Beyond grammatical binaries

Madhuraa Prakash analyses how gendered language erases agender and genderqueer identities.


Many languages that were derived from Latin, otherwise known as ‘romance languages’, have adopted the language’s triple gender distinction. Many of these, however, have dropped the neuter gender, using explicitly masculine and feminine modes of defining words. While this concept is intrinsic to the grammatical principles of these languages, it has exclusionary and erasive implications for agender and genderqueer.

The group that has the hardest time expressing their identity through languages that are built around a gender binary are those who are agender or genderqueer. These individuals are quite literally left with without the resources to express who they are to others, and even to themselves. And while this is hard enough in non-gendered languages, many of those who do not identify within the gender binary are forced to undertake lengthy explanations of their language choices, are constantly misgendered, or are perceived as lacking intellectual credibility in virtue of their violation of grammatical rules.

The French language exemplifies this. Even the word ‘personne’ (person) is assigned the feminine gender, so even attempting to refer to oneself in the most general sense carries a gendered connotation. Beginners in French learn that some verbs and nouns that they use must be altered in order to fit the gender of the person being described. As with English, pronouns are broken down into ‘le’, ‘la’, and ‘les’, sometimes used as an equivalent to ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘they’. However, unlike, English ‘les’ or other alternative pronouns for non-binary people have not been accepted into use. There is no way to refer to a person who identifies outside the gender binary. When speaking in ‘passé compose’ (about someone in the past) one is limited to two gender-oriented ways of splitting the verb. ‘She entered the library’ is written as ‘elle est entrée dans la bibliothèque’ while ‘he entered the library is ‘il est entré dans la bibliothèque’. Using ‘they’, a pronoun used by some non-binary people in English, does not function in French as the first three words in that sentence would need to be changed. In accepted French grammar the sentence would then change to the plural form, a move that would alter the entire meaning of the sentence. Therefore, any way of referring to a non-binary person entering a library in passé compose is difficult, if not impossible.

Some queer activists who speak gendered languages have taken to using an asterisk or ‘@’ sign at the places in words where a gender distinction may be. While these symbols of defiance against the limits of their language have helped queer communities express themselves better, there is still the issue of spoken language.

In an effort to deal with this, scholars, teachers and those of queer communities have attempted to pioneer gender-neutral movements that call for a more fundamental reassessment of language rules. In French, these efforts have culminated in the written style known as ‘ècriture inclusive’, which has been met with unrelenting outrage. The Académie Française, the main authority on the French language in France, has come out strongly against these movements, referring to them as aberrations that put the language in ‘mortal peril’.

It is important to note that there can be some flexibility within gendered languages. In Russia, there are circumstances where a woman can refer to herself in the masculine form and vice versa. (Although, in those cases agender people are still forced to choose which gendered pronoun to use). Of course, the idea of gender being on a spectrum isn’t widely discussed in Russia anyway.

Sadly, when faced with something as intellectually ingrained as language, the easiest resolution is often not to fight. The same system that perpetuates these norms and legitimises them through the education system may socialise non-binary people into using a mix of masculine and feminine.

For now, as you would do in English, the best way to accommodate people is to ask. Asking a person who is genderqueer how they would prefer to be referred to in their language is a small but significant way you can allow them to truly embrace their own identity while signifying that you embrace it too. And, on a broader scale, its worth questioning whether grammatical laws—designed first and foremost to make communicating relevant facts easier—deserve revision when they do exactly the opposite.

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