How are gender neutral words or non-binary terms incorporated into languages? This question is fascinating if you are working on a gender-neutral translation.
Let’s begin by discussing if there are gendered languages.
What are Gendered Languages?
The need for gender neutral translation services is becoming increasingly common these days.
Those who are familiar with languages that use grammatical gender won’t be surprised by the concept of words having gender. Which is signposted by gender pronouns; articles such as “the” or “a”, or even through adjective endings.
The pronouns “he/she” in the English language are among the last few relics of gender present in this language. We reserve those gender words to mark the biological sex of the subject.
Whereas many gendered languages spoken across the world apply grammatical gender to any and every noun (“thing” word).
That’s right, in gendered languages they even assign gender to inanimate objects and abstract concepts which you wouldn’t necessarily associate with gender expression.
Of course, when it comes to living, breathing beings, you could argue that the approach is pretty straightforward. Though, in most languages, restricted to the binary masculine/feminine distinction.
Gender Neutral Words Examples
At a first glance, it may seem to make sense that German words such as “der Mann” (man) and “die Frau” (woman) are masculine and feminine, respectively.
Though things become less simple when you consider that the Spanish word “la masculinidad” (masculinity) is, in fact, feminine.
And that’s not to mention the fact that some gendered languages, such as German, include a third “neutral” gender.
Logic doesn’t seem to apply when you realise that “das Mädchen” (girl) is in fact a neuter word. Not a feminine one as you might expect.
What is gender when it comes to language?
So is there any reason behind the gender(s) given to inanimate objects or concepts that have no way of expressing gender?
Is it possible to attribute feminine or masculine qualities to non-sentient things?
There are, in fact, grammatical explanations like the one above. Such as the suffix “-chen” (a diminutive) in German, which always makes the word it’s attached to a neuter.
And the Spanish suffix “-idad” pertaining to a feminine noun class. So gender neutral translation in some languages isn’t quite as easy as it is in others.
So if it’s not as simple as male/female attributes or sex characteristics triggering masculine/feminine noun classes respectively, what is gender when it comes to language?
The simple explanation is that it is an abstract category which we use to organise nouns (in other words: things). And that this has little relation to the natural world.
What’s the Issue with Gender Neutral Words?
If the relationship between words and their gender is indeed grammatical and abstract, why is it that we change our perceptions of common objects based on whether our native language defined said object as masculine or feminine?
The most famous study (Boroditsky) found that German speakers were more likely to describe images of bridges (die Brücke = feminine) as “elegant”, “beautiful”, and “slender”.
Whilst Spanish speakers described the same bridges (el puente = masculine) as “big”, “dangerous” and “sturdy”.
So it seems safe to say that we can’t help but map our own social biases around gender onto the concepts around us based on the language we speak. And that the language we speak in turn shapes the way in which we view the world.
They use the masculine as the default grammatical gender, as well as for mixed-gender groups. And feminine nouns are derived from masculine versions.
Not only do many schools of thought consider this sexist due to it favouring the masculine over the feminine, but how can these languages even account for gender neutral words or non-binary terms?
If these languages “insist” on assigning gender to objects, and by default do not have gender neutral terms alternatives, how could they possibly account for a wider gender-spectrum or convey neutrality?
Solutions for a More Inclusive Translation
Although non-gendered languages like English avoid gendering nouns, when it comes to biological sex of animate nouns (think: humans and animals), we often apply the strict gender binary of “he” or “she”.
However, it’s become common practice to replace these pronouns with “they”, as a gender neutral term to address a person. This is to be more inclusive of a wider gender spectrum. And to avoid assuming gender.
This gender neutral word solution would not work in most gendered languages like Spanish where even the plural is gendered (ellos vs ellas).
Let’s review some of the suggested solutions put forth to increase gender neutral words in the following languages:
Spanish Gender Neutral Translation:
- Adding the suffix -e to the end of words instead of feminine -a or masculine -o. So, ellos (masculine “they”) and ellas (feminine “they”) becomes elles (gender neutral “they”)
- Periphrasis a.k.a using more words as opposed to relying on inflection. “Los politicos” (plural of politicians with a masculine ending) becomes “la clase política” (the political class)
French Gender Neutral Translation
- Contraction of the masculine personal pronoun “il” and the feminine “elle”, il + elle = iel. We use this pronoun to refer to a person of any gender.
Polish Gender Neutral Translation
- Switching between ‘ona’ (she) and ‘on’ (he) as opposed to using the masculine by default.
- The use of completely new pronouns created to include non-binary identites: zir, zen, onæ/jæ
- the use of “x” morpheme at the end of the word. For example: ‘kochanx’ instead of ‘kochani’ (plural masculine) or ‘kochane’ (plural feminine)
German Gender Neutral Translation
- Using alternative nouns that avoid gender. for example, “die Studenten” (masc. plural “students”) becomes “die Studierende” (the gerund renders the noun gender-neutral)
These gender neutral word examples only scrape the surface of some of the suggested alternatives put forward by people trying to reshape language and the way it can be used beyond the binary.
When we introduce change, the use of new words requires practice and an open mind. But a little effort goes a long way in making sure our language becomes more inclusive and less restrictive and, in turn, our view of the world. Definitely something to consider when you’re deciding whether or not you need a gender neutral translation.
FUN FACT! According to the World Economic Forum, about 1% of adults worldwide currently describe themselves as transgender, non-binary, non-conforming, or gender-fluid.
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