The Shakti Journal Exclusive Series:
A Journey through the Landscape of Language,
By Jen Isabel Friend
Relatively Speaking Part 4—Speaking of Diversity: Language, Gender and the Syntax of Sex
“In English, nouns are generally either a person or animal (he/she), or a place or thing (it). The syntax of our language confines us to necessarily reduce any nonanimal being to ‘it,’ distinguishing it from the rest of self-determined life. If we do acknowledge the animacy of something, even then we are necessarily confined to characterize it as a ‘he’ or ‘she.’
“Where is our way to simply acknowledge the existence of another living being without delineating gender? What is our equivalent of the Potawatomi word yawe that says, ‘There is life in this being’? Unfortunately we have no such thing.”
-Relatively Speaking Part 3, Language and Environment: The Vital Link Between Tongue and Terrain
Relatively Speaking Part 4—Language and Gender: The Syntax of Sex, by Jen Isabel Friend
Imagine trying to describe your mother baking a cake without mentioning her gender. If you speak English, chances are you couldn’t pull that off without sounding pretty strange. But if you were speaking Thai, you could. In fact, you could have entire conversations in Thai about someone without ever mentioning whether they are male, female or otherwise. It simply isn’t built into the grammatical structure. And Thai isn’t alone in this.
In many other languages, whether a person is male or female is not deemed by their linguistic structure to be an essential detail. On the other hand, there are other languages where gender is even more salient than in English.
When it comes to gender distinctions there are three main categories under which languages fall. Some, like English, are called “natural gender” languages. In these languages, personal pronouns (he/she, his/hers) denote gender every time one speaks of or refers to a person.
Others, like the Romance languages, are grammatically gendered; in this system, the division of noun classes means that all nouns have a masculine or feminine classification, like “La Tierra” (the earth, feminine) and “El Sol” (the sun, masculine).
The third class, which includes languages like Thai, Finnish and Mandarin, is genderless. These languages have no gendered pronouns or linguistic ways to signal whether another person is male or female. The only way to indicate gender is through the use of nouns that directly imply gender such as “father” or “niece.”
Other words, other ways
At 28 I traveled to Thailand, the land of smiles and sawadi-khaa (hello) and kap-kun-khaa (thank you). One day during my trip my local buddy Otto was teaching me language basics over chai and Thai tobacco: “Womans say kha, it means polite,” he explained. Sometimes they coo it in an extended syllable as long as the sentence that preceded it.
“Mans say khrap, same same,” Otto went on. “Lady-boy say ha. Like this you know who you talk to.” I love the clarity. No ambiguity—people simply self-identify as whatever gender they’d like. In Thai, the only gendered grammatical fixture is this polite particle chosen by the speaker in reference to the speaker.
This particle is tacked on to the ends of statements as a matter of propriety and respect. (Think “yes ma’am” or “yes sir” but the ma’am and sir refer to the speaker, not the person being addressed.) Kha is feminine, khrap is masculine, and ha serves as an alternative to those options.
And while some languages have two or three genders, others have more. In the Luganda language, there are ten genders. Australian Aboriginal languages are famously detailed in their gender distinctions. The Dyirbal language of northeastern Australia has a class of nouns for “women, fire, and dangerous things,” and another which refers to “men and most animate objects.” (1)
In Ojibwe nouns are divided into two genders to represent animate versus inanimate things, but personal pronouns don’t distinguish gender at all—their pronoun wiin means both “he” and “she.” All of this calls to mind the LGBTQ movement for more inclusive English grammar. “I use they/them,” one might overhear in a group of millennials.
Pronouns speak volumes about our ideas of the world and of our own places within it. Researcher James Pennebaker discovered there’s a close tie between personality and pronoun use. For example, suicidal poets use the word “I” more often. Pennebaker also found that by examining the pronoun usage of world leaders, one can accurately predict which will lead their countries into war. (2) These are extreme examples, but they hint at the ways in which our use of pronouns reflects our psychology in subtle but compelling ways.
