www.bloomberg.com /opinion/articles/2022-08-27/can-sex-gender-and-language-live-happily-ever-after

Can Sex, Gender and Language Live Happily Ever After?

Andreas Kluth 6-7 minutes 8/27/2022

In English, it’s become de rigueur in certain circles to introduce yourself with your name and preferred pronouns. These range from the traditional (he/him/his or she/her/hers) to the non-binary but singular “they,” and all the way to pioneering neologisms such as ze or zir.

The point, usually, is to burst out of the psycho-social straitjacket of binary chromosomal sex and the corresponding presumptions about gender roles.

Such linguistic acrobatics drive other people, especially older ones, bonkers. Some have lived long and happy lives without ever thinking about pronouns and see no need to start now. Others are grammar purists and don’t want singular everybody to speak their plural own way. Others yet — from right-wing American shock jocks to Russian or Hungarian demagogues — see non-binary pronouns as another step toward fire and brimstone. 

For perspective, Anglophones actually inhabit a linguistic middle ground by default. At the progressive end of the spectrum, as usual, is Scandinavia. Finland is especially lucky, because it simultaneously has a culture that’s relaxed about sex and a language that isn’t gendered to begin with. The pronoun han, for instance, has always referred to men, women and anybody in between.

Sweden is progressive too, although its language, like English, does have gendered pronouns. So, a decade ago, the country officially introduced a third pronoun. In addition to the feminine hon and the masculine han, it adopted the neutral hen. That initially caused a backlash even among the usually mellow Nordics. But they got used to the idea and now embrace it. 

Most language communities, however, can’t be that flexible, purely on grounds of grammar and syntax. Thai, Hebrew, Russian and other tongues have, to varying degrees, gender built into their foundations. In Thai, for instance, even the first person (I/me/mine) is feminine or masculine, as are other parts of sentences. In Hebrew, verbs have gender. German, French, Italian, Spanish and other tongues assign gender to articles, adjectives and nouns.

Before the woke era, artsy types used to find the resulting nuances and tensions fascinating rather than oppressive. Take Francois Truffaut, the late French director, and his 1962 film “Jules et Jim.” It’s about a love triangle between two male friends — one French, the other German — and a woman. There’s no skin. But the screen almost rends from the sexual tension — from homoeroticism to jealousy, from desire to frigidity, from love to confusion. 

In one scene, French Jim visits German Jules. Jules ruminates that in German, war, death and the moon are masculine, while love and the sun are feminine, whereas in French it’s the opposite. But life, in German, is neutral. That’s “beautiful,” replies Jim, and “very logical.”

These days, Europeans are more likely to find the genders of words problematic rather than intriguing. And as ever, culture dictates usage. In relatively conservative Italy, even female politicians — including those with a shot at being prime minister — just go with the traditional masculine forms for il presidente, il ministro and so on. 

Not so in politically correct Germany. There, centrist politicians, managers, TV moderators and the like are expected to show constant vigilance against latent gender bias in language. This can take several forms.

In one, people publicly (though never privately) say nouns twice, in both a masculine and a feminine form. A defense minister, for instance, will address her troops with “Dear soldiers and soldierettes.” Sales reps pitch to “Dear customers and customerettes.”

This obviously wrecks any potential for pleasing rhythms, brevity and efficiency — not to mention poetry or soaring oratory. Many Germans therefore make new use of characters such as the asterisk. In writing, they address “soldier*ettes” or “customer*ettes.” When speaking, they mark the gaps with glottal stops, as in “soldier ettes” or “customer ettes.” 

When pollsters ask Germans what they think about such linguistic innovation in the media, most say they don’t like it. The spectrum appears to range from bewildered to livid. A group of linguists and philologists recently penned an open letter protesting the trend.

Inadvertently, these German excesses offer lessons to other language communities. They’re soft reminders that all Revolutions — from the French to the Russian to the Sexual — enter a danger zone once they lose a sense of the risible and inadvertently become parodies of their founding ideals. In subsequent phases, language becomes Orwellian and is used to distort reality rather than enlighten and connect people. 

Another lesson is that there’s beauty in the way different languages have evolved. So we should use them playfully, but respectfully. There’s certainly no need to weaponize grammar to indoctrinate others. Such attempts usually alienate the target audience and polarize our societies more. 

Incidentally, everything I just said about language also applies to sex. Both can be complicated, confusing and frustrating — or, viewed differently, mysterious, liberating and thrilling. He, she, they and ze don’t need new words — just tolerance, and lots of humor. 

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    To contact the author of this story:
    Andreas Kluth at akluth1@bloomberg.net

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    Nicole Torres at ntorres51@bloomberg.net