This article is the online companion to my upcoming presentation at the 2017 Polyglot Gathering, which will take place in Bratislava. This article will detail the workings of how gender pronouns are used throughout various languages, and how new ones have been invented in some of them to cover non-binary people as well as people who identify on the binary gender spectrum. Note: this article is in English so that I can reach the largest group of people, but should there be a desire to see the guide translated into another language, I’m amenable to working it out, especially for people from countries where the gender issue leads to social or linguistic trouble.
And during the presentation to be held at the Gathering, I am most certainly going to explain things in languages besides English, so be prepared that during the presentation, if one of the sections is not explained in English, it’s because I didn’t want to or because there was a desire to hear part of the presentation in Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or something else. If you have any requests, attend the Gathering and raise your hand when I take the language roll call – if I speak your language well enough, it may just appear in the presentation! And for that matter, please don’t ask for languages like Nahuatl or Ainu – I don’t speak them. There will be a badge with my languages on them, and you’ll be able to find out which languages are eligible beforehand.
Important Notes on Gendered Pronoun Usage
Before we start, I want to make sure that my readers understand one thing: the gender pronoun we are supposed to use when we refer to someone depends on their identity. Of course, externally, we can sometimes assume genders from certain clues that give us an idea of how that person wants to be viewed, but eventually people themselves have the final say. It is not at all impolite to ask which pronouns you should use, and especially if you are dealing with transgender or non-binary people, it is almost mandatory during introductory presentations that the gender pronouns to be used are stipulated in advance or that they are mentioned at the beginning of a meeting. When a trans person comes out to you, this is an act of faith on their part – be respectful of that, and please refer to them using the correct pronouns.
Furthermore, the pronouns that should be used for transgender people are the ones they choose to present as, not the one they were assigned at birth. Thus, a transgender woman is a woman, and should be referred to as ”she” in English, ”ella” in Spanish and ”elle” in French. Doing the opposite would at the very least betray a gross lack of tact and in the worst case can be (and usually is) construed as being purposefully insulting, hateful and demeaning. This is not a linguistic criterion, but quite simply a horrible social faux pas. Please keep this in mind when discussing trans people – to you, it may be a trifle, but to their lives it is not only insulting, but it may even be dangerous in certain situations as prejudice runs rampant still and you may lose them their job, for example, or worse. Be mindful of this. Misgendering won’t incur you a fine, but it will incur you hatred senselessly.
It bears repeating, so: when misgendering, you are putting yourself at risk of a pointless social feud and besides that you may get the individual in question into seriously hot water. Being trans is not a joke. Trans people still die of hate crimes all over the world. Our personal safety is not assured and if you are a trans woman then it is doubly threatening. Bigotry will not be tolerated in the comments, nor will it be welcome at my presentation. Those who insist should leave by the door and be wary that it does not hit them on their way out. You have been warned. Thank you for understanding.
Types of languages using gende der pronouns
It has to be said – not all languages have this problem concerning gender pronouns. In this topic we will be speaking about how to refer to people’s natural gender, which may in some cases override grammatical gender (which is another concept). We will see a good example of this in Dutch later. A further caveat is that the list of languages covered is not exhaustive: I am no expert on Nahuatl and am going to refer to languages I am familiar with, which is many of the major ones, but if I didn’t cover your local tongue, it’s because I quite simply do not speak it well or at all. If you still want to see your language covered in the list, do your research and write to me at joannamartinevanschaikATpolyglotDOTcom: I’m sure we can work something out.
In order to make the guide a little easier to read, we can distinguish several types of languages when it comes to the use of gender: namely ones that distinguish for gender in their pronouns, and those that don’t. Between the ones that do distinguish between gender pronouns, the distinction may not always be visible in every register. This gives us four main categories:
- Languages that make no gender distinctions in their pronouns. Good examples of such languages are Finnish, Hungarian and Estonian. For example, in Hungarian the third-person singular pronoun is ő, and this refers to all genders equally. In Hungarian, the pronoun issue is simply circumvented by not making gender explicit at all. Simple, huh?
