I made a post a while back about an adjustment I made to the Spanish language. (It wasn’t posted on the main page because it doesn’t mean much to my English speaking audience).
I made this change because Spanish has a lot of gender expressed in it, and through that I was seeing patterns in the language which seemed blatantly sexist. For instance, if a group has a mix of genders, it uses a male suffix, as if the women in that group had suddenly become unimportant. In the same way, if you don’t know someone’s gender, or if you’re talking about people in general and not a specific person, you use the male suffix.
When I lived as male I put up with these patterns or ignored them, but now I live as a woman, suddenly having to talk about myself in that way felt very uncomfortable. It was as if, with my everyday speech, I was affirming that I was less important than men.
Perhaps it was more uncomfortable for me than for most women because, as a trans woman, I am used to male privilege and being encouraged to have higher self esteem. On the other hand most women are brought up speaking a sexist language and taking part in a sexist culture, and in this way these things are made to seem normal to them.
Whatever the reason, well, I changed it.
I have edited English a little bit for myself in a similar way.
English isn’t so terrible with gender, mainly because it doesn’t have so much gender as Spanish. You don’t have to specify the gender of a group, so you can’t infer the inferiority of the women in that group by making it male by default.
But, partly because of my desire to refer to my genderqueer partner correctly, I started adopting “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun as some do.
This was a little awkward at first but I got comfortable with it quite quickly. Now, I’m seeing just how great it is to be able to express gender-neutrality.
For instance, when we don’t know about the gender of someone, we either say “he“, or “he or she“. While some use “he or she” as a way of being fair, it’s interesting to note no-one would ever say just “she“.
To illustrate this, it’s interesting to mention that I wrote my indigo article by alternating the use of “he” and “she” when talking about hypothetical indigo people. I once got a comment on that article, complaining that I used “she” all the time and what about the men? When I scanned the article, I saw that I had written “she” exactly as often as “he”, as per my original intentions. However, for this commenter the use of “he” was invisible, so he only saw the “she”s there and thought that this was somehow out of place and even offensive.
And when we’re using the “he or she” construct, even though it is a more inclusive one than just saying “he”, it’s worth noting that”he” comes first. And it sounds odd for someone to say “she or he“. Even if they did, it would be unfair towards men, unless they switched it around all the time.
And, using three syllables instead of one is just awkward, especially if we have to repeat it a lot. A lot of people who would prefer to express equality in their language revert to “he” just to make speaking easier.
By using “they”, though, we bypass that. It solves the problem of excessive length, as well as the order.
It’s interesting now that I’ve started using “they” how my thinking has opened up in some respects. When I write about a hypothetical person whose gender doesn’t matter, I use “they”. (Note that usually when we invent someone whose gender doesn’t matter, he’ll be a man, because if she was a woman, her gender would stand out). And by writing and thinking in that way, I see myself rewiring my brain to notice that women are an equal half of humanity, exist, matter, and are capable of doing everything that men can do.
Intellectually I know that, of course, but subconsciously that often seems to be missed. So I get odd epiphanies every so often as I write with the pronoun “they”, as I realise I’m clearing up sexism I never knew I had.
I’ve made a few other adjustments to English, most of them not so radical. For instance, I’ve started avoiding using “man” in the context of “mankind” (and the word “mankind” for that matter). That one’s easy: there are a lot of words you can use to replace it.
I’ve also noticed how women being called “girls” is infantilising. Well, instead of completely refusing to use that word, which I actually sometimes like, I just try to use it a bit less, and try to use the word “boy” when referring to adult males a bit more.
It’s a little annoying, though, because when it’s not clear from the context what sort of “boy” you’re talking about, it usually sounds like you’re talking about a child.
But, that’s the best I can do there for the moment.
I’ve also started to notice how my language reflects negatively on animals.
In particular, it tends to imply that they are objects. The words “it”, “what” and “something” are all used at various times to refer to animals. This makes it very easy to think or assume that animals don’t have feelings.
Because of this I prefer to use “who”, “someone”, and “he”, “she”, or “they” for animals.
“They” is particularly useful here. A lot of people already call animals – or at least pet animals – “he” or “she”. But when they don’t know the sex of the animal – and it’s usually impossible to tell at first glance – they revert to “it”. Using “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun can save animals from being reduced to feelingless objects in our speech.
