Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Gendered pronouns across cultures - web event #2

iskierka's picture

In Don Kulick’s Travesti, he introduces a subculture of Brazilian prostitutes who, despite self-identifying as male, dress in a feminine manner and adopt feminine pronouns. As Kulick joined his new companions in their daily lives in Brazil, he found a culture where feminine language was practically requisite, where the only male pronouns among the group were shot as insults, and where designated-at-birth females were seen as ‘lesser’ because of their conventional methods of having sex. These prostitutes, called travesty, appeared to Kulick as gender outliers, falling between man and woman and integrating aspects of both while remaining entirely a separate category. Given the nature of the Portuguese language, they found it simple to evoke a feminine nature by altering the genders assigned to listeners that they were, in fact, women. In English, similar systems do not exist, and while one would imagine a simple ease into a genderless mode of speech, the language still resists adopting a comprehensive third-gender pronoun and grammatical usage. While far from the only language with difficulties in integrating third-gender/agender pronouns, English lays a simple foundation for gender pronouns, and fully moves to, outside of pronouns, eliminate gender unless speaking about a specific individual.

The existence of a gendered noun makes non-English languages notable, particularly in how polyglots view words with opposing pronouns. One study highlighted the difference by finding French-English and Spanish-English bilinguals and comparing their viewpoints regarding a collection of words. The study found that those born speaking a language other than English tended to associate the English word with masculine traits if the word in their home language was masculine, and feminine traits if the correlating word was feminine (Forbes 74). In English, the same only seems true in terms of words modified for gender – policeman, mailman, for example. While the effort to transition to gender-neutral replacements usually provides an alternative for these terms (police officer, mail carrier), it still lends to the unfortunate tendency to label gender-ambivalent pronouns in sentences to a man or he in hypothetical situations, designating men as the primary action providers. Recent grammatical trends call for a push in replacing male pronouns in hypotheticals with one, rephrasing sentences as plural for they, or using his and her in tandem. While the intent is present, it necessitates a cultural shift greater than the reeducation of English students to popularize this degendering of nouns.

Recently, motions across the world have been made to integrate third gender options into birth certificates, or else publicly introduce an ‘official’ third gender pronoun to facilitate agender or mixed gender individuals. In certain countries, such as France, a genderless pronoun exists – on – but it’s rarely, if ever, used in terms of anything other than the hypothetical. On peut translates to one may, on rit to one laughs – this particular phrasing forces a disconnect between the speaker and the subject. Who laughs? One what? As easily as a human individual could perform the action, so could any other number of objects – an animal, a book, a plant. While subcultures may have adopted third-gender pronouns, none is widely known. Elsewhere in Europe, within the last year Germany has adjusted its legislature in a manner such that, “Parents are now allowed to leave the gender blank on birth certificates, in effect creating a new category of "indeterminate sex"(BBC).” While primarily reserved for intersex children, formerly forced to conform to one of two gender norms, it now allows parents the ability to raise a child who is not male or female as someone who is not male or female, without hiding an important aspect of identity from them. Germany, however, as of yet has no person-based gender-neutral pronoun – es is used for gender-neutral objects, similarly to the French on, and sie is a gender-neutral plural pronoun, in the same vein as the English they. With no official pronoun rising to the occasion, Germany must be watched to note how they handle this sudden acknowledgement of a third party break in a binary structure. In early 2013, however, Sweden introduced a gender-neutral pronoun, hen, as a legal and official answer to questions of third-gender identity. While other languages may have object-based third pronouns, hen was created specifically as a, “gender-neutral pronoun that can be applied to objects and people who don't wish to specifically identify as male or female (Bahadura),” in an attempt to facilitate legal ease within the country. While English has numerous third-gender pronouns, from singular they to ze/hir to the Baltimore-based yo, none have been adopted legally, and rarely do documents allow for third-gender consideration or for the individual to opt out of self-identification One manner in which English as a language could open itself to a less gender-bound system of operation would be to a integrating a genderless birth option for where applicable, thus introducing the concept of agenderness or third-gender to the culture so that it may grow and develop on a grander scale.