- Languages that only distinguish between genders in one of their registers. The most salient case is Mandarin Chinese (I am not aware of any others, so please inform me if there are more – I would be surprised if the Chinese were the only ones to do so). In Mandarin Chinese, in speech, everyone is referred to in the third person as ”tā”, but in writing this can be rendered using three different characters, one for men, one for women, and one for objects. Thus, in speech, it’s not clear which gender you are referring to, but it is obligatory in writing.
- Languages that distinguish between genders in their pronouns, but have a solution of some sort to deal with gender-ambiguities. Languages here include English, Swedish, Esperanto, and nowadays also Dutch, although the Dutch solution is very clumsy in my opinion (more or on that later). The best example is the Esperanto pronoun ri, which is explicitly gender-neutral.
- Languages that distinguish between genders in their pronouns, but which do not have a solution. These include all the Slavic and Romance languages as well as some others. Some of these, such as Spanish or Hebrew, only have the masculine/feminine variant, but some also include a neutral gender which tends to be used for grammatically neuter nouns (this is the case in German and the Slavic languages). These languages do not really have a very neat solution to the problem of being non-binary mentioned above, because the neutral pronoun evokes the idea of being compared to a table, and is considered demeaning. The simplest example of the two-way system is Spanish, which distinguishes between el and ella, and a three-way example would be Czech, where you have on (m), ona (f) and ono (n).
Let us now turn to each of the different cases in turn, and see how the problem of non-binary pronouns can be solved for each of these language categories linguistically (I’m not talking about social implications here).
Group 1: languages that do not distinguish for gender in their pronouns
Well, this is easy. Hungarians and Finns don’t need to break their heads over this issue, as they will always address someone using the correct pronoun. They may screw up with titles or refer to someone as a girl instead of as a boy, but the language leaves ample room to cover these issues – these issues can be solved socially and don’t require linguists to come up with a solution. In Hungarian, man, woman, or spongecake, it’s all ő. Problem solved.
In short: solution number one to the non-binary problem is simply not to do anything with gender at all. Gratulálok! Hungary and Finland (and Estonia and every other place that has this system) receive a gold star and a jellybaby.
This system is equally found in many Asian language groups such as in Austronesian languages, Turkish and many others.
Group 2: Register-dependent languages
Okay, there are very few languages that I have found that enter into this group, but the one that I have found that does is one of the biggest ones, namely Mandarin Chinese. Now, originally, it was gender-neutral like most Asian languages are, but under western influence it added characters to its system, which are nearly always used in writing. However, all of them are pronounced tā, even though they are written differently: there is 他 for men, 她 for women, and 它 for animals and objects. These are the characters in the simplified variant – traditional Chinese distinguishes between animals and objects, and even contains a separate character for deities.
In speech, we’re all okay. Mandarin Chinese can’t err on pronouns in speech, and the main thing we would have to worry about are titles that are gender-specific, but most of them aren’t, unless we’re talking about the Chinese equivalents of sir and madam (先生，太太). The Chinese love to refer to people by their professions, but a word like 医生 for doctor is inherently gender-neutral. You would have to append a character stating the gender in order to specify that the specific doctor was a woman or man, but this is not explicitly done most of the time.
In writing, we use 他 when uncertain. Some companies or youth resort to pinyin ta when not wanting to be explicit in writing. This is likely an attempt on their part to avoid the historical baggage associated with characters (many of them have been tossed over the years). Writing does present somewhat of a problem though. In general, in standard texts directed towards a large audience where the gender is not relevant, 他 could be considered a good neutral equivalent, given that it has always been so until Western influence decided otherwise, but it would still leave open the question of what we do when we do feel the need to make gender explicit, because in Mandarin, unlike in Hungarian, people do sometimes do so.
