or female teacher. In this case the male suffix is -iĉo, yielding instruistiĉo, while a female teacher remains an instruistino.

Returning back to the pronouns li (he) and ŝi (she), some people consider li to be gender neutral, though this does not seem to be widely accepted.  A third pronoun, ĝi, is gender neutral, however this means “it”, and is not generally used to refer to people. In the absence of a gender neutral animate pronoun, many people use ri or ŝli. The latter comes from the internet use of ŝ/li as a written contraction similar to “s/he”, and therefore it is still binary based, whereas ri is truly neutral. This usage, called “Riism”, is not official, and many Esperanto purists will consider it incorrect, while other Esperantist communities have embraced it.

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Genderqueer Pride Flag

There is of course much more to say on this subject and many more languages to explore. Some cultures will no doubt have their own concepts of gender and perhaps corresponding preferences about the language used to describe different kinds of people. As language learners our job is to educate ourselves about these preferences. Ultimately, the important thing in any language, is to be respectful and intentional with the words you use. However, gender-inclusive language resources are not always readily available. Being connected to a diverse group of polyglots and language enthusiasts is definitely a big help when it comes to seeking out this kind of information.

Looking back over the history of queer liberation, self-determination has been the driving force behind positive change. As queers with an interest in language, we need the same sense of self-determination to create and use the kind of language that we feel accurately and respectfully describes us. As queer language learners and polyglots, we rely on each other to teach and share information about the words we need in both our native and acquired languages. In that spirit, I’d like to call attention to some resources online that I hope enable you to feel confident and represented in your language learning pursuits.

Resources 

The most comprehensive sources I’ve found for multiple languages are the pronoun lists at nonbinary.org and nonbinaryresource.tumblr.com. There is also a good Wikipedia page on Gender neutrality in genderless languages.

For German there is a good pronoun page on the Nichtbinär-Wiki.

For Spanish, in addition to Sophia Gubb’s Blog, there is also information on pronouns at nobinario and Archivo Mogai.

For French there is a thorough slide presentation available on non-binary language.

Please share your own resources, and I will continue to add them here.

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5 thoughts on “language learning beyond the gender binary

  1. Thank you for putting this together – MEGA interesting!!! And yes, hen is widely used in Swedish nowadays, it happened 5-6 years ago when big newspapers started using the pronoun. Both some authorities and official documents use hen today, and people make word jokes like gentlehen instead of gentlemen..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This is an endlessly fascinating topic. Thanks for an illuminating post!

    I wonder if you or anyone reading might have any thoughts about Persian or Turkish, two languages I’ve been studying recently. They both lack grammatical gender and gendered pronouns, but they do both have separate words for, say, a maternal aunt/uncle/grandmother/grandfather vs. a paternal aunt/uncle/grandmother/grandfather. This means that it is (to my admittedly limited knowledge) impossible to refer to a member of one’s parents’ generation or earlier without including binary gender information about not one but two people. If anyone can point me toward any information as to how these issues are being discussed or strategies for queering them, I would be very grateful.

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    1. Thank you for reading! You bring up an interesting point with the kinship terms. I don’t speak Persian or Turkish, but I can say that the same problem exists in Chinese, i.e. that extended family kinship terms will always assign a gender to two different people. As far as I know, there is no way to get around it in Chinese, but I will look into other languages a bit more deeply to see what I can find.

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  3. Very interesting, thank you for sharing! As for Chinese, although people generally don’t use 祂 as a gender neutral pronoun, many people simply use TA. It’s not only gender neutral but also species neutral in case it’s not a human being.

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