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The path to gender-neutral language
Gender-neutral language is a language many of us are already fluent in, as English-speakers.
Swapping out “him/her/his/hers” for “they/them/theirs” is an easy enough switch, and while it may take a while to adapt this typically plural pronoun to roll seamlessly off the tongue when referring to a singular person, us Anglophones are lucky to evolve our language so easily, with a pre-existing term that we all know and understand.
We got off pretty easy in a sense — we ditched a system of grammatical gender back in the Middle Ages.
In the present day, many grammatically gendered languages — for example, French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, German, Slavic and Celtic languages, other Germanic languages and many more — are also having a conversation about gender-neutral terminology, but it’s a little more complicated.
While it may feel like a global switch to gender-neutral language seems like a dictatorial move, the power of evolving language comes from the language speakers — you, me, him, her, them. Us.
“Language evolves based on society … As we change, language can change as well.” non-binary activist Gemma Hickey explained.
Newfoundland-based Hickey, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them and the new honorific Mx, believes that people are “open to change,” even if it means mounting a learning curve.
On a recent trip to Japan as a guest of the Canadian Embassy, Hickey attended and gave lectures at the University of Tokyo, speaking about their life’s work and activism, the film “Just Be Gemma” and their upcoming book “Almost Feral.”
“We had this discussion after I was finished lecturing about how there’s no word in languages like Japanese for people who are non-binary,” Hickey said, explaining they were often called Gemma-san, a male term, as Hickey presents as transmasculine.
However, those able to speak some English quickly switched to “non-binary,” despite never having heard the term before.
“The message I was bringing was that we’re not limited by our language, we’re not limited by the gender we were assigned. It’s important to think about these things and embrace the fluidity because certain words might not fit us the same way a certain gender may not fit us.”
This need for inclusive language inspired Hickey to approach some of the attending scholars with the idea of forming a coalition or committee, specifically for creating gender-neutral terms for languages that don’t have those types of words.
“Language evolves based on society … As we change, language can change as well.”
- Gemma Hickey
“Right now, I’m still forming the coalition, so it’s very much in the beginning stages,” they said, noting that they are still seeking out sources from different disciplines around the globe.
Using gender-neutral language that will stick
On this part of the globe at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Gerard Van Herk and Yvan Rose of the Department of Linguistics are optimistic like Hickey; they also believe that change can — and will — come.
“When society changes, language changes … this is why we call this sociolinguistics,” Rose said with a laugh. “The way we need to think about it, in the light of those efforts to gender-neutralize pronominal languages, the question is, how much will stick, and how much is possible?”
Van Herk pointed to the rise of the term “Latinx,” a gender-neutral option for Latin American people, added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in September 2018.
The “x” functions in place of feminine “a” or masculine “o,” endings that determine gender in Spanish.
“As soon as there’s an opening in the system, people use it to make the system work better for them,” Van Herk said.
English is easily adaptable — “they/them” was already handy. It’s already a pronoun,” he noted.
“They/them” works better than invented terms of the past 135+ years, like ae, e, ey, hou, hu, peh, per, thon, ve, xe, xyr, yo, ze, or zir, all of which have failed to catch on. There’s a somewhat simple reason why, Van Herk muses.
“It’s easy to introduce a new word to a language, a new lexical item, but it’s hard to introduce language building blocks, like pronouns.” Yet he believes it to be absolutely doable.
“The other thing, of course, is that some languages have such incredible, elaborate ways to refer to yourself, the person you’re talking to, the people you’re talking about — you have to take into account their status, their age, their relationship to you, how polite you’re being, how drunk you are,” Van Herk said with a laugh. “If it’s already that complicated, why not throw one more layer in?”
Children will pick up gender-neutral language
If we start the change, the next generations will follow — children don’t adapt to language, they simply learn the language of their environment. If gender-neutral terminology is readily available and in use, using that language will be 100 per cent natural to them.
“Children don’t think about gender, they don’t care at all about gender the way teenagers and adults do. It’s not even a concept for them. Gender is a social construct that becomes important early in life, sure, but certainly not with toddlers,” Rose said with a laugh.
“Children don’t make a language evolve, children learn a state of a language,” he said. Entering “society” through daycare and preschool, this is where children begin to evolve their lexicon and mannerisms. As children mature into adults and become more aware of social causes, religion, and politics, their language continues to evolve.
“This is where language change really stands. Women tend to be the leaders of language change, and I think it’s got to do with the fact that with society, language has a bit of catching up to do,” Rose said in regards to moving away from male-based terms like a fireman, policeman, etc.
He added that teenagers and millennials are also agents of language change and that eventually, they will pass their language onto their own children.
“So, children kind of cement language change, but they don’t initiate it … The children are just going to acquire that [language], and that’s going to be their language,” he said.
Hickey’s seven-year-old nephew is a perfect example of a child who is open to adding new terminology to his lexicon.
“My nephew was home this summer, and he said to me, ‘Aunt Gemma, what gender are you?’ and I said, ‘I’m non-binary.’ And he said, ‘OK, well, I can’t call you Aunt anymore, and I can’t call you Uncle,’” the seven-year-old noted.
“He was already thinking about the fact that there’s no word, so ... he was coming up with ideas for a combination of Aunt and Uncle, which led to a great discussion as a family about what we do here. Do we combine two words into one? What are the possibilities? He liked the idea of creating a whole new word. “His brain at seven years old could expand to include a new word.”
The wise-beyond-his-years child opted for an unusual but gender-neutral choice for Hickey – “I’ll just call you superhero, because that’s what you are to me.”
Wendy Rose is continuously consuming new art, yet always hungry for more.