One way of solving the problem would simply be to go back to 他. Other variants of this character all come with baggage, and aren’t suitable. Another variant would be to simply invent another gender-neutral character, although I am not sure that the Chinese are up to this task. (And I will not risk any attempt at doing so, because my Mandarin is too feeble to come up with a good equivalent, and I’m not Chinese anyway). There is also the pinyin variant, but this one seems a little incoherent to me given the Chinese predilection for their characters. It seems to be popular in order to avoid the historical overbearance of the old characters, however. Then again, many learners would probably welcome the abandonment of the characters, given the nuisance they impose on students of Mandarin. Time will tell which one is eventually preferred, and all in all Mandarin is not as problematic as some other languages.
Group 3: Languages that distinguish between genders, but have found a solution for non-binary people
This group of languages concerns those languages where there has been an accepted proposal that has been propagated at least in certain circles. The system may not be entirely watertight as in English, or it may be not universally accepted as in Esperanto (where two different streams of thought exist), or it may be a grammatically clumsy and unworkable idea such as in Dutch, and we even have the quite successful example of Swedish, where the pronoun hen has indeed made a certain impact and is actually used in certain circles. The Swedish Riksdag has even issued guidelines for its use, and although it is never used in certain circumstances, members of parliament may use it freely in debates or use it when tabling motions. All in all these languages seem to have a solution that is in one way or another workable, and their development can be used as an example for the languages where such an alternative does not exist and may be inconvenient to introduce.
The first language we’re going to discuss here is good old English. As the lingua franca of today, and one of the instigators of the gender-neutral non-binary pronoun movement, it is in English that most of the suggestions have been done, and here they have led to a whole host of options, potentially confusing both us learners of English and even causing a reaction from right-wing conservatives who see the proposals as anathema. Although there are many options to choose from, such as ze, e, zie, xie, hir, sie and others, one that merits particular attention and in my opinion is the most elegant is the adoption of singular they as a neutral pronoun. (The good thing is that English has no grammatical gender on nouns, leaving the issue to be decided only for pronouns).
Singular they actually is a revival of an old use of this pronoun. The use of they in the singular has existed for centuries. Although often deemed to be archaic in the modern era of English, it has been given a new lease on life by the non-binary movement which has decided to readopt the pronoun for its ancient singular usage.
This usage has certain advantages. For a first, I personally prefer singular they because although its usage may seem a little unnatural at first, the pronoun has not been artificially created and it thus already has the logical declined counterparts for possessive and oblique forms. They, their, theirs, them already exist in English and thus do not present a grammatical problem for the user. It will certainly take some adjustment to see they as a singular pronoun as well as a plural one, but from a grammatical point of view it is a very smooth solution.
Secondly, because it has a precedented use, it is not an unnatural choice as a pronoun. Those people who say on prescriptivist grounds that language change may not be artificial or cumbersome, can be pointed to old documents where this form is already in evidence. The revival of old terms for new purposes is a very normal occurrence in many languages, and English is no exception here. It is a very common solution to be used when certain situations do not have the necessary or appropriate vocabulary.
Unfortunately its official acceptance is still far from widespread. Given the stiff competition from both other variants and the various alt-right movements who do not want to hear anything about gender equality, it may still be a while before we see a complete acceptance of either this pronoun or one of its alternatives. However, in my experience, using the singular they when uncertain is a very elegant solution that will avoid offending the majority of people in any kind of situation. By using this, you can avoid almost any awkward situation even for those who prefer other pronouns when you don’t know that person (they will not be offended at a neutral pronoun even if it isn’t the one they might personally prefer), and if anyone complains about your grammar, you can refer them to older texts.
And remember that in English, in queer circles, it is commonplace to ask about the desired pronouns to be used. Do not be afraid to ask queer people which pronouns they prefer – they will welcome the question, rather than brush it off.
