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How are Non-Binary Terms Incorporated into Languages?

How are Non-Binary Terms Incorporated into Languages?

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What are gendered languages?

Those of you who speak or are familiar with languages that use grammatical gender won’t be surprised by the concept of words having gender . Which is signposted by 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. And those are reserved 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, even inanimate objects and abstract concepts which you wouldn’t necessarily associate with gender expression are assigned gender. 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. 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 straightforward 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.

Why is that?

So is there any rhyme or reason behind the gender(s) attributed to inanimate objects or concepts that have no way of expressing or manifesting 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 always making the word it is attached to a neuter. And the Spanish suffix “-idad” pertaining to a feminine noun class.

So if it’s not as straightforward as male/female attributes or sex characteristics triggering masculine/feminine noun classes respectively, what is gender when it comes to language? The most simple explanation is that it is an abstract category used to organise nouns (in other words: things. And that this has little relation to the natural world.

So, what’s the issue?

If the relationship between words and their gender is indeed grammatical and abstract, why was it discovered that people’s perceptions of common objects changed depending on whether their native language categorised said object as masculine or feminine? The most well-known study (Boroditsky) found that German speakers were more likely to describe images of bridges (die Brücke = feminine) as “elegant”, “beautiful”, and “slender”. Whilst Spanish counterparts described the same depicted bridges (el puente = masculine) as “big”, “dangerous” and “sturdy”.

So it seems safe to conclude that we can’t help but map our own social biases around gender onto the concepts that surround us based on the language we speak. And that the language we speak in turn shapes the way in which we view the world. If we take a look at the world’s four most spoken gendered languages (Hindi, Spanish, French and Arabic), these share many of the same gender patterns. The masculine is used as the default grammatical gender; mixed-gender groups are designated using masculine endings. And feminine nouns are derived from masculine versions.

Not only do many schools of thought consider this sexist due to a preference for the masculine over the feminine, but how can these languages even account for neutral or non-binary terms? If these languages “insist” on assigning gender to inanimate objects and by default do not have gender-neutral alternatives, how could they possibly account for a wider gender-spectrum/convey neutrality?

Some of the proposed solutions for gender neutrality in gendered languages

Although non-gendered languages like English avoid gendering nouns, when it comes to biological sex of animate nouns (think: humans and animals), the strict gender binary of “he” or “she” is traditionally applied. However, it has become common practice in some contexts to replace these pronouns with the gender-neutral “they” to be more inclusive of a wider gender-spectrum. And to avoid assuming gender. This solution wouldn’t work in most gendered languages like Spanish where even the plural is gendered (ellos vs ellas). Let’s review some of the proposed solutions put forth by advocates for gender neutrality in the following languages:

Spanish:

  • 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 politicians with masculine ending) becomes “la clase política” (the political class)

French

  • Contraction of the masculine personal pronoun “il” and the feminine “elle”, il + elle = iel. This pronoun is used to refer to a person regardless of gender.

Polish

  • Switching between ‘ona’ (she) and ‘on’ (he) as opposed to using the masculine by default.
  • The use of completely new neopronouns created to accommodate non-binary identites: zir, zen, onæ/jæ
  • the use of “x” morpheme at the end on the word. For example: ‘kochanx’ instead of ‘kochani’ (plural masculine) or ‘kochane’ (plural feminine)

German

  • Using alternative nouns that avoid gendering. for example, “die Studenten” (masc. plural “students”) becomes “die Studierende” (the gerund renders the noun gender-neutral)

These solutions only scrape the surface of some of the suggested alternatives put forward by linguists and non-linguists alike who strive to reshape language and the way it accommodates beyond the binary. As is always the case when change is introduced, the use of new words and paraphrasing requires practice and an open mind. But a little effort goes a long way in ensuring our language becomes more inclusive and less restrictive and, in turn, our view of the world.

FUN FACT! According to the World Economic Forum, about 1% of adults around the world currently describe themselves as transgender, non-binary, non-conforming, gender-fluid.

Enjoyed this blog? Check out another one of our similar blogs on whether or not Language shape the way we think. Or check out our previous blog on How to become a voice-over artist.

Remember, if you’d like to discuss your next project, then give us a call or email [email protected] for a quote.As well as providing voice over services for several decades now (read more about what is a voice-over), we also provide translations and subtitling services. Whether you need voice overs or subtitles, we’d love to hear from you.

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