LIMITS OF BEING GENDER-FLUID
PETER TRUDGILL on those who keep the sex in language, and those who don’t
The Hungarian word ö can mean ‘he’ ‘she’, or ‘it’. So can Estonian ta and Turkish o – there is no indication in any of these pronouns of what the sex of the entity being referred to is, or indeed even whether it is an animate being or not. Similarly, Finnish
hän also means ‘he’ and ‘she’, and in modern Finnish se, ‘it’, is often also colloquially used for ‘he’ and ‘she’ as well.
Unlike in these languages, in English we do indicate the sex of human beings (and some animals) by using one of the third-person singular pronouns he and
she. But this is the only point in the structure of the English language where sex is relevant grammatically: all the other English personal pronouns – I, me, you, we, us, they, them – are gender neutral.
Other languages go further than English in marking natural gender. French not only indicates sex in its thirdperson singular pronouns, as English does, but also in the plural: it has two words corresponding to ‘they’: ils (masculine) and elles (feminine). Mixed groups of males and females are normally ils. Icelandic has masculine their, ‘they’, feminine thær – and uses neuter thau for mixed groups.
A smaller number of languages distinguish between male and female human beings in their words for the second person you. This can get quite complicated. In polite Polish discourse, speakers address a man as pan, ‘you’, and a woman as pani, but they would call a close friend ty, ‘you’, regardless of whether they were male or female.
In Spanish, speakers address a group of female friends as vosotras, ‘you (plural)’, while a group of male friends would be vosotros. (Again mixed groups are generally treated as masculine.) But you would address a friend on their own as tu, ‘you (singular)’, regardless of their sex. And if you were being formal, you would use usted, ‘you (singular)’ or
ustedes, ‘you (plural)’ for both males and females.
Some languages even have a gender distinction in the first-person plural pronoun. Spanish is one language which has this feature: nosotras, ‘we (female)’, is distinguished from nosotros, ‘we (male)’. And there are languages outside Europe, including Japanese, where there are different male and female forms for I/me, even though in most circumstances it is generally rather clear whether a speaker is male or female.
But in a number of European languages there are other ways in which speakers are obliged to indicate their own gender grammatically. There is little of this in German, though if you wanted to say “poor me!”, the female form would be “ich unglückliche” while men would say “ich unglücklicher”.
In French this is much more common: women and men are frequently obliged to use different forms of adjectives that refer to themselves. “I’m ready” is “je suis prête” for women and girls but “je suis prêt” for men and boys. It works the same in Portuguese: estou pronta (feminine) versus estou pronto (masculine).
Officially, the Portuguese word for ‘thank you’ differs according to the sex of the speaker: women are supposed to say obrigada, while men say obrigado. This is because the word – which literally means ‘obliged’ – is a verbal past participle which behaves in the same way as an adjective like ‘ready’. In practice, it is not uncommon to hear Portuguese-speaking women use the masculine form obrigado.
In some Slavic languages, past-tense verb forms also differ according to the gender of the speaker: Polish males have to render ‘I arrived’ as przyjechałem
while females are obliged to say przyjechałam. This does not provide any additional information in face-to-face conversations, but it does mean that readers might be able tell whether someone who is writing in Polish is male or female. It is reported that young Polish-speaking boys may have to be overtly instructed not to copy the forms their mothers use when it comes to this particular grammatical point.