Now Dutch is a more tricky kettle of fish. In Dutch grammatical gender is still alive and well, and especially in Belgium, this makes the choice of pronoun often confusing, because people prefer to refer back to the grammatical gender of a noun, even if that doesn’t always coincide with the logical natural gender of the noun in question. In the Netherlands, for referring back to nouns, grammatical gender has largely been superseded by natural gender, but in the case of objects, animals or otherwise inanimate concepts somehow Dutch people have decided to use the pronoun hij to refer back to things like tables, which is a very confusing trend.
Despite this, if we wanted to refer to a girl, a grammatically neuter noun (!) het meisje, we would still choose zij (she). And if we talk about het boek (the book), you may still encounter people saying hij or even die (the demonstrative pronoun for common gender nouns) as a way of referring back to those nouns! Jeebus on a bicycle stick, who came up with this confusing nonsense?
As if this was not confusing enough, the gods of Dutch pronoun invention decided to come up with a very strange solution, namely the use of the plural oblique pronoun hen (them) as a neutral term. Now, Dutch nouns don’t inflect for case, meaning that word order is usually the determining factor for sentence function, but hen would completely invert that trend, because pronouns do still inflect for case! This leads to situations like Hen loopt daar, a completely counterintuitive solution because hen is an existing object pronoun, albeit falling out of use. In some cases, it can be replaced by die (the demonstrative pronoun) instead. This solution is slightly better because it also refers to how people are colloquially referred to; it is not uncommon to hear something like Die heeft z’n huis verkocht (he sold his house), where die replaces hij. (And it could replace zij too.) However the combination of those two usages is extremely cumbersome and I understand why it has not caught on – purists would deem it unacceptable and everyone else would find it clumsy and unnatural to say the least.
To add insult to injury, I’m not even sure what the possessive pronoun is supposed to be, or how to distinguish between when to use die and hen. I guess the most logical possessive pronoun would be hun given the propensity for people to use it even in cases where it’s not applicable, but the suggestions by the Transgender Netwerk Nederland (TNN) are unclear on this to say the least.
I could see myself using a variant of this in Dutch if it were to be updated, made more elegant, or if the rules were otherwise clarified in a way such as to improve user-friendliness, but until then, I’m afraid I am not sure how I am supposed to use these pronouns. And I don’t think I’m the only one to think so. A valiant effort, but this needs some work before it can be reliably implemented, I’m afraid.
Now this is the success story of gender-neutral pronouns (at least relatively speaking). The Swedish gender-neutral pronoun hen was first suggested in 1966, but its adoption took years to catch on. In 2010 it was revived, and in 2015 the Swedish Language Academy finally officially accepted it as a pronoun and issued guidelines for its use. The Swedish hen can be used both to avoid indicating gender when this is unnecessary or undesirable, or to cover people whose gender identity does not suit the gender binary.
Unlike in other languages, where similar attempts to introduce gender-neutral pronouns have occurred, in Swedish the introduction has been fruitful. Guidelines have been established, albeit with restrictions, and the matter has been discussed in the Swedish Riksdag (parliament), where MPs may freely table motions and debate using this pronoun, although it is usually not used in lawmaking. It is used in certain journalistic circles and companies to emphasize gender neutrality, and it is commonly used in some Swedish schools as the preferred pronoun of instruction (these schools are known for placing a high emphasis on gender-neutral education).
This is not to say that the use of the pronoun is completely pervasive or has completely replaced the previous pronoun system of han/hon. Rather, it exists as an alternative in certain situations where tact or neutrality is required, and can be called upon, although I do not think that it has been completely assimilated into society yet. Even in Sweden, its use is slightly determined by the user’s political affiliation (the strongest opposition comes, as expected, from the conservative right Sverigedemokraterna party). Its popularity has steadily risen over the last four years, though, and has led researcher Kristian Blensenius to claim that it has become a true part of the Swedish language. It has notably become a part of different registers as well, and is not on its way out for the time being.
