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Declensions in Decline: Parsing the International Push for Gender Neutral Language
Harvard language courses and the grammar war
When I heard from a friend that the first lesson of his Harvard Portuguese class was dedicated to gender-neutral pronouns, I tried not to jump to conclusions. After all, almost every language has indefinite pronouns, such as the French “on” or the Spanish “alguien,” that native speakers use to denominate persons and things of unknown gender. I quickly discovered, however, that the pronouns taught in the first session of Harvard’s Portuguese program were newcomers to the Lusophone scene. In fact, it might come as a surprise to the average Portuguese speaker that these particular pronouns exist at all. So where did they come from?
To answer this question, we can look to the introduction of gender-neutral vocabulary in other languages. As it turns out, Portuguese isn’t the only language to have been targeted for revision because of its gender system. Anyone who has lived long enough on campus, in the Northeast, or (truth be told) in any rich, progressive, majority-white community in the US, has encountered the piquantly unpronounceable neologism “Latinx,” now refurbished in the more euphonious if equally unsolicited “Latinē.” Slowly, but steadily, “Latino” has undergone a transition, cutting off its manly “o,” flaunting fictive substitutions, and soon, perhaps, ending up where we, as English-speakers, began: the utterly unsexed “Latin.”
Similarly, gender activists did their best to bring “inclusive” language to France in the form of the pronoun “iel,” a portmanteau of “il” and “elle.” Unsurprisingly for a people obsessed with the purity of its lexicon, the French balked. Brigitte Macron expressed it this way: “We have two pronouns,1 ‘he’ and ‘she.’ Our language is beautiful. And two pronouns are appropriate.”2 English media have continued to problematize French grammar ever since.3
The revision of language is not a politically neutral act.
Duolingo, the wildly popular language-learning mobile app, recently published a list of gender-neutral pronouns and “neopronouns” for German (xier/xies/dier), Spanish (elle), Portuguese (elu), French (al and ∅l as well as iel), Chinese (无 也), Galician (eli), and Catalan (elli).4 Its entry for English announced a “near-infinite” selection of neopronouns, tacitly indicating to the reader that, in a sense, all neopronouns are English. The word “elle,” for example, replicates the English gender-indeterminate plural pronoun “they” in order to eliminate the gendered endings of the Spanish “ellos” and “ellas.” “Elu,” “eli,” and “elli” were formed in the same way.
In fact, whether calqued from “they” or not, gender-neutral neopronouns are unavoidably anglicizing. Of course, English isn’t the only language whose nouns aren’t consistently categorized by gender. But make no mistake: the Hungarians aren’t to blame for “iel.” As usual, the English-speaking world doesn’t need to invent something—be it gunpowder, opium, or gender dysphoria—to become its most successful exporter. It’s no mistake that the current iteration of “gender ideology” took off in an English-speaking country, and it’s equally little surprise that speakers of languages with more robust gender systems have proven skeptical.
It would be naive to expect the politically motivated anglicization of world languages to stop at the pronoun. Because, for example, all French adjectives are either masculine or feminine in form, French speakers must currently “regender” ‘iel’ every time they predicate adjectives of it. To adopt masculine adjectives as the default would be as problematic as to assume the feminine. The ideological and linguistic commitments of the new reform demand a genderless option, à la—or rather, à lu—Latinē.
Interestingly, the author of Duolingo’s blog post attempts to forestall this development by explaining that the “grammatical gender” of nouns and adjectives has nothing to do with the “natural gender” of pronouns and nouns referring to people and animals. But this attempt to shield grammatical gender from criticism is dead on arrival because it assumes the existence of “natural” gender. Since gender is now regarded by the right-thinkers of our world as primarily a linguistic and cultural phenomenon, native gender systems will not be able to save themselves by pleading an exclusively grammatical status. After all, if verbal gender were really irrelevant to actual gender, why invent a genderless pronoun?
Instead, all languages with strong gender systems, especially the Romance languages, will—I suspect soon—be asked to undertake radical revisions of their lexicon to adapt themselves to English, genderless practice. Adjectives especially will need to develop alternate forms to survive in the new political climate. Nouns will not be exempt. Verbs will escape persecution for now, unless—and alas, who could be surprised?—they belong to Semitic languages, which conjugate verbs by gender. Conjunctions will glance fearfully at their correlates. Not even prepositions will feel safe.
The revision of language is not a politically neutral act. If one wanted to apply the language of anti-colonialism, one might well argue that the willful degendering of foreign languages on the English model is only possible because of the power and privilege enjoyed by the English-speaking world in relation to other cultures and their languages. It directly, even imperiously, asserts the superiority of English linguistic and cultural perspectives to the ways of categorizing the world found in other languages. But one hardly needs to resort to anti-imperialist jargon to question the right of American activists to dictate terms—literally—to speakers of foreign languages.
A first day review of genderless pronouns may seem like a modest concession to the Zeitgeist. But when the politically motivated demands made of foreign languages and foreign language instruction become more radical, professors will need to decide where they stand. Certainly, instructors have a responsibility to reflect changes in the language of native speakers. They do not have a responsibility to engineer such changes. Why, after all, do we learn foreign languages? Not to teach, but to learn; not to transform them, but to be transformed by them. The more we revise them to suit our expectations—political, social, personal—the more we lose the opportunity to revise ourselves, and our society, and our perspectives, to embrace what they have to teach us. Foreign languages don’t need our neopronouns. They don’t need to be fixed. And Harvard shouldn’t try to fix them.
A version of this article originally appeared in Fading Crimson, the November 2022 print issue of the Salient.
Of course, the first lady was referring to definite, third person singular pronouns. On, as an indefinite pronoun, can’t quite fill the role that “iel” is meant to occupy. The French reasonably assume that if a pronoun in their language has a definite antecedent, that antecedent will have a gender.
Roger Cohen and Léontine Gallois, “In a Nonbinary Pronoun, France Sees a U.S. Attack on the Republic,” New York Times, Nov. 28, 2021.
Amy Cheng, “A French Dictionary Added a Gender-Neutral Pronoun. Opponents Say it’s Too Woke,” Washington Post, Nov. 18, 2021.
“New Volume on Gender-Neutral language sheds light on political controversy in France.” University of Washington News, March 17, 2022.
Cindy Blanco, “How Gender-Neutral Language has Evolved Around the World,” Duolingo, May 31, 2022.