I have long despised gendered languages. Partly because it makes them more difficult to learn, having to memorize both a word and the gender that goes along with that word. Mostly, though, because it’s always struck me as fairly sexist.
The language we speak has been shown to change the way we think about things. There have been studies of gendered languages which show that if a noun is feminine in one language and masculine in another, it actually changes the words individuals use to describe the noun. As a made up example so you understand what I’m talking about , take the word “chair”. If “chair” is a masculine noun in a language, people were more likely to use more masculine descriptions like “sturdy” or “solid”. If “chair” is a feminine noun in a language, people were more likely to use more feminine descriptions like “elegant” or “dainty”.
Because of the lack of gendered nouns, I have always thought of English as superior to other languages. English is illogical, self-contradicting, and phonetically unpronounceable, but at least it doesn’t have gendered nouns! It does have gendered pronouns, though. They’re really just as bad. Maybe worse, even. At least gendered nouns aren’t talking about an individual. Gendered pronouns change the way we think about an individual and reveal our own prejudices.
Think about this sentence: She jogs in the park every morning. The word “she” in that sentence offers zero pertinent information into the forming of the sentence. What it does is form a picture in your mind of a female jogging. Chances are, if you’re a cis male, that female is also shapely and well endowed and bounces in all the right places. It’s certainly a pleasant image to have, but it is also likely nothing close to reality. The sentence itself has altered our reality.
It’s a fairly benign example. Try this experiment, though. Take a sheet of paper and a pen and write down the first things you think of when you read this sentence: She was raped. Get it all down before you go any further. What did you write? If you’re like me, it would be a laundry list of victim blaming nonsense interspersed with some sympathetic words. I am one of the least likely to victim blame, but our culture is so infused with victim blaming that they’re the first words that come to mind. Now try the same thing with this sentence: He was raped. For me, it was much more difficult to come up with things to write. Did you have the same experience? Maybe you wrote something about prison or dropping a bar of soap? Why does the altering of a pronoun so greatly change our view of an unforgivable act?
I wonder how completely neutering our language would alter the way we think about things. I’ve spent some time trying to come up with genderless pronouns for the English language but everything just sounds weird. Making up words is harder than it sounds. ‘It’, as a pronoun, already has connotations of non-humanness that would make it impossible to use as a replacement. I’m somewhat partial to using the Italian word ‘lei’ because I’ve always been fascinated by it being both the word for ‘she’ and the formal word for ‘you’ and I like the way it sounds. I also like the word ‘ser’ which is ‘to be’ in Spanish because it sounds English-y and already has a etymology of being built into it. What words would you be in favor of?
It would be a fascinating experiment to take public domain works and replace all the gendered pronouns and nouns with genderless equivalents and see how it changes our thinking of the stories. Imagine a love story where you’re never quite know who is the male and who is the female character. Imagine a poem where you’re not sure if it was written for a male or a female. I think we would find that our gender prejudices are much deeper than we suppose them to be.