Sweden is thus an example of the effective and clever introduction of a new pronoun. Even here, researchers mention that pronouns are usually a word class that resist innovation – new words are usually coined as verbs or nouns, not as pronouns – but in Sweden the new pronoun has caught on enough that this tendency has been proven wrong, at least for once.
The last language I am going to discuss that has come up with a gender-neutral solution is Esperanto. Esperanto is a different case from all the other languages mentioned above – it is the only artificial language on the list, for one, and for a second, its creation was ideologically motivated, meaning that many of its speakers share similar philosophical ideals. However, even in Esperanto, this ideologically driven creation has led to schisms and splits.
The truth is that Esperanto was created in the 19th century by L. L. Zamenhof, and his original version contains two third-person singular pronouns, namely li (he) and ŝi (she). Purists would probably prefer that Zamenhof’s original idea be kept alive, but even Esperanto, surprisingly, much like a natural language, has developed since its inception. Perhaps in the spirit of Zamenhof, in recent years, the pronoun ri has been used in certain Esperantist circles to indicate gender neutrality in texts or to refer to non-binary people. It has even given rise to the neologism riismo (ri-ism), referring to the movement of people who use ri in writing and speech as opposed to those who do not use it. A good example of an Esperanto publication that often uses ri (and the associated masculinization affix -iĉ) is the Esperanto blog Egalecen. Note also that in traditional ri-ismo manifest, the pronoun ri supersedes the original pronouns and is not used alongside them.
The truth is that in Esperanto the use of ri is highly dependent on the circle of people it is used with. In some circumstances, particularly in LGBT, queer, or feminist circles, the use of ri is commonplace, especially online. In others, it is not generally used, but it may be understood. In case of a very vehement supporter of the original pronouns, it may lead to a debate on the pronouns being used. As an Esperanto speaker myself, I generally use li / ŝi when the situation is clear, but when I am uncertain I may use ri in order to avoid offending anyone, and I make a mental note to ask about that person’s pronouns in private. I am not sure whether ri has found any official acceptance in Esperanto circles, as I do not think the proposal or any alternative proposals were ever accepted, but out of the gender-neutral pronouns Esperanto has come up with ri is by far the most commonly used one, and one I have actually heard being used in speech.
Group four: languages with gendered pronouns that do not have a solution
The languages mentioned above have all, in one way or another, tried to find a workable solution for the neutrality issue. Not all languages have succeeded, some have only gained acceptance in certain circles, but in general the solutions have been workable enough that you may encounter them as a learner somewhere. But there are many languages with gendered pronouns that do not have workable solutions, or where the proposed solutions have failed to gain any traction at all. Languages that fall into this category are the Romance, Slavic and Semitic languages. I am going to discuss the cases of Spanish and Czech in particular, but related languages can be shown to lead to similar situations. This is to say that Italian is similar to Spanish, Russian is similar to Czech, and so on.
It should also be mentioned that the more gender plays a role in morphology, the harder this situation becomes – for example, Hebrew is a notoriously hard language to make gender-neutral, because in modern Hebrew gender is not only reflected in pronouns, but also in verb forms, noun plurals, and adjective formation. This gender-influenced grammatical system complicates the solution somewhat, and means that workable solutions have to take the native grammar into account in order to be integrated seamlessly into the modern language. Let us now first turn to Spanish, the most widely spoken out of all these gender-dominated languages.
In doing research for Spanish, I have found that there have been a few scant proposals to introduce gender-neutral language, but none of them have gained any traction and they sound strange or even ungrammatical to native speakers. One pronoun elle was proposed by blogger Sophia Gubb, complete with a grammatical treatise on how to use it. The pronoun would be used only to indicate a neutral gender for people (nouns have grammatical gender in Spanish and can only be masculine or feminine), or it could otherwise be used in place of the @ or x which is often used online and on forums in order to avoid specifying gender. Adjectives would also agree with gender, thus you could create sentences like les niñes listes, elle es guape etc.
