Beyond Binaries: Shaping Languages that Shape Us
Human evolution has also yielded advanced verbal communication skills amongst other things. The most important mode of this type of communication are languages, which have been shaped by us and in turn shape us, our thoughts, and our expressions. But the matter of inclusivity and neutrality has come to the forefront of the movement of intersectionality and acceptability. How languages are used and by whom makes a great difference in the world as it slowly seeps into the social, cultural, and legal systems of nations leaving some people liberty to fully express themselves while some find it hard to be even accommodated under that umbrella. What has been happening throughout history in the context of evolving languages and how it is to be moved forward? Here’s to answer all your questions, Perspectoverse’s Saachi Singh.
Languages are the most prominent mode of verbal communication that gives people the liberty to invent and amend it according to their culture and identities. It rows its boat in the waters of thousands of formal languages through evolution from its informal usage and wide-ranging colloquialism, which then extend itself into a network of etymological derivations. But its explanation isn’t just limited to this, from the beginning of time languages have been an expression- of thoughts, of identities, and of opinions. That is the reason it’s an ever-evolving mode of human communication, people can mold it like they want to because after all written, spoken, and indicated words legitimize the human conscience. And a major part of the aforementioned expression is also gender and its representation.
If we categorize languages on the basis of being gendered, i.e. its grammatical rules revolve around genders, primarily, male and female, we can divide it into three types- gendered languages like French, where all pronouns and nouns are affected by whether the subject is masculine or feminine, natural gendered languages like English, where only possessive pronouns are gendered, and genderless languages like Mandarin. Spanish, French, Arabic, and Hindi are amongst the most gendered languages around the world, making it difficult for non-binary or gender-fluid people to feel expressive and included. This led to the demand and need for inclusive languages that go beyond mere gender and include people regardless of their culture, religion, race, ability, family structure, and so on.
While giving an interview on National TV, Natalia Mira, a young Argentinian activist, used a gender-inclusive Spanish word for lawmakers instead of the stereotypical words that translate differentiably into feminine lawmakers and masculine lawmakers, to which the interviewer furiously replied by saying “mine is Spanish, I don’t know about yours.”, which seems to be a prominent thought in contesting the idea of inclusivity.
In various countries in Latin America such as Chile, civil society organizations have encouraged the use of the letter “e” at the ends of words to connote grammatical neutrality. In France, activists have introduced a mixed-gender style called écriture inclusive, which adds both gendered endings to words to make it neutral. People may dismiss gender-neutral language, seeing it as unnecessary and ideological, but various researches show that it actually impacts public opinions towards women and LGBTQIA+ people.
When it comes to natural gendered languages such as English, it is easier for people to make amendments, this comes in the light of people preferring their own pronouns and defying the norms. In the 2019 edition of Merriam- Webster dictionary, “they” was added as a pronoun applicable to “a singular person with a non-binary gender identity.”, a word that great writers like Shakespeare and Jane Austen had already used in their writings to refer to a singular person. In India, Hindi, a highly gendered language, avails people to be inclusive in different ways such as using second-person pronouns like “hum” (we) and third-person pronouns like “woh”(they), which in fact, is a prevalent way of speech in much of north India. Other Indian languages such as Bhojpuri, Maithili, and Angika avoid many gender distinctions.
While we amend languages to be inclusive of non-binary and gender-fluid people, the world throughout the ages took the liberty to prescribe the male gender as default- what is it if not another appendage of patriarchy? Spanish follows a generic masculine when it’s unclear if a subject is male or female; a male friend is “amigo” and a female friend is “amiga”, but a group of friends is “amigos.” This is not just the case with Spanish, but with almost every language. Gendered language also assumes connections between jobs or roles and gender ( like “policeman”, instead of a “police officer”; a “ male nurse” instead of just “nurse”). School books and their curricula are filled with supposedly “male” references but when this default is reinforced in the legal system, it showcases how hierarchical the society really is. For example, the U.S. Declaration of Independence states that “all men are created equal” and authorities translate its context as being inclusive of both men and women, deferring to its literal meaning.
Hijras, a sociocultural group of trans women and intersex people are described as the “third gender” in many south Asian countries which eventually led to the categorization of hijras and transgender under the same umbrella, and made them interchangeable nouns leading to India’s trans community being misunderstood. On the other hand, the government of India uses the word “ubhaylingi” (hermaphrodite) to represent trans people, and thus, not protecting or recognizing the whole community. Research from Stanford University shows how the use of certain words that seem harmless can, in fact, perpetuate gender stereotypes, which evidently, have been happening all over the world. The languages around the not only need to be gender-inclusive but also have to implicate it in social and legal systems.
To transform languages people have to be first self-aware of their erroneous use in different texts across the world. Proper implementation is another aspect that can truly bring a change. Workplaces can be made drastically improved just by the usage of gender-neutral and inclusive languages. One example of this is Japan Airlines dropping “ladies and gentlemen” and replacing it with “welcome everyone”. Individual words can empower people to feel themselves while not prohibiting their comfortability.
That is the power of a language- to give people the liberty to express themselves but at the same time, posing difficulties to be even included in the society. Many people have been contesting the idea of preferred pronouns and inclusive language by arguing that it hinders the historical gravity of a certain language, but the practical thing is language is reform is possible, and have been going on for centuries because we as humans evolve with time and so does our ways of living. Instead of viewing this matter as an eliminating one, we should rather accept it as a movement for making space for people, instead of erasing what is there.
Written by Saachi Singh
Illustrated by Anannya Pincha
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"What Is Gender-Inclusive Language And Why Does It Matter?". Scholars Strategy Network, 2020, https://scholars.org/contribution/what-gender-inclusive-language-and-why-does-it.
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Urban, Anne-Marie, and María Ágreda. "Pride In Being Who We Are: The Importance Of Inclusive Language", 2021, https://blogs.iadb.org/igualdad/en/the-importance-of-inclusive-language/.
Woolford, Dr. "Can Hindi Be LGBTQ-Friendly? Here’S How Language Can Free You". The quint, 2020, https://www.thequint.com/voices/opinion/education-hindi-language-queer-rights-lgbtq-community-gender-identity-gender-binaries.