Can sex, gender and language live happily ever after?


In English, it has become de rigueur in some circles to introduce oneself with one’s name and preferred pronouns. These range from the traditional (he/him/his) to the non-binary but singular “they” and up to pioneering neologisms such as ze or zir.

The goal, generally, is to break free from the psychosocial shackles of binary chromosomal sex and corresponding assumptions about gender roles.

Such linguistic acrobatics drive others, especially older ones, crazy. Some have lived long and happy without ever thinking about pronouns and see no need to start now. Others are grammar purists and don’t want everyone singular to speak their own way. Still others – from right-wing American shock jocks to Russian or Hungarian demagogues – see non-binary pronouns as another step towards fire and brimstone.

For perspective, English speakers actually inhabit linguistic middle ground by default. At the progressive end of the spectrum, as usual, is Scandinavia. Finland is particularly lucky, as it has both a relaxed culture about sex and a language that is gender-neutral to begin with. The pronoun han, for example, has always referred to men, women, and anyone in between.

Sweden is also progressive, although its language, like English, has gendered pronouns. So, ten years ago, the country officially introduced a third pronoun. In addition to the feminine hon and the masculine han, he adopted the neuter hen. This initially caused a backlash even among the generally mild-mannered Nordics. But they got used to the idea and embrace it now.

Most language communities, however, cannot be so flexible, purely for reasons of grammar and syntax. Thai, Hebrew, Russian, and other languages ​​have, to varying degrees, gender embedded in their underpinnings. In Thai, for example, even the first person (I/me/mine) is feminine or masculine, as are other parts of sentences. In Hebrew, verbs have a gender. German, French, Italian, Spanish and other languages ​​assign gender to articles, adjectives and nouns.

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

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

Today, Europeans are more likely to find word genres problematic rather than intriguing. And as always, culture dictates usage. In relatively conservative Italy, even women politicians – including those with a chance of being prime minister – are content to use the traditional masculine forms for il presidente, il ministro, etc.

This is not the case in politically correct Germany. There, centrist politicians, managers, TV hosts and others are expected to be constantly vigilant against latent gender biases in the language. This can take several forms.

In one, people publicly (but never privately) say nouns twice, both masculine and feminine. A Minister of Defense, for example, will address his troops with “Dear soldiers and soldiers”. Sales reps pitch to “Dear Customers”.

This obviously destroys any potential for pleasant rhythms, brevity and efficiency – not to mention booming poetry or public speaking. Many Germans therefore make new use of characters such as the asterisk. In writing, they are addressed to “soldiers*ettes” or “clientes*ettes”. When speaking, they mark gaps with glottal stops, as in “soldier’s notes” or “customer’s notes”.

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

Inadvertently, these German drifts offer lessons to other linguistic communities. They are gentle reminders that all revolutions – from the French to the Russian to the sexual – enter a danger zone once they lose a sense of the laughable and inadvertently become parodies of their founding ideals. In later phases, language becomes Orwellian and is used to distort reality rather than to enlighten and connect people.

Another lesson is that there is beauty in how different languages ​​have evolved. We must therefore use them in a playful, but respectful way. It is certainly not necessary to weaponize grammar to indoctrinate others. Such attempts usually alienate the target audience and further polarize our societies.

Besides, everything I have just said about language also applies to sex. Both can be confusing, confusing and frustrating – or seen differently, mysterious, liberating and exciting. Him, her, them and ze don’t need new words – just tolerance and lots of humor.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Feminist or not, Giorgia Meloni has a duty towards Italian women: Maria Tadeo

• Then the Supreme Court decides how to punish American expats: Andreas Kluth

• Life is good in America, even by European standards: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.

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