The student news of St. Paul Academy and Summit School

What obstacles are posed by gendered language?

November 29, 2020

She/her/hers. He/him/his. They/them/theirs. These are just three examples of ways people represent themselves and their gender identity within languages. But people who identify within the binary (using she/her/hers or he/him/his pronouns) are represented in every language, while those who are in different places along the gender spectrum are not clearly represented.

According to the British Psychological Society, there are three main language categories depending on how the language assigns gender: gendered languages, natural gender languages, and genderless languages.

Gendered languages

French and Spanish are two examples of gendered languages. In French, there is no official way of referring to a non-binary or gender neutral person. ‘They’ is always translated as ‘ils’ (group of males or group of multiple genders) or ‘elles’ (group of only females). French people outside the binary use pronouns ‘iel,’ ‘ielle,’ or ‘ille,’ but these words have not been adopted by the Academie Francaise, the French council that handles matters of the French language. If if adopted, these gender neutral pronouns don’t solve the problem of gendered nouns and adjectives; for example, to describe a happy person, one has the choice between ‘content’ (masculine) or ‘contente’ (feminine).

Junior Maggie Baxter, who uses she/they pronouns, takes French at school.

“In French, I am fine using the ‘she’ pronouns and the nouns and adjectives that go with it, so that makes how gendered the language is easier for me. But it doesn’t work as well for people who use they/them pronouns all the time because there really isn’t a super accepted option. Like in English, we are really lucky to have they/them pronouns that are more used and accepted in the language. In French I have heard of the term “ielle,” which combines both the male and female pronouns, but I am not really sure that that is super widely accepted or used,” Baxter said.

In Spanish, there is also no official way of referring to a non-binary or gender neutral person. The male pronoun is ‘el,’ and the female pronoun is ‘ella.’ ‘They’ is translated as ‘ellos’ (male plural they) or ‘ellas’ (female plural they).

US Spanish teacher Pete Daniels said, “We are noticing and celebrating that the student population has members that are non-binary, and so we need to adapt the language to fit the gender of our students. When we are talking about people, we can be a lot more specific about including genders that include the non-binary, and in the U.S., adding the -x is the easiest way to do it. But when we are trying to use our Spanish outside of the English world, we realize that the -x is a bit problematic because it is not as easy to pronounce and say.”

Daniels noted that, like France, people are adapting pronoun use, even when countries are not: “There have been trends, very much started in Argentina, from a local and governmental place, where instead of an x they use an e. As far as pronouns that I have been able to find that are non-binary, there is ‘elle,’ which is a bit of a blend of the two binary pronouns. But I haven’t been able to fully immerse myself in skipping the binary in words because I am still looking for more certainty from a universal level, so personally, my work is unfinished.” Russian is another example of a gendered language, following similar linguistic patterns to both French and Spanish.

“When you speak in Russian, you are supposed to add the feminine pronouns and endings and masculine pronouns and endings accordingly, sort of like in Spanish or something,” junior Nina Starchook, who speaks Russian with her grandma, said. “I think how gendered the language is poses a challenge to people who don’t identify with either gender binary, and so they don’t want to use the female or male pronouns or the words that match that identity. That makes it hard because then they don’t have a way for people to address them or talk about them or anything, like when it comes to conjugating verbs and other things.”
German is also gendered. The nouns have three categories: feminine, masculine, and neutral. But nouns that are titles or job occupations, such as teacher, have two different forms depending on if the teacher is male or female. This creates challenges for non-binary people because the language only includes the male and female binary as ways one can identify themselves within the language.

Natural gender languages

English falls into the second category of natural gender languages. While English does not categorize nouns by gender or change adjectives accordingly (except for words such as ‘blond’ vs ‘blonde,’ which, despite being gendered, aren’t nearly as differentiated and can be seen used for any genders rather than grammatically correctly referring to just one), pronouns do reflect gender. Until somewhat recently, ‘she/her/hers’ and ‘he/him/his’ were the only pronouns used and accepted, only representing the two binary ends of the gender spectrum. However, ‘they/them/theirs’ pronouns have become more widely used and accepted, representing people that do not identify with either the male or female binary.

“Gender-neutral pronouns are increasingly being used in America and with that I feel that our culture, especially among youth, is evolving into viewing gender as more of a spectrum and accepting those who identify in between the binaries. I think that there is still work to do in terms of normalizing sharing pronouns and not assuming people’s gender based on how they present themselves. In terms of the use of gender-neutral pronouns in other languages, I feel that neo-pronouns such as xe/xem should be more accepted as an international gender-neutral pronoun that could be used in any language,” Baxter said.

Genderless languages

Chinese is a language that falls into the category of genderless languages. Senior Gabriella Thompson started learning Chinese when she attended a Chinese immersion elementary school.
“Chinese doesn’t have gendered nouns or anything like Romance languages. All of the pronouns are pronounced the same way, but they are written differently. They are all pronounced tā, but there is one for male, one for female, and there is one for object or animal, which are the ones I have learned since kindergarten. Last summer while I was at a Chinese camp I asked my counselors if there is a gender-neutral pronoun. One of my counselors from China wrote it for me. I think it is not very widely used at all, just mostly used among younger people, but I don’t think it is very common,” she said.
US Chinese teacher Tian Wang grew up in Wuhan.

“I have never heard anybody using ‘they’ if they do not want to use the traditional he or she, so in that way, I would say that China is not as revolutionary as here,” she said. “I think people in China are not brave enough to step out of that binary and I don’t know when that will happen, but people really stick to using just he and she pronouns. I think in China …people want to change that, but I think that the society and public are not as accepting as here, and also no one has really started doing that, so we don’t have an example.”

Language can be used as a direct representation of gender identity, but many languages only reflect either end of the gender binary, leaving those who are gender-neutral without a way for the language to reflect them. Progressive motions have been made in certain languages towards the creation of terms that are inclusive of all gender identities, but the gender binary, and the gender prejudice it creates, is still deeply ingrained into language and society, making it hard for there to be full inclusion and acceptance of gender neutrality.

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