From the New York Times’ Crossword & Games section::
Languages that contain only “he” and “she” pronouns pose problems for communicating about gender identity. Here’s how some language teachers are helping.
By Molly Lipson
Sept. 1, 2021
Tal Janner-Klausner teaches Hebrew. There is nothing unusual about that, but the language presents a frustration that Mx. Janner-Klausner, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns in English, feels compelled to discuss with their students.
Hebrew, as well as French, Spanish, Italian, Arabic and other languages, uses binary pronouns, which means that gender identities outside of he/she and male/female don’t exist in any formal capacity.
In Hebrew, even the word “they” is gendered. In French, “ils” refers to a group of men or a mixed-gender group, and “elles” refers to a group of all females. All nouns in gendered languages — including people — are categorized as either masculine or feminine, and any adjectives associated with these words must reflect that gender.
That presents a problem for students who are gender-nonconforming, and, of course, for the speakers of the language in general. Is it possible for learners of a gendered language to refer to themselves and others when their identities are not represented?
Tal Janner-Klausner is based in Jerusalem and is the coordinator for Hebrew and English teaching the TINAU (This is Not an Ulpan) language school.
… Louis Moffa, who is nonbinary and uses “he” and “they” pronouns, is a teaching fellow in the Department of Italian at Columbia University. Italian is a gendered language with no equivalent to the English singular usage of they/them. …
Mx. Moffa believes that the first step to overcoming gender binaries in Italian is to openly discuss how they appear in the language. “Being able to teach the gendered nature of Italian grammar has given me the opportunity to be more fully seen and understood by my students, because gender can never remain implicit or unquestioned in our classroom,” he said.
In addition to breaking open Italian’s limits on human beings, Mx. Moffa highlights the “absurd” nature of assigning gender to inanimate objects. “Instead of calling it masculine and feminine, you can just pick other polarities: light and dark, full and empty, round and square. It doesn’t even really matter what it is,” he said.
Kris Knisely, an assistant professor of French at the University of Arizona, gets even more specific. At the start of the semester, he introduces students to a number of linguistic developments used by native French nonbinary speakers. For example, the forms of the plural “they” — “ils” and “elles” — are combined to create a new word: “iels.” Similarly, to refer to “them,” the masculine “eux” and the feminine “elles” become “elleux.”
… He is keen to make sure this learning extends to cisgender students — those whose gender identity matches their sex as assigned at birth. “If cis students are allowed to continue to believe that cis people are always the default, or that only cis people matter, that does a great disservice to all students, because they’re not prepared for the world as it actually is,” he said.
After all, who are more realistic than individuals who deny their sex, refer to themselves in the plural, and complain about the backwardness of the French language?
… Molly Lipson is a writer and social justice advocate based in Britain. She is working on her first book, about dismantling harmful socioeconomic systems and envisioning a different world.
Writers, teachers, and social justice advocates who referred to themselves as “based in” someplace are seldom based. It’s an exemplification of David Goodhart’s point that there are two types of people: somewheres and anywheres. The idea behind being “based in” is that they don’t want to admit to actually seeing someplace as home, instead they are just at the moment temporarily based in a city with a major air hub, where they have a flat where they keep their clean clothes before jetting off yet again.
[Comment at Unz.com]