The Problem with Pronouns
Tuesday, 15 February 2022
Niamh delves into the issue of neutral pronouns in gendered language and how different language speakers tackle the problem.
As our global society more widely accepts the broad spectrum of gender and sexual identities, an issue arises for both language learners and native speakers alike: how to adapt their language to welcome this.
Some languages already have gender-neutral nouns, or simply don’t assign gender within their grammar rules. However, others have grammar systems traditionally based on gender. These languages have several approaches to tackle the issue of how to address queer, non-binary, or gender-nonconforming people.
Using existing pronouns
To start exploring this topic, I first looked at my native language – English. The grammar we use doesn’t distinguish between genders except when using a masculine or feminine singular pronoun. Therefore, the pronoun ‘they’ has emerged to describe anyone who doesn’t come under ‘she’ or ‘he’. This move has been accepted by both everyday speakers as well as English language institutions, such as the Merriam-Webster dictionary, which added ‘they’ as the pronoun for a ‘single person whose gender identity is nonbinary’. However, this has met some criticism with claims that using the pronoun for both singular and plural uses can confuse and disrupt the meaning of the sentence.
Another language that uses a pronoun already in use is Russian. However, unlike English, Russian grammar is heavily gendered. To get around this, Russian speakers have a few different approaches to pronouns. First is that some choose to take the masculine ‘он’ as it goes along with other terms that are more neutral. Some within the feminist community use the female option (‘она’) as the default gender. Other options include switching between both female and male pronouns and using the neutral ‘оно’, which is not usually used to refer to people.
Changing case endings
Another way languages are resolving the question around gender is by changing word endings. For example, some speakers of Spanish, a language where traditionally all nouns have a masculine or feminine gender, have adapted their vocabulary to become more neutral. However, as Spanish is a global language with many dialects and communities, there are many variations on how this is accomplished and no set standard for a gender-neutral ending. For hispanophones in the US, replacing the ‘o’ or ‘a’ ending with an ‘x’ is becoming a popular choice – such as in the term ‘Latinx’.
Whereas in Peninsular Spanish, the symbol ‘@’ is commonly used as a substitute. Despite their attempts, both these solutions address more written language rather than spoken. One answer could stem from a group of Argentinian teenagers, who in 2017 started to replace endings with ‘e’ with the aim of eliminating gender from the Spanish language.
Using both gender cases
Hebrew, like Spanish, assigns a gender to verbs, nouns, and adjectives based on the noun. This has led LGBTQ and feminist groups to seek ways of expressing their language in a gender-neutral way. One solution is by using a ‘mixed’ gender and referring to the same person with both feminine and masculine endings. In Israel, a similar approach is to put both the male and female cases on nouns and verbs, sometimes with a full stop in between, so that all are fluidly included. For example, “I write” — “kotev” (כותב) in the masculine and “kotevet” (כותבת) in the feminine — alternatively could be written as כותב.ת in this form. The Nonbinary Hebrew Project draws on references in Jewish texts in order to argue that the male Rabbis writing the Mishna, a third-century book of Jewish commentary, recognized several gender categories, so modern-day Hebrew speakers can too.
Inventing new pronouns
Some languages invent completely new pronouns for a neutral gender – you may have heard of ‘zie’ used in English. Swedish has also followed this tactic: in 2015, they added the word ‘hen’ to its official dictionary. ‘Hen’ arose from linguists who suggested the term as an alternative to the male ‘han’ and female ‘hon’. The pronoun has been adopted by LGBTQ groups as well as in early years education, where it is argued that the pronoun allows children to grow up without feeling the impact of gender biases.
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Being a bilingual family (French mother and British father,) living in France I thought your article was extremely interesting . Have you research on bilingualism ? It seems that when the mother is British and the father French and they both live in France their children seem to be more bilingual than when the mother is French and the father is British . This is what we called mother tongue , isn't it ?
Such an interesting article!