Over the past few weeks, a couple of Letters to the Editor in The Student have gone back and forth over the use of gender-neutral pronouns in English, particularly, as pointed out in a letter by Ryland Richards ’13, the distinction between “ze” and “they” as options for those who do not identify as “he” or “she,” or when the gender identity of a person is ambiguous or unknown. The discussion around what to do in such circumstances has been circulating among English speakers for some years. But the discussion around the gendering of pronouns isn’t exclusive to English — many languages have been having similar discourses around the topic in tandem with the one going on in English. By ignoring the experiences of those languages’ speakers, English speakers are missing a set of potentially applicable lessons for how to deal with our own pronoun discourse.
Pronouns are a key part of language, and exist in almost all languages around the world. In particular, third-person pronouns (the ones covered by English “he, she, it, they”) very often convey information about the gender (or lack thereof) of the person or thing being referred to. But this is by no means universal.
In many languages, the issue of gender expression is a moot point — pronouns do not express gender. A good example is in spoken Finnish, which only has two third person pronouns, se (singular, covering “he”, “she”, and “it”) and ne (plural “they”). In written Finnish, there is another pronoun, hän, which covers people of any gender, but not things or ideas. Similar systems, with the gender of a person entirely irrelevant to the pronoun used to refer to them, exist in a wide variety of languages, from Turkish to Mandarin Chinese.
But these languages are often not the ones we encounter most frequently. Nearly all languages of Europe, being part of the Indo-European language family, have inherited strongly gendered systems, particularly of pronouns but also (as in Spanish, French and German) of nouns. It is these languages, which we, as English speakers, can learn from most in trying to understand what to do about our own pronouns.
One clear example is that of Swedish. Swedish, like English, has inherited a gendered third-person pronoun system from its Germanic ancestor, with the feminine hon “she” and masculine han “he.” But in Sweden, there is a major movement towards not just gender equality, but gender neutrality, especially among progressive parents who wish to raise their children in as non-gendered a way as possible. To that effect, a gender-neutral pronoun, hen, began to gain currency in the 1990s. It has taken root particularly among parents, but also in academic settings, which, in Sweden as in America, are often at the forefront of experiments in language. But there has been a vocal backlash against the use of hen by some parts of Swedish society, both those who argue for linguistic purity and retention of the old pronoun system, and those who view the introduction of a gender-neutral pronoun as a symptom of radical leftism and feminism.
Although hen has not become universally adopted in Sweden, I see it as a particularly successful example of a gender-neutral pronoun, precisely because it has had such a vocal outcry against it. Issues of gender and pronouns have gotten major media attention in Sweden, and political parties have express positions in favor of or against hen. I wish that in America issues of gender and language would get the treatment in the media that they are getting in Sweden.
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to present on this topic at the Five College Queer Sexuality & Gender Conference at Hampshire College. I was amazed at how my audience had had a wide variety of experiences with trying to express gender outside of the male-female binary in languages other than English. Many, if not most, of us at Amherst College and in the Five Colleges operate in English alongside one, two or more other languages. While English is the de facto language of Amherst College, and discussion about pronouns and gender on campus will likely remain mostly about English, it is important to recognize that in addition to other forms of diversity among the Amherst student body, linguistic diversity is key.
Anyone who has tried to express gender-neutrality in Spanish or German class or in conversation with friends in French or Russian has run into much the same problem as in English — how to deal with obligatory expression of gender when someone’s gender is ambiguous or falls outside the male-female binary? By looking at the experiences of Swedish and other languages and expanding the discussion beyond English alone, I hope we can come to a better understanding of what to do when trying to account for gender in all languages.