The Development of Gender-Neutral Pronouns Across Various Languages

Illustration by Alexis Scranton.

In 2015, the American Dialect Society declared singular “they” its Word of the Year, beating out the phrase, “thanks, Obama.” They cited the word’s growing social importance and its adoption by publications such as the Washington Post. Uses of singular they date to the early days of English’s development. Contrary to some claims, it is completely grammatically acceptable. While English has long had a gender-neutral pronoun, many other languages still lack their widely-accepted usage. To address this, language academies around the world are now grappling with creating an equivalent. The most publicized result is the Swedish hen, which slowly gained prominence over the last century.

Understanding the situation’s complexity requires looking at the concept of grammatical gender and how it maps onto different languages. For instance, English has lost grammatical gender aside from its pronouns. These include: “she,” “he,” “they” and “it.” Other languages, such as Spanish and Arabic, differ in that they have feminine and masculine cases which apply to all nouns. Some languages, like Hebrew, even have gendered verbs. This strict classification system means that “door” is feminine in German and Spanish, but masculine in Hebrew and Arabic. Some languages have a gender-neutral case, such as German es and English it, but these pronouns usually don’t refer to people. However, some languages don’t have gendered pronouns at all, so grammatical context clues are used to determine the speaker’s gender.

In the U.S., English is the dominant, but not official, language. An ever-growing population speaks Spanish, but the white, English-speaking segment of the queer community may overlook this linguistic diversity. Some of the community’s leaders, such as Sylvia Rivera and Gloria Anzaldua, were Latinx, yet history glosses over their language use, treating it like an inconvenience.

Here is a list of languages that have begun to develop and use gender-neutral pronouns. Many of these languages are still figuring out which pronoun, if any, will arise, but maybe you can make Kent a voice in the discussion.

Spanish

Spanish pronouns vary between different locations. Now that trans communities are organizing for change, there are even more gender-neutral options. Two popular adaptions are the use of “@” or “x” to indicate the inclusion of all genders. For example: Latin@ and Latinx. While there is the gender-neutral pronoun ello, it’s primarily used in the same way as it in English and similarly considered offensive. Consequently, the Chilean non-binary community combined the feminine ella and the masculine él to develop a new pronoun, elle. The ending -e indicates the gender, or lack thereof, for nouns.

German

There is a German saying that perfectly explains the challenges faced by the German-speaking community: “Deutsche Sprache, Schwere Sprache.” This translates to, “German language, hard language.” Anyone who studies German as a second language can attest to this. The grammar is more complicated than many languages’. German has four cases and grammatical gender applies to every word. Nouns, adjectives, adverbs, verbs and every other part of speech are conjugated to match case and gender. This creates an obvious barrier to introducing new pronouns, because new forms of conjugation also need to be created. However, German speakers often create new words. So, German people have taken on the challenge, starting by using gender-neutral nouns instead of gendered ones.

Increasingly, gender-neutral nouns are used in official capacities, e.g. universities and the government. The Guardian reports that Studierende (those that study) is replacing Studenten in universities, with various written, but unpronounced, forms also developing. Some predict that the gender system will simplify in the future. This means that das, die, or der will become as all-encompassing as the English the, though the case-related conjugations would remain. Also, dier is another recently-developed option. Some German dialects have already simplified their gender system. For example, the Niederdeutsch (new German) dialect uses the neutral de.

Personal pronouns are another development. Many are gaining popularity, particularly xier and x in the nominative case. Corresponding conjugations are also being created.

Arabic

Modern Standard Arabic is a direct descendant of the Classical Arabic which was used to write the Quran. This means Arabic inherited the binary gender system, as well as the ability to refer to people and objects in the dual. The masculine form is the default in Arabic, and most Semitic languages. This poses a problem for feminist and non-binary speakers. There has been some effort to adapt pronouns that indicate the dual number, huma and antuma, due to their ability to refer to both the masculine and the feminine. While this practice is not widespread, it’s still important to include this linguistic community due to their substantial presence on campus and in the world.

Note: in the print version of this article, the words “huma” and “antuma” appear with their equivalents in the Arabic alphabet.

Esperanto

Largely spoken by glossy-eyed peaceniks, Esperanto differs from most languages because someone invented it, rather than the language organically developing. It was created to ease communication between different peoples, including non-binary people. In its early history, speakers proposed gender-neutral pronouns, but they have only recently gained traction. A viewpoint, called riismo is popular amongst the feminist Esperanto community. Riismo advocates for adopting ri as a gender-neutral pronoun. ?li is another option that makes grammatical sense, because it’s a combination of the feminine pronoun ?i and the masculine pronoun li. Although this is considered kontra? fundamenta, against the fundamentals of Esperanto, the language’s democratic nature assures that at least some spaces will be comfortable with the pronoun.

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