Gender variance in other languages

I am quite insistent on the point that the vocabulary a language has to describe something can affect how people perceive it. Gender variance is one such example, where not having the words for your feelings leaves a sufferer with an unspecified sense of “wrongness,” but no clear road map as to what to do with that information. An observation to help confirm this idea is how gender variance is treated in different languages.

If it seems like English-speakers are dissatisfied, the situation for speakers of gendered languages is worse. In the same survey, transgender French respondent #171 was clear and succinct:

[S]peaking a gendered language as an agender person fuckin’ sucks. I’m constantly misgendered, or I’m misgendering myself in order to be understood.”

Misgendering in a gendered language was explained by another respondent:

“For example, in English, there are multiple nouns that I can use to classify myself (partner, student) without making reference to gender, whereas in German I’m supposed to say the feminine form of many common categories into which I fit, like student (Studentin), and have to explain myself when I refuse.”

In English, one can say they are a teacher with a partner, and no one’s gender is revealed; French and German lack that luxury.

Transgender German respondent #98 added:

“The options that English presents work reasonably well for me and I can express my gender identity and use preferred pronouns […]. [In] German I struggle a lot with language and [I am] often very unhappy with the situation of [the lack of] German gender-neutral language. I lack usable and easy to learn/apply pronouns and descriptions of myself. That the language is very gendered is a big problem in my life.”

Russian is a gendered language that does feature a neuter third-person pronoun, оно [it]. This pronoun is not typically applied to people — instead it is used only for objects with neuter noun names, typically borrowed words like кафе (cafe) that do not take a masculine or feminine case. A few gender pioneers, however, have co-opted it. For example, Seroe Fioletovoe [Grey Violet] — a transgender Russian activist who is part of the artist collective Война [War], best known for spawning punk activists Pussy Riot — uses “оно” to describe themself.

Read more here.



  1. anat says

    For a while my son went by ‘they’ as a pronoun. Worked in English, but not in Hebrew or Spanish. Binary gender translates easier. However according to the 2015 US Trans Survey over a third of respondents identify as non-binary.

  2. invivoMark says

    Persian, on the other hand, has no genders, even for people. My friend who was born in Iran constantly misgenders even cis people.

    German also has a neutral gender, and the word for ‘girl’ (das Mädchen) is neutral. Go figure.

    I haven’t really thought much about how gendered language colors perceptions in the case of gender non-conforming people. Learning Spanish and then German as a child, I wondered how gendered nouns affected perception. I was told that they didn’t, that people just got used to it and the gender was meaningless. I couldn’t imagine what that was like, so I just accepted what I was told.

  3. says

    I really like the approach of saying “these are my preferred pronouns” and I try to use them when they’re specified, and to work around pronoun usage that’s ungendered when I don’t know. I know it’s a deadly serious issue for some people, but I just treat it (in my mind) as a language-game (like trying to answer all questions with another question, a la Rosencrantz and Guildenstern)

  4. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    Thanks, Shiv.

    I think the experiences of others with non-English languages is incredibly informative. I hate to hear that others have suffered, of course, but hearing about how they suffered and the sources of that suffering can give us hope and information needed to change the world for the better.

  5. says

    The article mentions that Chinese(I assume they mean both Mandarin and Cantonese) is genderless. That may explain some of the subtitles in Hong Kong martial arts movies I’ve been watching lately, where they will occasionally refer to a female character as him.

  6. Pierce R. Butler says

    I started suspecting feminism began making an impact on gendered languages when “Latino” became “Latino/a” became “Latinx” (rhymes with sphinx?).

    ¿La lucha continua? (L’ luch’ continu’?)

  7. says

    Yeah, i try to use gender neutral German as much as i can but it is not easy. We have a neutral singular pronoun (Es) but using that for people outside of special cases is very rude and dehumanizing.
    Luckily there are people,who for mostly for feminist reasons actively trying to develop a more gender neutral language. Quite brave people because any movement in that direction is (of course) seen as the end of the world and how dare they try to change a language?
    Still, i hope German will at some point develop into a more accepting language.

  8. says

    The French plural they is one of the most egregious. If a group is 100% female, “elles” is used, and if 100% male, “ils”. But in any mixed group, even those of one male and a billion women, the male plural “ils” is still used. Why? Because calling a male “they (fem.)” is somehow a “threat” to toxic masculinity?

    I find Tagalog pronouns to be better than English or French (no gender, singular and plural you, inclusive and exclusive we), but still not ideal.