Languages in Gender Transition: English, French, Spanish, and Arabic

This image was originally intended to be ironic; the 1975 girls’ comic from which it comes was part of the broad cultural backlash against ‘Women’s Lib’. It portrayed sexual harassment as a necessary and inevitable prelude to romance. Yep, that’s the context in which I came of age.

I remember the kerfuffle in the 1970s, as Second Wave feminism was introducing Ms to replace Mrs/Miss and was starting to dismantle the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’. Oh, the outrage. But that shift in the English language turns out to have been relatively straight forward. We face bigger challenges.

You will be familiar with current struggles to de-gender English so as to eliminate gender bias and misgendering. Efforts include increasing acceptance of the singular they* and such constructs as the Mx title (pronounced ‘məks’ with a schwa [ə]; roughly ‘mix’, if you reduce the ‘i’).

In the midst of the current pronoun argument, it is easy to forget how remarkably gender-free the English language is (why is that?), and how little we anglophones need to deal with, compared to speakers of most other languages. Most languages are terribly concerned with the masculinity vs femininity of those being discussed (why is that?), and some, as in the case of Arabic, are so entrenched in gender that the sex of everyone involved must be sorted before even the most basic conversation can commence.

I grew up speaking French, English, and Spanish†, and have recently relocated to Cairo, where I am presently wrestling with Egyptian Arabic.

In English one must navigate gendered forms of address (Mr/Ms, sir/ma’am) and pronouns in the third person (s/he), but romance languages (French, Spanish, Catalan, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian) have the added challenge of gendered adjectives (big, happy, American), and these can be self-referential. I happen to be transgender, and when I was transitioning French and Spanish presented linguistic minefields of gender as I struggled to switch years of habit, leading to hesitant speech and occasional self-misgendering and brutally awkward incidents. With its embedded sexism, language is against you when you transgress gender norms, but English is less hostile than most.

In French, for example, English’s blessedly gender-neutral adjectives in ‘I am French’ and ‘I am happy’ become—

« Je suis Français / Française. »

and

« Je suis heureux / heureuse. »

Efforts to make French more gender friendly lead to such peculiar written constructs as Français.e and heureu.x.se.

For a Spanish example, take English’s ‘I’m delighted’ and ‘I am Hispanic’, and you have—

“Encantado / encantada.”

and

“Soy Latino / Latina.”

along with new de-gendered written constructs like encantadx and Latinx.

No one has any clue how one might pronounce encantadx or heureu.x.se, so speech (where it really matters, after all) remains gender-locked.

But French and Spanish are nothing to Arabic. OMG.

To the gender trouble of forms of address, third person pronouns, and adjectives, let us add second person pronouns, verbs, and adverbs. Take the verb understand, in French comprendre, and we are thankfully innocent of gender:

‘I understand.’

‘You understand.’

« Je comprends. »

« Vous comprenez. »

A little extra conjugation in French, but no biggie.

Now, Egyptian Arabic—

“Ana bafham.”

So far so good, no gender there, in the first person. But go to the second person, and—

“Inta bdifham.” [Masculine you, masculine understand.]

and

“Inti bdifhami.” [Feminine you, feminine understand.]

You’d be forgiven for thinking that understanding is a different thing for each gender. That actions and events differ by gender, as do their verbs. Language creates thought creates culture creates language. We think and emote within the channels our language provides, and we’re unaware of this unless we think for extended periods in more than one. I have long been aware that I feel differently about important things depending on whether I’m living in French or in English. I expect I shall feel differently still in Arabic. If I can learn the damned thing. Back to the grammar…

Lest you think the first person (ana) has escaped gendering, uh, not really; not if you want to use a verb for some reason. Here, with the verb ‘to be’, is ‘How are you?’ / ‘I am well’:

To a man, who then responds, it’s—

“Izeyak?”

“Ana qwayis.”

And with a woman—

“Izeyik?”

“Ana qwayissa.”

Aaand…there’s your gendered verb and adverb, yep. Both people’s gender must be stated as either male or female. No ambiguity allowed. This simple exchange acts as an assignment of binary and unambiguous gender by one person upon another, and the other’s confirmation of that assignment.

As a practical matter, this means keeping track of gender on many more word-types, with the corresponding huge increase in vocabulary and confusion for the learner.

As a cultural matter, Arabic is rigidly gender-locked. Adding to the pressure on a foreigner struggling to communicate, misgendering someone in this culture (say, with a stray ‘-ik’ instead of ‘-ak’) is deeply offensive; deployed as the worst possible insult. Uh-huh.

And pity anyone who cannot or would not present as clearly male or female. You’re just screwed.

English seems to be well on the way to de-gendering itself; we already have sometimes-awkward but workable solutions. I’ve no idea what to do with the gender embedded in French and Spanish, but at least some people are motivated and experimenting, and perhaps something will sort in time.

I’m not holding my breath for Arabic. In a language and culture where genderless address is impossible, misgendering is deeply offensive, and gender presentation is heavily policed and any ambiguity in presentation is met with outright abuse‡, I expect that binary gender bias is here for the long-haul. Today, some in the more progressive educated younger generation of Arabic-speaking people will sometimes use English amongst themselves. If it’s not their native language, at least they can say what they mean with respect. It’s a linguistic shame, really, that they have to move outside their native tongue to express themselves, but maybe that’s the way forward.

In the meantime, I have a lot of verb forms to learn…


* And by the way, obviously it should be ‘they is’, not ‘they are’. (Just stirring the pot, here…)

† More accurately, I was introduced to Spanish at a young age, but most of my vocabulary was acquired during ten years spent in Latin America as an adult.

‡ In Egypt, showing hair cut ‘too short’ is enough to get a woman subjected to public abuse, I have yet to see a man with hair below the ear, and I rarely see someone I can’t easily identify as either male or female at 200 metres distance.

Readers have pointed out a number of gender-neutral languages that exist. Wikipedia has a good summary.

For an excellent discussion of gender-neutral French, see Le Difficile Respect des Personnes Non Binaires by my dear friend Florence Ashley.

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