by Erin Crouch, TALLINN 

To put it simply, choosing the right pronoun is a big deal. Half of millennials in the United States think that gender isn’t limited to male and female, and in the U.S., Facebook offers 56 custom options to select for gender.

But what if you needed all those choices because of the English language? What if you spoke a language that didn’t even have separate words for “him” or “her,” like Estonian? Or what if just about every noun in your world was masculine or feminine—seemingly at random, like in Russian? Would you care less about the pronouns for yourself?

To start looking at the effects of language spoken on pronoun preferences, it’s important to understand grammatical gender, a method of categorizing nouns in a language, typically as masculine, feminine, or neuter.

Broadly speaking, there are three kinds of languages:

Natural gender languages: English is an example of this kind of language, which doesn’t categorize non-human, non-animal nouns into male or female categories. A table and tree are it, and only people are he or she.

Gendered languages: Russian, German, and French are prominent examples of this kind of language, in which both people and objects are given a gender. A table, for instance, is a feminine noun in French— “She is a lovely table!—while a tree is a masculine noun in German. I planted him in the forest, where he will grow very tall!

Genderless languages: Chinese, Estonian, Finnish, and other languages don’t categorize any nouns as feminine or masculine, and use the same word for he or she in regards to humans.

For people who don’t identify along the gender binary, these grammatical differences can be significant. To find out how one’s native language and gender identity intersect, I spoke with people from several countries who have come out as genderqueer, nonbinary— gender-questioning in some way—and their answers reveal the importance of grammar in the expression of gender identity.

Gender in European languages. Those in light blue have no gender system [Image: Wikiwand]

“Natural gender” languages like English perpetuate the idea of a strict gender binary for humans—one can be either “he” or “she.” But there is an option to challenge these parameters: the use of gender-neutral terms. In English, these terms include they as a singular, ze/zir or zie/zir, ze/hir or other variations, and Mx. in written forms.

These terms are undoubtedly beneficial, helping to allow for expression of gender fluidity. But are they enough?

In a 2016 surveyBucking the Linguistic Binary—20% of monolingual, transgender English speakers said, yes, English gender-neutral language allows me to express my identity; 31% said no, it does not allow for adequate identity expression; and 19% said “yes and no.” 4% specified that they felt that it currently did not allow them to express their identities, but, “the situation was improving and that they were hopeful that time and advocacy would lead to increased acceptance of the language that would allow them to express their identities.”

Those who answered “yes and no” detailed both positive and negative aspects. One participant wrote:

“When I was using gender-neutral pronouns in English, it was almost impossible to get anyone who wasn’t in the queer community to use ‘they’ for me consistently. This was at an early stage of me asking them not to use ‘she’ (the pronoun I was ‘assigned’ at birth), so I think people were still getting used to the idea of any pronoun other than ‘she’ for me. But I had the impression that people outside the queer world (not LGBT but ‘queer’ as in challenging gender binaries) had an even harder time with the idea of a gender-neutral pronoun than with the idea of someone ‘crossing’ gender lines (i.e. requesting ‘he’ instead of ‘she’). So people would default to ‘she’, which was unbearable to me. So ‘he’ felt lots safer to me since it was farther away from ‘they’ and easier for people to wrap their minds around.”

If it seems like English-speakers are dissatisfied, the situation for speakers of gendered languages—which stipulate strict gender distinctions for both humans and objects—is far worse. In the same survey, transgender French respondent #171 was clear and succinct:

[S]peaking a gendered language as an agender person fuckin’ sucks. I’m constantly misgendered, or I’m misgendering myself in order to be understood.”

Misgendering in a gendered language was explained by another respondent:

“For example, in English, there are multiple nouns that I can use to classify myself (partner, student) without making reference to gender, whereas in German I’m supposed to say the feminine form of many common categories into which I fit, like student (Studentin), and have to explain myself when I refuse.”

In English, one can say they are a teacher with a partner, and no one’s gender is revealed; French and German lack that luxury.

Transgender German respondent #98 added: “The options that English presents work reasonably well for me and I can express my gender identity and use preferred pronouns […]. [In] German I struggle a lot with language and [I am] often very unhappy with the situation of [the lack of] German gender-neutral language. I lack usable and easy to learn/apply pronouns and descriptions of myself. That the language is very gendered is a big problem in my life.”

Russian is a gendered language that does feature a neuter third-person pronoun, оно [it]. This pronoun is not typically applied to people; instead it is used only for objects with neuter noun names. These are typically borrowed words like кафе (cafe) that do not take a masculine or feminine case. A few gender pioneers, however, have co-opted it. For example, Seroe Fioletovoe [Gray Violet]—a transgender Russian activist who is part of the artist collective Война [War], best known for spawning punk activists Pussy Riot—uses “оно” to describe themself.