While third gender pronouns exist, however, such a multitude makes it difficult for outsiders to understand, or to adopt if so be the case. Looking to Japanese as an example, pronouns stand more on ceremony and the situation than the gender of the speaker – watashi is used by men and women alike, and while boku is a designated ‘male’ pronoun and atashi the assigned ‘female’, women may use boku and men may use atashi should they choose (Takusagi). Returning to queer issues, the same is not true of English pronouns, where usage of one over another evokes image of gender rather than personality.Without making pronouns a cause for allies rather than queer individuals, thus oversimplifying it for those who want to understand without partaking, it becomes difficult to settle on an official pronoun. The flaw in singular they comes only from protestors who argue the grammar behind the issue, as though a language is more important than the person speaking it, and as though languages cannot and have never changed over the course of time. For a period of time, thon had been accepted into dictionaries, as a combination of ‘that’ and ‘one’, but it found minimal use and, while still existing as a pronoun choice, was uncommon as its time of creation (Century Online Dictionary). Rebecca Hersher noted a movement in the Baltimore area consisting of children utilizing yo as a gender neutral pronoun, as well as applying it to those with defined male/female genders. Though centralized in a single area, "What these students are doing that's so fascinating is they have a view of the world that is, in many ways, gender neutral, and they're using language to reflect that," says Christine Mallinson (Hersher). If children can create a concept of nonbinary gender and designate a pronoun to associate with it, then perhaps arguments of grammar seem petty in comparison.

Every language handles gender differently, some restricting it to a personal choice of pronoun regardless of personal identification, others branching out to encompass all objects in their lexicon on some spectrum of masculine to feminine to none of the above. English falls somewhere in the middle, neglecting to engender inhuman objects, but looking warily at any attempt to break the he/she system built up across years. Those languages that impose an object-gendered system yet managed to overtake the United States in that they introduced person-specific third gender pronouns and legislation acknowledging third genders. English lags primarily in the culture effort needed to create and institutionalize a universal acceptance of third genders – the United States and the United Kingdom both lack the political initiative to mend a tremendous problem, and until smaller waves like the Baltimore yo intensify to a level acknowledged by larger masses. The pronouns exist, on a less visible scale, and have reached enough popularity to cross from one side of the coast to the other, but the primary issue in the lack of colloquially-used third gender pronouns remains in the widespread momentum of this language shift.

Works Cited

Bahadur, Nina. "Swedish Gender-Neutral Pronoun, 'Hen,' Added To Country's National Encyclopedia." The Huffington Post., 11 Apr. 2013. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.

"The Century Dictionary Online." The Century Dictionary Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2013.

Forbes, James N., Diane Poulin-Dubois, Magda R. Rivero, and Maria D. Sera. "Grammatical Gender Affects Bilinguals’ Conceptual Gender: Implications for Linguistic Relativity and Decision Making~!2008-03-31~!2008-10-13~!2008-11-26~!" The Open Applied Linguistics Journal 1.1 (2008): 68-76. Print.

"Germany Allows 'indeterminate' Gender at Birth." BBC News. BBC, 11 Jan. 2013. Web. 02 Nov. 2013.

Hersher, Rebecca. "'Yo' Said What?" NPR. NPR, n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.

Shinji Takasugi. "Pronouns." Pronouns. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2013.


shainarobin's picture

The limitation of a language

The limitation of a language that relies heavily on gendered pronouns is a strong theme throughout you paper. You bring up questions such as "what happens if you're a gender outlier?" or if you identify as a whole seperate category from "man" or "woman"?  A similar theme prevails through my paper when I talk about how the hearing community is limiting itself by choosing not to learn sign language. Your research of different languages across the globe exemplifies how different cultures adjust foreign languages to fit their grammatical knowledge. For example, some people learning english as a second language will "automatically designate gender amivalent terms to men". It's interesting how in the past hearing people have done some similar to those in the deaf community by imposing oralism on them. Your solution for making gender pronouns more accessible for people of multiple identities is to integrate third gender options (as opposed to just male and female) into official documents like Germany has done with birth certificates and Sweden has done with the incorporation of the pronoun "hen" into their language.

Anne Dalke's picture

Engendering language

Last time ‘round, you were writing about how virtual reality turns out not to be less an escape from "meatspace” than only an elaboration and extension of it: a "fantasy of the real," but real nonetheless. This month, you are taking on an even larger and more profound topic—the degree to which the institution that is the English language hinders the exploration of gender variance (or: “a "fantasy of the real, but real nonetheless”).

You do this first by evoking the practices of a variety of other languages: the ability to alter the gender assigned to listeners, as in Portuguese; or selecting pronouns based on ceremony and situation, rather than on the speaker’s gender, as in Japanese. You also offer several experiments in English—my favorite is that of the children in Baltimore, who have been able to “create a concept of nonbinary gender and designate a pronoun to associate with it”—that gives me hope for the future!  I agree with you that the grammar purists hold “language as more important than the person speaking it, as though languages cannot and have never changed over the course of time.”

I’m quite struck by your characterization of English as “neglecting to engender inhuman objects, but looking warily at any attempt to break the he/she system built up across years.” Given the evolution of our understanding of gender variance, it seems time to play more robustly with our pronouns…especially given the way in which (as you also observe) “English designates men as the primary action providers”—it’s way past time to move beyond that presumption!

So: how to do this? Does it begin w/  children’s books, or…?

juliah also wrote on the topic of gendered language; y’all should talk; I put shaina, who wrote about sign language, in your group as well…