A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

He/She/It Is A Boy - De-Gendered Language

The first language I was taught in school was French. Unfortunately, the school I was going to was horrible, so I didn’t have the slightest understanding or even awareness about “masculine” and “feminine” words. I first became aware of the existence of gender in language when I moved to the school where I learned Spanish and Latin, both gendered.
            I remember my first reaction: “Why?” That’s still my reaction. Why is it necessary for concepts to have gender? Especially when it’s so nonsensical – why is “dress” (“vestido”) masculine? (If I was a generous person I’d applaud Spanish for promoting gender-representation noncomformity, but it’s way more likely that it’s just an evolution of “dress” as in clothes, or “to dress”. I am not a generous person.) Why do some words have gender if some words are neuter – why is a house feminine but a bedroom apparently has no gender? (Random side note: That was one of my first thoughts after the Latin explanation of gender, once I got past everyone giggling at “neuter”. I’ll fess up – I almost asked “Where’s the spay case?” Almost.)
            I will write more about the nonexistent necessity for gender in language in a separate article – right now, I want to talk about languages without it.
            And I don’t just mean languages where a word need not be masculine/feminine/neuter, it’s just a word – I’m talking about languages where the recognition of gender, or even sex itself does not exist in pronouns.
            Finnish was the first degendered - not a real word, just think it describes this well – language I was exposed to, and it was quite a relief to not have to worry about what ending my “potato” takes. But I was rather confused when I encountered the vocabulary list entry for the word “hän” –

hän – he, she

            In what was probably one of my greater moments of naïveté, I actually leaned over and asked my teacher “Which one is it?”
            Looking back on it, my astonishment upon learning it was “both” was hilarious. I kept thinking – “Well, how do you tell if it’s talking about a man or woman?”
            Now, let me make it straight: This doesn’t mean “it”. There is a word for “it” – “se” or “sitä” – but that is, like in English, used to refer to inanimate objects without any sex whatsoever. And it’s not just a more politically correct term to use in addition to separate words for “he” and “she”.
            I went on in that mindset for a while, until I realized – that’s genius. It solves effortlessly the problem we have of the constant need to say “he/she” or “his/her” as not to be sexist. It allows you to talk about those whose gender you don’t know without being offensive. It frees gender-neutral, transgender, and other non-binary people from the false dichotomy of “male” and “female”. It’s genius.
            (Though, this is not to say I haven’t been pissed after having to re-do a whole translation…but no language is perfect. It’s also worth noting that “he”, which means “they” is also gender-neutral…but so is it in English, so it’s not remarkable. )
            But wait, there’s more. I mentioned that “se” was the equivalent of our “it”…but only in formal Finnish. In everyday life, “se” is often used in place of “hän”. So, not only is Finnish gender-neutral, it’s becoming species-neutral.
Hungarian takes the same step, only it’s officially recognized and used in formal situations: “Ő” means “he”, “she”, and “it”.
            Estonian too: “Tema” for “he/she”. In fact, all Uralic languages use only gender-neutral pronouns. I mean it when I say: Awesome.
            There are other languages that follow the same degendered pronoun pattern, but these are the first three I became acquainted with, and I love them. Maybe English should take the hint.

And it might already have, though we haven’t officially recognized it. See my next article, “Welcome Your New Singular Pronoun, English!” to see how “they” is slowly becoming a gender-neutral pronoun. 

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