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Gendered-languages

How do gendered languages accommodate for non-binary terms?

Language is perhaps our most powerful tool, holding with it the ability to shape how we express ourselves.

One thing often forgotten about language is that it is constantly changing and evolving. Yes, we’ve come a long way since the grunts and gestures that mark the beginning of our language evolution, but as the needs of the speakers change, language will inevitably change alongside them.

So, with this need to express ourselves comes the question – how can gendered languages accommodate for non-binary terms? As some individuals seek to define themselves in a way distant from the gender binary, how can languages built around this very binary help satisfy this need?

We take a look at the different types of languages, how they are evolving to be more inclusive, and what this means for gendered languages…

Different types of language

When talking about how languages use and refer to gender, there are three categories: gendered languages, genderless languages, and natural gender languages.

Gendered languages, like French and German, give both people and objects a gender. In French, a table is “she”, and in German, a tree is “he”. Compare this with natural gender languages, like English, which categorise only living beings as “he” or “she”, leaving inanimate objects as “it”.

Genderless languages, like Estonian and Chinese, on the other hand, stray away from this categorisation, where nouns are neither feminine nor masculine, and the same word is used for “he” or “she”.

How do these types use non-binary language?

Each with varying grammatical structures, these language types follow different rules when it comes to the use of non-binary terms.

Although natural gender languages like English avoid gendering nouns, when it comes to humans there is the strict gender binary of “he” or “she”. However, it’s easy to replace these terms with the gender-neutral “they”, which is used not just as a plural, but also as a singular.

Furthermore, in English, it’s possible for speakers to describe themselves without making reference to gender, classifying themselves with nouns like “student”, “worker”, and “partner”. In other languages, describing oneself in this way would involve conjugating the noun into either the feminine or masculine form, like “studentin”, the German word for a female student.

This is also true for Spanish, which is one of the four most-spoken gendered languages in the world. The noun form used depends on the gender of the person being described – like “amigo” and “amiga” – with a preference for the masculine form when the gender of the subject is unclear, or when there is a mixed-gender group (e.g. “amigos”).

Despite its status as a gendered language, Russian actually does feature a neutral third-person pronoun – “оно” which means “it”. Although this pronoun is typically used to describe nouns that don’t have a specifically masculine or feminine name, and not for people, a few gender pioneers have chosen to use the term to describe themselves in a way that avoids gender binary.

Now, we get to genderless languages. Taking Estonian as an example, we can see that the language isn’t free from gendered terms, with words like “tüdruk’” meaning “girl”, and “neiu” meaning “a young woman”. However, the language uses the pronoun “tema”, which is used only for humans, and is neither masculine nor feminine.

Clearly, the way in which people can express themselves varies across the different types of languages. As the demand for more inclusive language grows, with speakers seeking to define themselves in different ways, how can we see these languages evolving in the future?

How could languages continue to evolve?

In genderless languages and natural gender languages, it’s clear to see that, although they will continue to evolve, at the moment they are better equipped to describe non-binary terms.

When it comes to including gender-neutral options in gendered languages, it gets a bit trickier. However, that’s not to say that we’re not already seeing some language change in a bid to become more inclusive.

In some Spanish-speaking countries, people have created additional endings like –e and –x for those who wish to step away from the gender binary.

Similar things are happening in France, where activists have introduced a mixed gender style, where both gendered endings are added to a word in order to make it gender-neutral. The style is called écriture inclusive (translation: inclusive writing), and has been praised by institutions, with the belief that with a more gender inclusive language, comes a more inclusive society.

Other changes taking place in France include calls for non-gender specific pronouns, as the language doesn’t have an equivalent of the English “they”. People have started to use “iel”, a mixture of il and elle to fulfil this need.

Although these gendered languages have been built around the concept of what and who is masculine or feminine, it’s clear to see the effect social changes are having on bending and adapting these languages.

The future of language and non-binary terms

The most important thing to remember as language adapts and changes is that, although language reform is possible, it doesn’t necessarily require a dismantling of the existing system. Calls for non-gender specific pronouns, and terms that don’t rely on the gender binary doesn’t mean that the rich history and usage that comes with these languages will be eradicated.

That’s the beauty of language – as society progresses, our languages can make space for more inclusive options.

As put by writer Nayantara Dutta, “instead of allowing language to construct how we view the world, we could […] question how we can reflect our world through our choice of language”. Ultimately, language determines how we see and define things in the world. If we can make language more equal, it’s possible to make the world more equal.

As we live through big societal and world changes, observing how language adapts to serve these changes is no less than fascinating. It’s important to remember just how much language has evolved since we first begun communicating, and intriguing to consider how much it will continue to change in the future.