The current controversies over the LGBTQ community’s preference for particular pronouns and new terms for their unique gender identifications are less a response to shifting sexual landscapes than they are a long overdue overhaul of a language that is far too simple and dualistic to encompass the spectrum of humans who speak it.
Beyond just pronouns, English lacks a diversity of gender adjectives in general. The Cheyenne term hemaneh, for example, means “half man, half woman.” In Cree, aayahkwew means “neither man nor woman.” In Inuktitut, sipiniq means “infant whose sex changes at birth.” Agokwa and tokitciakwe are Anishnaabe terms for “biological male who performs the gender roles of a woman” and “biological woman who performs the gender roles of a man.” In Kanien’keha, or Mohawk language, onón:wat means, “I have the pattern of two spirits inside my body.”
Among the Lakota are the winkté, or “a male who has a compulsion to behave as a female.” In the Navajo tradition “two spirit” people are known as nádleehí, and the Ojibwe call them niizh manidoowag. The fa’afafine of Samoa, muxe of Mexico, and sekrata of Madagascar are all culturally recognized alternate genders.
These are only a few examples, but anthropologists have found similar gender fluidity in indigenous cultures throughout the world. Could it be that English speakers tend to be less tolerant of other-gendered people largely because we have no words for them? How does someone find a place in a society that has no words in its vocabulary to acknowledge their existence?
Speaking OF Inclusion: Making room On the page
Languages change with the times. English used to be a gendered language about a thousand years ago with every noun possessing its corresponding gender much like Spanish or French. In fact, Old English had the same three genders that German and many Indo-European languages do (masculine, feminine, and neuter.) (3) Though it still remains a binary one, English shifted towards “gender natural” in the Middle Ages. (4) With the continued rise of identity politics in our culture will come further shifts in our language.
Some other countries are now making efforts to purposefully change their languages. Decades ago, Sweden discarded their formal pronouns in order to minimize class distinctions, and now they are seeding an entirely new gender-neutral Swedish pronoun (hen), as a way of referring to a person without calling them male (han) or female (hon).
Many French are advocating to shift the French language towards gender neutrality as well. As millennials bring gender issues to the forefront of our awareness there seems to be a global shift towards more linguistic gender neutrality. We have recently seen the emergence of the term latinx as an all-purpose replacement for “latino” and “latina.” And, as we’ve been learning throughout this Relatively Speaking series, language matters.
Research has shown that speaking a gendered language contributes to sexism. One study discovered that Spanish and German speakers held more sexist attitudes than English speakers. (5) The way we speak not only affects our psychology, but our actions as well. Studies show much higher levels of objective and quantifiable gender inequality in gendered language countries. (6)
While most may not recognize it, our speech patterns directly impact the lives of women and non-binaries in salient and often insidious ways. This is not to say that countries with more gender neutral languages have no gender inequity or sexism. They just don’t have it coded into their language. They can communicate without necessarily specifying whether the subject is masculine, feminine, fire, dangerous, near, or far.
Without automatically categorizing a person into a gender box, we are more likely to see them as an individual. This idea is not radical, nor is it revolutionary—it’s a notion we have seen demonstrated in other cultures all around the world.
“Our perception of everything is almost entirely determined by the language we speak—we understand and experience the world as we do because the linguistic habits of our community predispose us to interpret the world in a particular way. This idea of linguistic relativity was first proposed by renowned linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf, who suggested that language influences cognition through what it allows the speaker to think and what it hinders the speaker from thinking.
“In other words, our whole map of existence is patterned not by what we really see, but by how we think and communicate about what we see. Research into linguistic relativity has actually revealed that speakers of different languages are wired differently on the cognitive level.” (Relatively Speaking, Part 1: Linguistic Reciprocity)
Patriarchy is fundamentally based on a gender binary system, and that system is reinforced in our language. Without two genders, one cannot dominate the other. And historically, the Native communities around the world that were not built upon a gender binary (i.e., the most socially different from colonial invaders) were the most heavily targeted and attacked.