The truth of the matter is that Spanish grammar has eliminated the original Latin neuter from its language. Every noun has grammatical gender, and reintroducing the neuter gender to apply to non-binary people seems to be a much larger ask in Spanish than it is in other language, where grammatical gender is not reflected so readily in the morphology. Consequently resistance to it has been large, claiming that it would unnecessarily complicate the language. Some people have argued that Spanish already has the neuter pronoun ello, but that is normally only used to refer to things, and would imply a very negative view of the person (turning them into something akin to a table).
I wrote to four native Hispanophones from both Mexico and Spain and asked them whether they had ever heard of the pronoun ”elle” in Spanish and whether they would use it. In all four cases, I got the answer that this pronoun does not exist in Spanish, although in one case someone said that if this became popular they would use it. However, petitions have been made for the RAE (Real Academia Española) to accept the use of this pronoun, and what the future may hold is unclear. However, as of now, Spanish still does not have a way of treating people gender-neutrally, although with this call to the RAE, this may soon change.
Czech and other Slavic languages normally have a three-way gender system, inherited from the old days of Old Church Slavonic and before. Similarly to Latin, Greek and other languages around Europe, in the Slavic languages the gender system was maintained and is alive to this day. The real issue in the Slavic languages, though, is that it is not only reflected in the adjective declension, which is what you see in Romance languages, but it also reappears in the past tense verb conjugation, which functions somewhat like an adjective. This makes it extremely easy to wilfully misgender someone in Czech or other Slavic languages, because a sentence in the past already betrays the speaker’s gender identity: šla jsem do restaurace immediately shows that the speaker is female. Woops!
The gender pronouns in Czech are on, ona, ono. On is masculine, ona is feminine, and ono is neuter – but like in Spanish, you cannot use ono to refer to people. It would be implying that they are some sort of weird creature or an object, and doing it would be ridiculously offensive, and a total dehumanization of trans people, which is also why Russian transphobes like using оно to insult trans folks. This is a completely horrible situation to be in and the gendered nature of the grammar and morphology makes any kind of suggestion a pain in the proverbial neck to apply.
The real problem is that in none of these languages does there seem to be any kind of movement in any direction towards a gender-inclusive pronoun. Trans people have it hard enough in Czech and Russian because as already said, gender is indicated on verbs in the past as well as in adjectives (and often also on nouns), but with acceptance of the pronoun change that could still be overcome. The fact that there really is no neuter option (although we could probably use the masculine as a cover-all term for occupations) really leaves Czech at a loss, and other languages such as Russian and Serbian are no different.
There are other languages which have heavy gender influence. Some of these are Germanic, such as Icelandic, or otherwise Indo-European, such as Greek. Many of the languages not mentioned before are similar cases to either Spanish or Czech mentioned above. One special mention goes to the Semitic languages, because in Modern Hebrew gender is not only found in the third-person pronouns, but also on second-person pronouns, and verbs and prepositions all conjugate for gender as well as tense ans number. This leaves the speaker of Modern Hebrew in a particular pickle, because, again, the choices are between masculine and feminine – and there is no neutral middle ground that can be used.
This guide leads us to see that very few gender-neutral pronouns have led to any kind of inclusivity for LGBTI people and even for those of us on the binary spectrum, the fact that some languages require us to state gender really puts us in a quandary. The main success stories have been Swedish, where hen is quite readily available, Esperanto, where ri can be used in some circumstances, and of course English. Other proposals such as the one in Dutch have not gained enough traction, and the ones in other languages have been outright rejected.
In order to promote inclusivity alongside the existing gender systems, both linguistic and social barriers will have to be overcome in the future. The fact that in Swedish there has been a relatively large breakthrough gives hope for the future, but until that time, we will have to enjoy the remaining gendered systems that exist in all the various languages, and learn them to the very best of our potential.