Does Language Have A Gender?

Not all languages are gendered, but all of them do play a major role in influencing the way we think about gender.

“Humans are either male or female..boys or girls, men or women. End.” says Piers Morgan, one among many straight white cisgender men who feel threatened by the ‘radical transgender activists’ who seek to destroy “one of society’s strongest and until now, least contentious norms: i.e. that we’re all either male or female.”

At this juncture, a primary distinction must be made between gender and sex. The United Nations defines sex as the physical and biological characteristics of a person, while gender refers to “the roles, behaviours, activities, and attributes that a given society at a given time considers appropriate for men and women…These attributes, opportunities and relationships are socially constructed and are learned through socialization processes.”

Language plays an important role in reinforcing these gender norms. Languages like German and Spanish have grammatical gender, so, even a table has a gender in these languages. In a study conducted by psychologist Lera Boroditsky, she argues that languages which assign masculine and feminine genders to non-gendered objects actually affect the qualities the speakers assign to those objects. So, a German speaker is more likely to describe a bridge as beautiful, elegant, fragile, or slender, while a Spanish speaker would describe it as towering, sturdy, dangerous, or strong. (read more about this here) These languages also have pronominal gender, meaning, they have binary pronouns: he/she, which disregards any other gender identity.

Non-binary gender therefore tries to situate the individual outside the binary of stereotypical behaviour that is expected of a male or a female. It essentially prohibits your genitalia from dictating how you should behave or dress like.

Facebook has more than 70 ways in which you can identify your gender. People have objected to this, claiming that providing these terms is what encourages children to identify outside the male-female binary, so, if such words weren’t offered to children they wouldn’t display such non-normative behaviour. This argument is preposterous. If you don’t know the word ‘pain’ and you’re hit on the head with a bat does that mean you won’t feel pain? You will; you just won’t have the language to express it. Similarly, the gendered nature of language prohibits individuals from sufficiently expressing their gender and sexual identity which in turn leads to confusion and the feeling of rejection among LGBTQ+ youth.

Helene Cixous, a feminist critic talks about how language is inherently patriarchal. The proof lies in the fact that we use words like ‘mankind’ and says things like ‘hey guys’ to refer to both men and women alike (imagine walking up to a group of straight men and saying ‘hey girls’ or ‘hey ladies.’ Their reaction won’t be ideal, so why say ‘hey guys’ to a group of girls?) Cixous talks about appropriating language and bending and re-shaping it to create a new language to better express the experiences and feelings of women. Similarly the Queer community also needs to re-shape language to better express their experiences. This is what leads to the invention of words like non-binary and gender-fluid.

Traditionally Navajo Culture recognised four genders: Asdzaan, (feminine female) Hastiin, (masculine male) Nadleehi, (feminine masculine) and the Dilbaa (masculine female). The Nadleehi and the Dilbaa were not shunned in tribal society; rather, they were respected for having both genders within one person. However this fluid expression of gender was met with confusion from the western colonialists and as a result these two ‘additional’ genders have been repressed. Similarly if we look into our own mythology, there is a variety of characters that do not fall into the male-female binary. Shikhandi, a character in the Mahabharat is said to have undergone a sex change. Ila, a character which appears in several ancient Indian texts, is cursed by shiva to alternate between being a man and a woman. This is somewhat similar to what we might call gender-fluid today. The Ardhanarishvara is an androgynous composite form of Shiva and Parvati. The existence of the Kinnars or the Hijras is also mentioned in these ancient religious texts. The Hijras too like the Nadleehi were respected and regarded as auspicious, but come the colonial period, they were held in contempt by the British who even criminalised them under law. Thus, proving that alternate gender identities are not a modern phenomenon, rather binary gender is a western colonial imposition.

In the Tamil language, babies, animals and inanimate objects are referred to using the neuter gender. This is because human adults are considered to be intelligent creatures in possession of rationality while animals and babies are considered as voiceless and helpless creatures. Similarly in English the neuter gender ‘it’ is also used to the same effect. This shows how binary gender is considered superior and the neuter gender is considered inferior in these languages. On the flip-side of this is Swedish where the gender neutral ‘hen’ is being actively used to instead of ‘han’ (he) or ‘hon’ (she) to refer to children in pre-schools. This encourages the children to explore their gender and choose their own pronouns to promote a better understanding of their identity, thereby showing the language’s positive attitude towards gender neutrality.

Therefore these languages, that have both pronominal gender and grammatical gender or only pronominal gender, encourage its users to view gender in binary terms. While on the other hand languages that don’t have either, like Bengali, Assamese, Turkish etc. encourage gender neutrality. Hindi is quite peculiar in this matter because it has grammatical gender but no pronominal gender. So it classifies inanimate objects and animals as male or female, but does not classify humans into either. This may mean that Hindi considers binary gender to be inferior and therefore does not apply it to humans.

Thus, not all languages are gendered, but all of them do play a major role in influencing the way we think about gender. Therefore, in order to change the binary way we perceive gender, it is important to adopt a more gender neutral language (which may be possible by using gender neutral pronouns and words), so that children aren’t constantly reminded of their assigned gender and the expectations associated with it in order for them to develop a better understanding of their self.


About the author

Alokabho Pal

Alokabho Pal is a 20 year old English major studying in Jadavpur University. He is obsessed with TV shows and Web-series. He has the occasional urge to express himself through writing and when not doing so he can be found either watching TV or with his head buried inside a book.
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