Non-Binary Pronouns Impact Gendered Languages

Languages
September 7, 2018

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The world is progressing significantly in the acceptance of gender fluidity. This means accepting that gender isn’t limited to He and She. However, many languages are built on gender. Carrying both feminine and masculine nouns and pronouns. So, what does a non-binary pronoun mean for a gendered language?

In some cultures, maleness and femaleness aren’t prominent traits. In others, they’re salient. Grammatical gender is born out of historical evolution as opposed to our primary experience of the world. Considering the world’s linguistic diversity, grammatical gender isn’t perceived in the same way from country to country.

How languages display gender can be divided into three classes: Some languages, like English, are natural gender languages. People and animals are characterized by pronouns, but other nouns fall under an umbrella of “it”.

Others, like the Romance languages, are grammatically gendered. Languages like French, Italian, or Spanish. They place all nouns into gender categories.  Spanish for example, “la Universidad” (feminine) and “el libro” (masculine).

The third kind of language is genderless. This includes languages like Indonesian, Finnish, Hungarian and Mandarin. These languages still have words that mean “man” or “woman” and other words that designate a natural gender. However they have no pronouns or indicators for male/female in people or objects.

With the rise of acceptance and understanding of non-binary pronouns, languages are in a position to adapt to the culture. English, for examples, now  includes the use of ‘they,’ ‘them,’ and ‘their’ to be acceptable in as a singular or gender-neutral pronouns. Academics have begun attempting to find a solution to gender roles in the English language by creating a new set of inclusive pronouns. The University of South Dakota professor Charles Thatcher proposed adding a new series of inclusive third person singular pronouns listed below:

  • Ee – to replace ‘he or she,’ ‘s/he,’ and ‘they’
  • Eet – to replace ‘he’ or ‘it’ when one of those pronouns is used to refer either to a person of unspecified gender or to a non-human antecedent, such as a business, corporation, or governmental entity
  • Herim – to replace the pronoun ‘them’ when that plural pronoun is used to refer to only one person of unspecified sex.

 

Recent attempts have been made in the EU as well. However, many Countries are facing harsh criticism for the potential change. In many languages, adapting to a gender neutral format means re-writing many of their language rules, making this adaptation extremely complex. Amongst the criticism and the challenges, countries have progressed in the attempt. For example in 2012 Sweden introduced the pronoun “hen” in addition to their pronouns han/hon. Hen can be used when gender is unknown or irrelevant to the situation. In 2015 it was added to the Swedish dictionary.

The challenge in adding gender neutral language to gendered languages is not creating the word, it is creating the behavior. The culture has to adapt to the word for it to be widely and comfortably used. We see this in the U.S. as they have adopted they/their/them as a neutral singular pronoun, but the sentence flow disrupts the grammatical structure english speakers have been taught from a young age. Gender Identity and equality continue to be growing topic in the U.S and Europe and overtime languages will need to adapt to a neutral sentiment in order to remain inclusive and reflect the ever changing culture.

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