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evolution of pronouns and gender across languages

Language is a measure of culture and in many ways a measure of time.  These days we see more people calling out their preferred pronouns in email signatures, social media profiles, and even on business cards (if people still use those).  These include he/him/his, she/her/hers, they/them/their or xe/xer/xers.  Historically we’ve made assumptions about which pronouns to use based on one’s gender expression (which can be embedded in a name, e.g., assuming “John” is male).

However, gender is not always simple.  Some people don’t neatly fit into the categories of “male” or “female” and don’t identify with any gender. They use the term “non-binary” to describe that they don’t fall into the traditional categories. Today, as more people and organizations weave diversity and inclusion into messaging, the use of correct pronouns can help ensure all people feel comfortable, respected, and validated.  Allies can add pronouns in their signature lines to raise awareness of gender identities and to encourage more people to share their pronouns.

language itself is not always simple

around the globe you will mainly find three types of languages:

genderless

with no marked gender for pronouns or nouns (i.e., as Mandarin, Japanese, Korean, Turkish)

“natural gender”

with gendered pronouns and genderless nouns (i.e., English and Scandinavian languages)

gendered nouns + pronouns

i.e., Hindi, Spanish, French and Arabic.

many languages are expanding their terms of identity

For example, in Spanish, certain professions are traditionally gender specific.  While “nurse” is translated as the feminine “enfermera,” in the last few years the major Spanish language authority, the RAE (Real Academia Española), recommended use of the masculine form “enfermeros,” which grammatically is considered gender neutral. This recommendation challenges the notion that nurses will always be women. Still, people use “enfermera” in everyday speech because “enfermero” sounds/feels odd and distracting to many.

It requires effort and a true commitment to gender inclusivity to break out of that.  Today there is a growing trend to replace the final vowel in Spanish with an “x”(or “@”) to truly be gender neutral and non-binary. Just as “Latino” and “Latina” have evolved to “Latinx” and/or “Latin@”, “enfermera” is evolving to “enfermero” and “enfermerx”.

Language is ultimately an engine of human culture that continues to evolve to reflect social changes.   Linguists around the world have worked with LGBTQ activists and feminists in creating entirely new non-binary terms or adjusting existing words to make language more inclusive.  The global debate over non-binary language continues to grow.  In certain regions of the world (such as Arabic speaking countries), low awareness and tolerance has been an issue for change. In other parts of the world, linguistic gatekeepers (like the Académie Française) take the preservation of language and tradition so seriously that they aren’t willing to make the change.  While it may sometimes require a push, language does bend over time.

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