I find that the habit of using “it” for animals is particularly hard to shift, perhaps because “they” is still a little effort for me also. But I’m working on this one.
On that topic another word that upsets me is the word “sentient”. “Sentient” literally means “feeling”. It’s used roughly to mean “humanity” or “self awareness”.
But I totally object to the implication that animals can’t feel. They can – it’s obvious if you’ve spent more than 5 minutes with an animal in your life. Animals form bonds, care for each other, and mourn their dead. They can be sad, angry, hurt, distressed, scared, and any other emotion you like.
So I don’t like the word “sentient” as applied to only humans and fictional alien species. The ability to talk isn’t what makes you able to feel. It’s just what lets you speak up for yourself when someone tries to exploit you. Funny, that.
And if you use “sentient” to mean “self aware”, bear in mind that plenty of animals are capable of passing the “mirror test” – the common benchmark for self-awareness – which aren’t normally accorded “sentience”.
Even pigs pass, and people eat pigs. Do these people really think that pigs don’t feel, or do these people think that pigs’ feelings don’t matter because they don’t have the “human” ability to be aware of what they feel… or, what are these people thinking?
Besides, being able to recognise yourself in the mirror just means you’re intelligent – it isn’t what grants you the ability to feel. Being able to feel is what makes you able to feel. (Or, some would say it’s the central nervous system). And all animals that I know of are able to feel.
So let’s not use the word “sentient” to talk about a quality that only humans possess. Say “highly intelligent” or “able to intellectualise”. You can even say “sapient” which is just a modification of a Latin word meaning “wise”. But “sentient”? All animals are sentient.
Another part of language that contains traps for us are the words used to express sexual orientation.
While the negative associations people have with the words “gay” and “lesbian” are something that can hopefully be changed just with changes to society and culture, I think there’s something about them that is tricky. A “gay relationship” is a relationship between two men, but those two men might not be gay – they might be bisexual.
I think this matters. By erasing bisexuality in our common culture, it has been possible for two opposite factions to be created: “the gays” vs. “the straights”. It makes it possible to make stereotypes, and to feel prejudice, and to hate. If people understood that almost everyone has some level of attraction to both sexes, this conflict would be impossible.
Besides that, bisexuals experience unique challenges not faced by homosexual people. Often, because of bi erasure, others just don’t believe they are bi or belittle their sexuality as “just a phase”. Very often bis are made invisible and excluded in LGBT communities, which bisexual people are part of, and need to be part of. And often bi people are forced to remain in the closet as either straight or homosexual, limiting their freedom of expression.
So I think this is one area where language really needs to be brought up to date. When we mean “LGB” or “LGBT”, we really shouldn’t be saying “gay and lesbian”. When we want to communicate that a man likes guys, we shouldn’t say he’s gay unless we positively know he is gay.
“Queer” often works, but it’s a wide-umbrella word that can mean anything contained in the LGBT or QUILTBAG letter soups, and more. It’s too inspecific for many uses.
So here are my attempts at hopefully better solutions:
One option is that we could just change the meaning of the words homosexual, heterosexual, gay, and straight. We can start to use them in a non-exclusive way: for example, someone could be both gay and straight. I’m not sure how easy it would be to pull this off, however.
Otherwise, perhaps we could coin new words that indicate non-exclusive same sex attraction.
The closest phrase for this in English, which is occasionally used, is just “person who experiences same sex attraction”. But that’s such a mouthful.
So how about saseat or just sase’ – for a person who experiences same sex attraction? That’s a blend of the words in same sex attraction. (I added the apostrophe in sase’ to make the pronunciation a little easier to guess at). And for people who experience opposite sex attraction, oseat or ose’. There could be biseat / bise’ and panseat / panse’ for bisexuals and pansexuals, too, respectively, if anyone wanted to use those words.
LGBT is a fraught issue in terms of language. Consider this:
A while back I said of a card game, “I think this was drawn either by a gay guy or a woman. All the men are drawn hot and topless, while the women are more nondescript.”
The trouble was that this was a mouthful… and also, if I were to avoid bi erasure I’d have to add bisexual person, and to avoid gay erasure I’d have to say straight woman. Revised phrase: “I think this was drawn either by a gay guy, a bisexual person, or a straight woman.” What a mouthful.
