Navigating Gendered Languages

Written by Luisana Cortez.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.

Part of the foundation to our current existence is language. Language is not the only factor that drives historical events or mere incidents in societies, but it is inarguably one of the greater forces, simultaneously upholding and negating the attitudes, beliefs, and imaginations of many. If this sounds too abstract, it’s because it is. Linguistic work is convoluted, but it is important to know that the way it operates affects us all. Gender is a global and cultural site of contention where language plays a huge role in the way we perceive ourselves and others.

As human beings, we tend to conceptualize our surroundings as binaries, mostly because categorizing and narrowing down these surroundings make it easier to better understand our society. This is true for linguistics, as well. Most perceive languages as fixed systems with gradual or miniscule evolutionary changes throughout the centuries. Any change to this system is incorrect, a mispronunciation, a fault. It is something seen as set in stone.

I once saw language in such a similar way, in which deviation from the “standard” and larger norms of English was a fault of mine, something that had to be immediately corrected lest I faced ridicule. I hated the Spanish accent that coated my tongue. I struggled to train my mind to understand what was, at the time, the fast, alien sounds of English. Most notably, English pronouns became mixed up in my mind because of their similarities in sound. She was beautiful, but he was handsome. Mixing these two up during class readings could result in roars of laughter and mocking remarks from my classmates.

But this is only my case. Spanish, which is my first language, uses different conjugations, adjectives, and pronouns depending if the subject is male or female. Interestingly enough, something as trivial as a table has to be referred to as feminine and with an adjective that agrees with the gender of the noun, e.g. “la mesa bonita.” So the way gender operates in English — that is, in various strict and confusing ways —  wasn’t a new experience for me. Other non-English-speaking people, however, may or may not enjoy this privilege.

A friend of mine, a Telugu and Hindi-speaking UT student, understands the struggle of navigating gendered languages as a non-binary person. She, who wishes to remain anonymous, explains that neither Telugu nor Hindi — two of the most common languages in India — have the same grasp of gender as most European languages. Gendered pronouns are common; similar to he/she or el/ella in English and Spanish, respectively, but “inanimate objects do not have gender.” Moreover, certain occupations/titles are gendered, but not all — think congresswoman versus congressman, for instance. Therefore, Telugu and Hindi are more akin to English than to Spanish. This is just one example on how intricate a tongue can be and how it can reflect other languages in its conceptualization of genders.

Nevertheless, one must not immediately associate non-European languages with their European counterparts because of surface-level similarities. The culture and the gender relations that mark each society are emblematic of the way language is transformed by such ideas and vice versa.

“In Indian society,” my interviewee relates, “there is what is known as a third gender. . . I’m pretty sure that there are non-binary people that don’t have the language to frame that they are non-binary, but that’s just how they exist, you know? So I feel like there’s probably people that modify it, but it’s such, like, a gender role — like, patriarchal, you know, society in India that it’s not popularly conceptualized.”

So despite the Indian government’s recognition of these widely-known third-gender communities, common Indian languages may work in different ways, perhaps because of the way they have evolutionized, perhaps because of the deeply-rooted gender power dynamics of its society. Still, I acknowledge that there may be other Indian ethnic languages that work in vastly different ways in terms of gendered nouns, pronouns, etc., that neither myself nor my interviewee are aware of. Just as an example, Bengali, with around 91 million speakers in India alone, is a grammatically genderless language.

When I asked her about any possible gender-inclusive modifications to either Telugu or Hindi, my interviewee stated that she didn’t know of any, but that she wouldn’t be surprised if they existed. “Now that I think about it, it’s like, hmm, that would be really affirming.” I agree with her.

In comparison to the push for gender-neutral alterations to the Spanish language, leading to such popular terms as Latinx or Latine, Telugu and Hindi do not, at least from the experiences of my interviewee, dominate such movements of inclusivity. This isn’t to say, however, that the concept of genderlessness/gender-fluidity does not exist in Indian society, but rather, that its languages may not uphold the same restrictions as other languages that are more gendered, thus leading to less interest in radically changing the linguistic system as we see with Spanish.

Yerim Choi, a UT 2017 graduate with a major in International Relations and Global Studies, is another gender-fluid individual that reckons with the way gender operates in the Korean language. In this case, Korean provides perspective on how language can be virtually devoid of gender, which might seem unfathomable to many.

“[Korean is] actually genderless. So, there are gendered pronouns,” she clarifies, “If there’s, let’s say, a man, we call him by he… [But] we don’t really refer to people by their pronouns. It’s either implied that we are talking about them or it’s either their name. Our adjectives are also not gendered.”

Neither are inanimate objects. And titles of occupations are also rarely, if ever, gendered. Through this cultural relative lense, the push to modify the Spanish language and other restrictive tongues with more inclusive formats might start to appear feasible, even necessary in our contemporary world. If that has been the reality for Korean and various other languages, why not languages like French, Spanish, or Portuguese?  

My non-binary friend Quyen Nguyen, a second-year RTF major, provided some interesting insight when I interviewed them.

“The push to have inclusive language is a good thing, because a lot of language is, like, sometimes created [from] colonization, so when you look at how [ideas are based off of] , a binary, basically. When you look at non-European languages, there’s a lot of words that really — I would say Vietnamese too, even though the alphabet was created by the French — but some of the words and stuff, some of the things we say, could be gender-neutral compared to other European languages.”

The colonial background of many of these languages that Quyen provides reveals something greater: languages have morphed in countless manners throughout human history and — very often — under oppressive forces. So, the movement toward gender-inclusivity in European languages is not a precedent, but it is new in that its ideology of inclusivity provides invigorating opportunities for many.

It is no surprise to me if these testimonies are shocking to most English-speaking readers. Although I was aware that gender-neutrality was not an uncommon thing with global languages, it still took me some time to really grasp with not having to affirm someone’s gender in the ways I was used to with English and Spanish. Some may view this as liberating, especially for women or non-binary people that often grapple with having to narrow their intricate identities down to a single word. Others will continue to contend that it is an unnecessary movement. Still others see gender-inclusive modifications as linguistic mutilation.

Ultimately, to take languages that are so deeply embedded in the societal structures and decide that it does not work for you or others is a revolutionary thing. Whether for the better or the worse, it cannot be denied that there is a new, powerful wave of gender-neutral modifications to many languages. Whether these terms will be integrated into the larger bodies of languages or not is still a matter of the future.

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