Folks, amig@s and ami-e-s – gender neutrality goes international

From the singular “they” to the title “Mx.”, gender neutrality is slowly becoming standard for English speakers. But we’re translators, so we wanted to know how other languages tackle the gender conundrum. Read on to discover what “x”s, “@”s and “*”s have to do with gender – and how Obama sidesteps the question entirely.

Compared to most other European languages, English speakers striving for gender neutrality have it relatively easy: there’s no grammatical gender, and verbs don’t take endings to indicate whether the speaker is male or female. The few traditionally gendered English job titles such as stewardess and policeman have now largely been replaced by the neutral terms flight attendant and police officer. Non-binary English speakers can use the pronoun they – which, contrary to what some pedants would suggest, has in fact been used in the singular since the Middle Ages. The alternative gender-neutral pronoun ze has also gained currency in recent years. Meanwhile, Mx. offers a gender-neutral title equivalent to Mr. or Ms. It was first introduced in New Zealand and has now been added to the Oxford Dictionary. Still, English isn’t (yet) a totally gender-neutral paradise: some terms used for mixed groups still imply gender, such as the informal, masculine-coded guys. But at least that one is easy to avoid: just take a leaf out of Barack Obama’s book and use folks instead.


You might remember this golden rule of gender from your high school French classes: whether you have a group of 10 women or 10,000, the second a single man joins them, the plural is no longer the feminine elles but the masculine ils. Doesn’t seem particularly fair, does it? French verbs and adjectives also feature endings that indicate the speaker’s gender. Things are more straightforward when it comes to the épicènes – gender-neutral job titles such as l’architecte, le/la dentiste or le/la secrétaire. And in recent years, the pronouns il and elle have been joined by iel and ille, which mix masculine and feminine to create options for non-binary French speakers. There have also been plenty of suggestions for reforming those tricky male-dominated plurals: rather than using the masculine étudiants for a mixed-gender group of students, you could opt for étudiant-e-s, étudiant·e·s, étudiantES or étudiant.e.s. Finding the choice overwhelming – and difficult to spell? The Académie Française, which is famously (or infamously) dedicated to preserving the purity of the language, agrees, and so the debate is ongoing. At the moment, écriture inclusive is not yet permitted in official texts.


Since 2018, job ads in Germany have listed positions as open not only to men and women, but also to a third category – divers, or diverse, an option intended for intersex individuals. This change to the law catalyzed the debate on gender-neutral language. The plural forms Leser/in and LeserIn (readers), which attempt to give equal weight to the masculine (Leser) and feminine (Leserinnen) versions of the noun, are now joined by Lesenden (literally “people who read”), and Leser*in and Leser_in, which attempt to include non-binary people via their unorthodox orthography. But however inclusive they may be, asterisks and underscores have yet to make it into official use.


Like French and other Romance languages, Spanish nouns have grammatical gender – indicated via the feminine article la or the masculine el. And like French, masculine forms such as todos (all) are the standard for all groups including one or more men – even if they’re 99.9% female. But things are changing in some areas of language: Spanish speakers can now use feminine job titles such as la presidenta or la jefa (boss), rather than splicing a feminine article onto a masculine noun as was previously the case (la presidente, for example). And the inclusive forms tod@s and todxs are slowly entering the language, offering a plural that includes not only men and women, but non-binary people as well. Another (perhaps easier to pronounce) option is the all-inclusive plural ending -es.


The Swedes are ahead of the curve in a lot of ways – including gender neutrality. The gender-neutral pronoun hen (analogous to the feminine hon and masculine han) was first suggested in 1966, and attracted public attention in 2012 with the publication of Kivi & Monsterhund, the first Swedish children’s book with a gender-neutral protagonist. In 2015, it was officially added to the dictionary. By the way, Swedish only has two grammatical genders: common and neuter. Common encompasses both masculine and feminine and includes all living things, from en kvinna (a woman) and en man (a man) to en häst (a horse).


In Russian, feminine terms generally only exist for professions traditionally practiced by women, such as медсестра́ (medsestrá, nurse) and учи́тельница (uchítel’nitsa, teacher). So feminists took it upon themselves to create a standard feminine ending – -ka – transforming the president into a Prezidentka. Russian doesn’t have articles, so the three grammatical genders are instead indicated by endings added to words of all categories. Non-binary Russian speakers are limited to using the impersonal pronoun оно (it) to describe themselves. And as opponents of gender reforms are still struggling with feminine language, gender-neutral vocabulary doesn’t look set to make it into the dictionary any time soon.


A speaker’s gender plays a significant role in Japanese: traditionally, men and women use different vocabulary, grammar and emphases when speaking. These differences also depend on their age and status. Like Chinese and Thai, however, Japanese does not have grammatical gender. It’s also pretty gender-neutral when it comes to addressing others: the title -san is added to names when speaking to people of all genders, and when discussing someone in the third person, the phrase used is ano hito (あの ひと), or “that person”. If you want to emphasize someone’s gender, you’ll need to use a particle: gakusei (学生), a student, becomes danshigakusei (男子学生) for a man or joshigakusei (女子学生) for a woman. And there are no plural forms for nouns – which also means no tricky ils/elles dilemmas for mixed-gender groups. One more unique feature of Japanese: the first-person singular pronoun I has numerous possible translations – feminine, masculine and neutral forms all exist, as do forms for varying levels of politeness. Watashi (私) is the standard form (and the one you might have learned in Japanese class); all the others depend on the situation.

And for information on gender neutrality in 93 other languages, take a page out of Obama’s book and get in touch with the folks at Supertext.

Cover image via Flickr: Noisebridge Gender Neutral Bathroom – Bowseri (CC by 2.0)

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