Gender and language
By Minami Funakoshi
Illustrated by Samuel Granados
Published January 25, 2022
Not everyone identifies as a woman or a man. The movement to recognize gender identities beyond female and male is growing in places like Western Europe and the United States, and changing languages around the world.
In English, the pronouns people use — such as ‘she,’ ‘he,’ or ‘they’ — have come to the fore. In some languages, other parts of speech can also be feminine or masculine.
Modifying language to reflect a spectrum of gender identities is a fundamental change that stirs fierce debate.
Of the 10 most-spoken languages in the world, nine have parts of speech that are distinctly feminine or masculine.
These include words that indicate the gender of the speaker. Also, things can be masculine or feminine, like ‘la luna’ (the moon) in Spanish. Even verbs can conjugate differently depending on gender, like ‘main khati hoon’ (I eat, feminine) in Hindi.
For some people, the distinction is merely academic. For others, living as the gender that society has assigned them, or the one that they identify with, is not always safe.
Women and transgender people across the world face high risks of harassment, violence, and sexual assault, according to numerous reports. Trans people also face abuse from state officials.
For those who don’t identify as female or male, gender quickly complicates the most personal expressions. Just take the simple phrase: ‘I love you.’
In many languages, this sentence has three parts: subject ‘I,’ verb ‘love,’ and object ‘you.’
In languages such as English, the words don’t change with the gender of the speaker or the person being addressed.
In others, they do.
In Thai, the pronoun ‘I’ can be gendered: either feminine or masculine.
In Hebrew, ‘I’ always stays the same. But the words ‘love’ and ‘you’ change.
If a woman is expressing love to another woman, she must, in essence, declare: ‘I, a woman, love you, a woman’ …
… and if a man is declaring love to another man, it becomes: ‘I, a man, love you, a man.’
The phrase is inseparable from gender.