To express what I wanted to express more succinctly, we could use a couple of words which my friend Pheonix explained to me: gynosexual and androsexual.
These words express the sort people a person is attracted to regardless of their own gender (gyno=woman, andro=man).
So the new phrase would be: “I think this was drawn by an androsexual.” Phew.
Characters saved with this new word: 36. That’s equivalent to avoiding having to say hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia.
Incidentally, androsexual and gynosexual exist but are almost unused as words. Because of this, in practise we are almost coining new words by using them. This means it wouldn’t be so hard to simply stipulate in our definition that they are non exclusive — so someone who is gynosexual (gyno for short) could also be androsexual, as well as being interested in non-binary genders.
Besides just being economical, the words androsexual and gynosexual have some extra advantages. They separate who you are attracted to, from what your gender is.
As a trans woman I particularly appreciate that; it can be confusing to talk about my past as a mostly straight man, and my present as a lesbian-leaning woman; gynosexual would work for both. I think it would also somehow help discourage the misconception that transsexuality is just a manifestation of extreme gay-ness. People couldn’t call me “gay” (with the implication that I’m a gay man), they would have to say “andro”, whereupon I would correct them. “A little andro but mostly just gyno really”. It wouldn’t have the same derisory power.
And that would hold for cisgendered (non-trans) sase’ people. It stops there being something special about being gay. Suddenly there are just people who are attracted to men, and people who are attracted to women. The focus is off who they are and onto what they like. And I think that’s a much healthier way of seeing things.
People with non-binary genders would find this particuarly positive, I think. Gay and straight imply a binary gender. Androsexual and gynosexual could be the solution to them being labelled gay or straight by others or forced to use those words (such as in dating sites or when in need of brevity).
The other advantage of the words androsexual and gynosexual is that they do exist, meaning they can be googled, and anyone who knows a few Greek roots can guess correctly at their meaning. Bringing these into common usage might not be as tricky as with sase’ and ose’.
Now, while LGBT in general is badly represented in our current speech, I think the subtleties of gender in particular are completely massacred.
I can’t even go into this very well without making it its own article. I think a whole new set of words need to be invented, and a load of old words need to be revamped, for the whole spectrum of gender to be properly expressed.
People have started on that, but it still feels limited and awkward for me. For instance, some have decided to use “gender” to mean exclusively the “inner” aspects of gender, i.e. identification, while “sex” is supposed to mean the physical aspects, e.g. the genitals. I like that, though this is still ambiguous at times, especially among those who are not well read on the subject.
I, personally, wouldn’t usually want to say my sex is male, because that would cause people to understand things about me which aren’t true. I do say “male bodied” at times, but even that is has its problems. When I’m fully transitioned, and have a vagina, will I still be “male bodied”? What word can I use to mean that I am physically a woman except that I don’t have a womb or ovaries?
What’s more, there are people whose gender doesn’t fit into either “male” or “female”. They might still be male or female bodied… but what if they are not? How do you refer to the body they used to have, or infer that they have a vagina or a penis, without inferring things about the whole of them which just aren’t true?
I am thinking that the English language needs to be massively revamped for such subtleties to be easily communicated. The sort of thing I’m thinking of would seem like a new language within a language. We would need new words even for “man” and “woman”, because there are just too many assumptions associated with those words. And then we would need words for every variation, aspect, and subtlety of gender we could want to talk about.
Perhaps I will create that vocabulary at some point. Even then, it would be awkward because only a few would understand it. But I think it would be worthwhile.
So, the old Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis – does language affect how we think? I definitely think so.
I feel more self respect when speaking Spanish with my feminist adjustments. And in both Spanish and English, my feminist adjustments remind me how women really are an equal half of humanity, something that normal language seems to obscure a little. For sure I think that cultural conditioning from other sources is important, probably more important than the biases of language, but I don’t think language is negligible at all.
Speaking of animals as “he”, “she”, “they”, “who”, and “someone” help me see them as feeling creatures. I feel less numb towards their wellbeing when I speak like that than if I call them “it”. If they are “it”, it’s way too easy to shunt them into irrelevance.
And so on. I think language matters. It may not be the only thing, but it’s definitely a thing, and if we want to change the world, we shouldn’t ignore it.