Polina Ravlyuk, a Russian blogger who runs an information portal on gender and gender identification, wrote to me in an email:

“We don’t have a gender-neutral pronoun [for people]… Agender people use feminine or masculine pronouns according to their personal preference. There can also be situations where a woman can refer to herself in the masculine way grammatically and vice versa. It’s worth noting that the issue isn’t widely discussed [yet] in Russia, because in my opinion society isn’t ready to accept gender on a spectrum. ‘Homosexual propaganda’ is still a fineable offence in the Russian Federation…”

Faced with that level of discrimination, the use of pronouns can seem far down the list of priorities. Tosha, a young Russian who identifies as agender, told me:

I use masculine pronouns, even though they don’t suit me very well. Plural or ‘neuter’ cases in Russian aren’t comfortable for me. Maybe someday I could use them, though. I also speak English, and I use the ‘they/them’ in English. Because of the language barrier, that doesn’t feel unnatural for me, and besides, [i]n Russian almost all the verbs and adjectives have gender, and in English it’s not like that. Pronouns in English don’t hurt me, as long as no one does it on purpose.

In my opinion, the language plays a pretty large role in how agender people feel about themselves, because [Russian] isn’t flexible enough for us. It doesn’t allow for a lack of gender; you always have to pick something. It shapes how we are thought about and sometimes contributes to social dysphoria. In my own family, it’s been difficult for most of them, though my friends, mother, and grandmother easily adjusted to using masculine pronouns to refer to me. Those who don’t know why I use that case either question it, or they think I think I’m a guy, or they just ignore it.

Tosha also notes that there’s the option to use a plural pronoun when referring to agender people. “When I don’t know someone’s gender, I talk about them in the plural,” they say. “I think after some time I’ll be able to do the same for myself [in Russian].”

It’s clear that, not surprisingly, natural gender and gendered languages pose problems for identity expression. But what about genderless languages? Does Estonian offer a natural home for the nonbinary?

A personal pronoun diagram for Russian and Estonian learning. The bottom-left corner shows the genderless third-person pronoun tema, which means “he” or “she”. [Image courtesy of Eesti keele õppimiseks]

A young Estonian agender person interviewed for this article who prefers the name Paul does find “tema,” the genderless Estonian pronoun, helpful. Tema is used only for humans, and when used in a sentence, it is neither masculine nor feminine. Paul writes:

“Usually people use the gender-neutral ‘tema’ [when] talking about any person, and because it’s the most common way to refer to a person, there is no issue with which pronoun to use. I prefer ‘they’ or ‘he’ in English, but I don’t usually say it to people unless they ask. That is because I am not really out as non-binary. In Estonian there is no gender in pronouns, but there are marker words like ‘tüdruk’ (girl), ‘preili’ (Ms.), or ‘neiu’ (a young woman) that I don’t identify with, but which are used by older people addressing me. I would prefer the gender-neutral pronoun ‘tema’ or my name.

Friends and close acquaintances call me ‘Paul,’ which I really like to be called. I somehow identify more with neutral or masculine marker words, and names. In English when I use ‘they’ to refer to a person, most people don’t notice it. But that’s maybe because the people I talk to in English are not native speakers. So there is some slip of pronouns going on unintentionally, especially with Estonian people speaking in English. We don’t have gendered pronouns, so a regular person might call a cis man a she by accident, and not be corrected, because we are not native speakers.”

Asexual Finnish student Kati agrees, saying, “I’m so happy Finnish has only one [ungendered] pronoun. It makes some things so much easier…one does not need to make assumptions about gender when trying to address someone.”

Having just one pronoun for humans doesn’t equal perfect equality in society, though. Turns out that genderless languages can include “seemingly gender-neutral terms” that do in fact have a sneaky male bias, just like natural and gendered languages. For example, the word lakimies (literally lawman or lawyer) in Finnish is what is called a false generic. In principle, it refers to all lawyers, but in practice, it refers only to male lawyers. Female lawyers are called just that: female lawyers. Men are the standard and everything else is the exception. In addition, the “-ke” ending in Estonian denotes a diminutive, something small and cute. Gender Across Languages Volume 4, published in 2015, notes the appearance of the term tema-ke or ‘little him/her,’ in use in newspapers and online to force a feminine aspect; the 2013 Spike Jonze movie Her, for example, is called Temake in Estonian.

English has many false generics (male nurse, anyone?) but at least in English, one can use female or other pronouns or nouns to, as the book Gender Across Languages put it,  “emphasize women’s [or other’s] presence in the world.” In a language that can’t grammatically distinguish between he, she, and ze, androcentricity—or male bias—can be even more insidious. If I can say in my language, “She (or ze) is the CEO,” I can draw attention to the fact that the term CEO is a false generic. Without my clarification, most people will picture a male CEO. If I can’t use she or ze, this kind of sexist/gendered assumption can be even more difficult to notice and correct.

What can we take away from all this? Agender people have the hardest time expressing their identity in highly gendered languages, but genderless languages are not the utopia one may imagine. Assumptions about the binary nature of gender and the status of masculinity seem to survive intact, even under genderless language conditions. Though Estonian people using the term tema may not specifically picture a man or a woman, they invariably picture either a man or a woman, not anyone else in between.

In Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation, authors Kate Bornstein and S. Bear Bergman emphasize the politics of language itself and of having “the agency to have our own words and definitions of them, and insist upon them to linguistic passers-by.” A natural gender language with a history of borrowed words, like English, has the flexibility to create pronouns to suit how a person feels inside.

This is far from perfect—but it may be the best option yet for those who identify along a spectrum.

Erin Crouch lives in Tacoma, Washington and Tallinn, Estonia. 

A version of this article appeared in The Establishment and is used here with permission.

Header image: Old Town of Tallinn, Estonia [Credit: maigi under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported Licence]

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