As it's become clear that gender identities besides "man" and "woman" exist, a problem has emerged: Most languages don't have commonly used terms to describe these identities. To solve this problem, some languages have created gender-neutral terms, including pronouns and even symbols to denote non-conformity to the gender binary. Learning how different parts of the world are filling this gap can help us develop new ways to become more inclusive.
"During Victorian times, England introduced a law saying that only ‘he’ should be used in legal texts, as a way of legitimizing men’s power over women," Elin Asklöv, project manager at the language-learning app Babbel, tells Bustle. "Feminist movements in the 60s and 70s saw a resurgence of feminist language planning, or feminist language reforms. These movements criticized the male centricity and societal male superiority."
There's been a similar trend in other languages. "In languages like French, Spanish, and German, gender inclusion is mostly done within the noun system; a gender-neutral pronoun is not on its way," explains Asklöv. "Referring to everyone with the male form, e.g. ‘Liebe Besucher’ (‘Dear visitors’), was long seen as the epicene pronoun (including and incorporating everyone), but now, using only the male form is increasingly perceived as sexist. Generally, the inclusion of the male and female gender consists of always mentioning the two forms, because if only the masculine form is used, many people will feel excluded."
The problem with that, though, is that then, non-binary people (those who don't exclusively identify as men or women) are left out of the conversation. How can language include everyone, then? Here are some solutions different languages have come up with.
As you might know, the pronoun "they" has become a popular way to refer to people in English without specifying their gender. Publications including The Washington Post have it in their style guides. Some people use the pronoun "they" to refer to themselves, and sometimes it's used to describe people of unspecified gender, Asklöv says.
"Hen" is an alternative to the Swedish words "han" (he) and "hon" (she). It's inspired by the Finnish "hän," which means both "he" and "she," says Asklöv. LGBTQ people and academics began using it in the early 2000s to describe non-binary people and those of unspecified gender, and it grew in popularity after a children's book used it in 2012. One Swedish magazine even grew inspired to release a whole issue without the words "he" or "she."
It was also controversial, though, with Sweden's biggest newspaper vowing never to use it and the Swedish Language Council telling everyone to avoid it. But the council later changed its position to "use the term with care," and it was added to the Swedish dictionary in 2015.
_ and * (German)
"In Germany, it is now common practice amongst activists and progressive/interested people to use an underscore or an asterisk to include all genders in a written phrase," says Asklöv. For example, someone might write, "liebe Nachbar_innen/NachbarInnen/Nachbar*innen," which are all gender-neutral, instead of "Nachbarn" (male) and "Nachbarinnen" (female).
Another way around the problem of gendered language in German is to convert nouns into verbs, says Asklöv. For example, instead of saying "thanks to all visitors" (which forces you to choose a gender for the noun "visitors"), you can say, "thanks to everyone who visited."
In Spanish, masculine words tend to end with "o," while feminine ones end with "a." So, @ is a symbol intended to encompass them both, says Asklöv. People also sometimes use a / to include the masculine and feminine forms of words (e.g., chicos/chicas).
In French, where masculine words often end in a consonant while feminine ones have an extra vowel, a dot is sometimes added between the consonant and the vowel to include all genders. For example, since "neighbor" would be "un voisin" or "une voisine," you might say "un.e voisin.e," says Asklöv.
Hopefully, languages that don't yet have these terms can take inspiration from the ones that do. With so many options, there's now no excuse not to be inclusive.