5 Gender-Neutral Terms From Around The World

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Broadly Gender Spectrum

Gender identity can't always be summed up with the words "he" or "she," but most languages don't have commonly used terms to describe everyone. In an attempt to solve this problem, some languages have created gender-neutral terms, including pronouns and symbols to denote non-conformity to the gender binary. And while a lot of work still needs to be done, 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, a 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 male centricity and societal male superiority."

And there's been a similar trend in other languages, too. "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," Asklöv says. "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."

However, non-binary people continue to be left out of the conversation. How can language include everyone? Here are a few solutions different languages have come up with.

They (English)

The pronoun "they" has become a popular way to refer to people in English without specifying their gender. "They" as a gender-neutral form was added to the Associated Press Stylebook back in 2017. And Merriam-Webster even announced "they" as the word of the year in 2019.

The pronoun "they" is a word people can use to refer to themselves, as well as to describe people of unspecified gender, Asklöv says.

Gendered nouns, such policeman, businessman, or fireman, have also been changed, as well as the practice of using "men" to refer to a group of people, even if that group includes women or non-binary folks.

There's the option to say business person, firefighter, police officer, and so on. It's also becoming more common to say "flight attendant" instead of the gendered "stewardess." And that goes a long way in making the English language more inclusive.

Hen (Swedish)

"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," Asklöv says.

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 using "he" or "she."

The decision was also controversial: Sweden's biggest newspaper vowed never to use it and the Swedish Language Council told everyone to avoid using it, as many countries do. 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)

Germany has also come up with their own system. As Asklöv says, "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."

The suffixes "r" or "rn" are used for men, and "in" or "innen" for woman. So, someone might write, "liebe Nachbar_innen/NachbarInnen/Nachbar*innen," which are all gender-neutral, instead of "Nachbarn" (male) and "Nachbarinnen" (female).

Germans also convert nouns into verbs, Asklöv says. 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."

@ (Spanish)

In Spanish, masculine words tend to end with "o," while feminine words end with "a." So many people use the @ symbol to encompass them both, Asklöv says.

Another choice is to use a / to include the masculine and feminine forms of words (e.g., chicos/chicas). Or, to create a gender-neutral noun, an "x" can also used. Instead of saying or writing Latino (male) or Latina (female), for example, it would be Latin@ or Latinx.

The use of "e" at the end of a word, instead of the standard "a" or "o" is another option, particularly in Argentina, where young people are making changes to their deeply gendered language. So instead of ella (she) and él (he), one might use the gender-neutral term elle.

. (French)

In French, "they” is translated as either “ils” (male) or “elles” (female), and is also used to refer to a group of people. But since the word still implies gender, people have been searching for an alternative.

While not officially adopted into the French language, some folks are using the pronoun “iel”, which is a mix of “il” and “elle”, to refer to a nonbinary person.

And since masculine words often end in a consonant while feminine words end in an extra vowel, there's also the option of adding a dot between the consonant and the vowel to include all genders. For example, since "neighbor" would be "un voisin" or "une voisine," you might use "un.e voisin.e" instead, Asklöv says.

With so many options, there's now no excuse not to be inclusive.


Elin Asklöv, project manager at the language-learning app Babbel

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