How centuries-old languages collided with modern ideas about gender

Across the world our ideas about gender are changing very quickly, but in languages where gender is fundamental, it is tough keeping up with the rate of change.

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A 2015 study showed that 50 per cent of American millenials believe that gender is a spectrum and that some people fall outside conventional categories. At the end of last year, Germany became the latest of a number of countries (including Australia, India, New Zealand, Nepal and the United States) that now legally accept a third category other than male or female.

Conservative estimates of the number of people in the UK who identify as neither male or female come in at 0.4 per cent, which is about one in every 250 people. Personally and legally, people across the globe are increasingly recognising that gender is not binary – but languages are struggling to keep pace.

English and Swedish are natural gender languages, meaning that humans have a gender but things do not. German, French and Spanish, by contrast, are all gendered languages, meaning they assign a gender to everything whether it’s a human or a spoon. Some languages (Chinese, Estonian and Finnish) are ungendered, so a person's pronouns won’t tell you if they are male or female or something else entirely.

Every type of language presents different problems for their speakers. But one of the biggest challenges faces those who don’t identify as male or female but speak a gendered language.

In lots of European languages, it is hard to even introduce yourself without stating whether you are male or female. In German, you are not a teacher – you’re a Lehrer or a Lehrerin. In Spanish, you are not a doctor – you’re a médico or a médica.

In German, there are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine and neuter. You might imagine that the third category would offer an appropriate alternative for people who do not identify as either male or female.

The neuter pronoun es translates to English as “it” but is not nearly as dehumanising in its connotations. For example, es is already used in some circumstances to refer to people, if that person is a neuter noun, like a child (das Kind) or a baby (das Baby). 

Other German neuter nouns include words ending in the diminutive –chen or –lein. Adding these endings makes the word sound small and cute, like Püppchen (a little doll) or Hündchen (a little dog). As you can see neuter nouns tend to refer to people without a whole lot of agency – and this is probably why German non-binary people do not make widespread use of this pronoun.

With these languages, gender does not serve a purely grammatical function and it can be difficult at times to separate the language from the culture.

Women also often do not fare well when it comes to gendered languages. In Spanish all nouns have a gender, and ones that end in –o tend to be male, and –a female. In Spanish, a female secretary, secretaria, is an office assistant while a male secretary, secretario, refers to a high-ranking position, like a foreign secretary.

A friend who is bilingual in German and English once told me that in German, if something sounds powerful, it’s probably masculine. For instance the word Leiter can mean either “leader” or “ladder” depending on whether it is preceded by a masculine or feminine article (as you can imagine, the other word for leader, “der Führer”, has gone out of fashion since 1945).

However languages are flexible things and – with a whole lot of intervention – they are starting to adapt.

In Sweden LGBTQ and feminist circles have been encouraging use of the gender neutral pronoun hen as an alternative to hon (she) and han (he). It is now sometimes used in an official capacity, for instance it has been used in parliamentary debates and is part of the Svenska Akademiens ordlista, a glossary of the Swedish language.

German also has a new gender neutral pronoun, xier. However the lack of consensus on its different forms suggests it isn’t widely used.

The word latinx (pronounced la-teen-ex), a gender neutral term for latinos or latinas, is one term that is used widely, but it is seen as controversial by some within the community who note that it is mainly used in the United States and not actually within Spanish-speaking countries. Indeed, given the importance of language to identity, “solutions” to gendered language usage imposed from abroad are unlikely to stick.

However, the increasing reliance on written communication in a digital world may help resolve the issue. Creating gender neutral forms is a simpler process when words are on a page. For example, Spanish will sometimes use the @ symbol to show both an -a and an -o. French also has a "middot" to prevent a group of men and women being collectively referred to with the male plural. But none of these alternatives are pronouncable, or particularly popular.

There are genderless languages (Chinese, Estonian and Finnish) but they face their own problems. For instance, in Finnish, lakimies is a supposedly gender neutral term for a lawyer, but since most lawyers are male if you refer to a woman you would call her a “female lawyer”. Ultimately when gender is specified, it is far too binary and restrictive, but when gender isn’t specified, the male norm is assumed.

One huge obstacle in achieving a use of language that better reflects our changing understanding of gender is the risk of erasure. Since 2013, professors at the University of Leipzig in Germany have been referred to as Professorinnen (the feminine plural) in an attempt to make their language more gender neutral without eradicating the presence of female professors. Although the masculine plural Professoren is less of a mouthful, reverting to the male default would only contribute to the idea of men as the norm and women as the deviation, grammatically and culturally.

It is almost guaranteed that languages are going to adapt with the changing times. English, a language that is distinctly different from one century to the next, may not be the least gendered language in the world by any means, but it does already have a gender neutral pronoun: “they”. That is more than can be said of German, French or Spanish – so we may as well make use of it.