Considering the roots and history of the formation of modern English, it’s no shock that English as a language seems designed to obstinately refuse to acknowledge the nuance and diversity of human experience in the ways that come so naturally to indigenous lexicons. I’m reminded of a quote by Ijeoma Oluo: “Words are always at the heart of all our problems, and the beginning of all our solutions.”
The world is created by the word, and we are continuously recreating and sustaining it with our words. So take pride in the words you speak and the way you communicate. They are a form of artistic self expression just as much as how you dress, the music you listen to, or the art you identify with or create. But even more so than these, they are your vital power to paint your surroundings—to breathe tolerance, awareness and acceptance of diversity into existence. They have the power to shift your way of thinking and being in the world, and to influence the beliefs and behaviors of those you speak to.
As we continue seeing more linguistic shifts towards inclusivity on a global scale, there is so much we can learn from indigenous languages. Without respectful and intersectional terminology, certain people are bound to be left feeling alienated, outcast and misunderstood. Let us celebrate how something so accessible as simple shifts in the words we speak can invite the sense of cultural interconnectedness and understanding that millions of people are looking for now.
Stay tuned for the last installment of Relatively Speaking as we wrap up our language series and take a look at how all we’ve covered so far—the origins of language in nature, the wisdom of indigenous languages and the threats to their future, how our words shape our relationship to the environment, and the language of gender-inclusivity—all weave together. What is the future of language? How can we take an active role in that future to ensure that diversity and culture are protected? Look out for Relatively Speaking Part 5 for an overview of all this and more.
(1) Reinventing Pronoun Gender, Jenny Audring, LOT Publishing, Copyright 2009.
(2) The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, James W. Pennebaker, Bloomsbury Press, Copyright 2011.
(3) Grammatical Gender in English, 950 to 1250, Charles Jones, Croom Helm Publishing London, Copyright 1998.
(4) Gender Shifts in the History if English, Anne Curzan, Cambridge University Press, Copyright 2003.
(5) Sexism and Attitudes Toward Gender-Neutral Language The Case of English, French, and German, Oriane Sarrasin and Pascal Gygax and Ute Gabriel, Swiss Journal of Psychology, 2012.
(6) Linguistic Origins of Gender Equality and Women’s Right, Amp H. Liu and Sarah Share-Rosenfield and Lindsey R. Vance and Zsombor Csata, Swiss Journal of Psychology, 2012.
Harbeck, James (2017, Dec 26) How the world’s languages handle thorny gender issues. Retrieved from
Anishinaabemowin (2004, Jun 13) Short Notes on Ojibwe Grammar. Retrieved from
Serritt, Angela (2016, Mar 10) Canada: Indigenous languages recognize gender states not even named in English. Retrieved from
Santa Rosa Junior College (2020) Transgender Acceptance in Indigenous Cultures Worldwide. Retrieved from
Sanchez, Erica and Werft, Meghan (2016, June 27) Male, Female and Muxes: Places Where a Third Gender is Accepted. Retrieved from
Brayboy, Duane (2017, Sep 7) Two Spirits, One Heart, Five Genders. Retrieved from https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/two-spirits-one-heart-five-genders-9UH_xnbfVEWQHWkjNn0rQQ
Rothschild, Nathalie (2012, Apr 11) Sweden’s New Gender Neutral Pronoun: Hen. Retrieved from
Hellstrum, Elin (2011, Jun 7) How the Swedish language lost its formality. Retrieved from
Neuman, Scott (2015, Mar 27) He, She or Hen? Sweden’s New Gender Neutral Pronoun. Retrieved from
Merriam-Webster (2018, Sep) ‘Latinx’ and Gender Inclusivity. Retrieved from
Check out the previous installment of this series for an exploration of the fascinating relationship between words and nature. Few recognize the power of language in how we perceive and treat the environment, but reframing our words could very well help us reframe our world.
If you enjoyed this article…
- Relatively Speaking Part 4: The Language of Gender - June 5, 2020
- Relatively Speaking Part 3: Tongue and Terrain - April 8, 2020
- Relatively Speaking Part 2: Indigenous Languages - December 14, 2019