Gender inclusive and gender neutral language have become increasingly visible in recent years. But whether it’s new pronouns or neutral phrases, translating them from one language to another isn’t always easy. One significant obstacle is the fact that gender is an essential part of many languages, with certain gendered parts of speech.
A recent article by language learning expert Kelsey Wetherbee shares some fascinating facts about how different languages have been impacted by the rising popularity of gender neutral and gender inclusive grammar and terminology.
Here are seven major takeaways:
● “Gender inclusive” generally means using language to acknowledge all genders, while “gender neutral” usually means using language that doesn’t discriminate against or single out a particular gender. But each of these terms may have additional, nuanced meanings, depending on a language’s established grammar and rules.
For instance, English doesn’t assign genders to non-living nouns, but languages like French, Russian, and German (among many others) use gendered parts of speech. For these languages, “gender inclusive” could imply altering existing grammatical concepts, such as no longer allowing a single masculine noun to determine the gender of a group of nouns.
● When it comes to using gender, languages can generally be divided into three groups: gendered, genderless, and natural. Gendered languages use the concept of masculine, feminine, and sometimes other categories (for instance, neuter in German), for certain parts of speech. Genderless languages, as you might have guessed, do the opposite, having non-gendered parts of speech and in many cases making no distinction when it comes to nouns and pronouns, either. Natural languages do have some gendered parts of speech, but most of them aren’t assigned a gender.
● A majority of the world’s most spoken languages are gendered. Wetherbee’s article includes a fascinating chart showing that of the world’s twenty most spoken languages, thirteen are gendered, compared to six that are genderless, and one that is natural.
● Controversy around the use of gender neutral and gender inclusive language may not be what it seems. Gender neutral and gender inclusive language are often controversial topics, but it’s important for translators, transcreators, and anyone interested in the subject to understand why this might be the case in a particular culture.
For instance, many French people, including some government officials, are against gender neutral and gender inclusive language. But the reasons behind this are complex. While some feel this way due to their particular beliefs, others are wary of it because they see it as an American belief that is influencing their language and culture. Still others are resistant to any change in the French language.The French have a governing body, the Académie Française, that controls which words and grammar rules are officially accepted. Any deviance from these strict rules is usually frowned upon by the general public, since altering French is seen as a threat to preserving the language.
That said, gender neutral terms and gender inclusive language do exist in French, despite this official disapproval. Inclusive terms, for instance, are even used in the city of Paris’s official government communications, and French gender neutral pronouns are used by many communities.
● For global languages, gender neutral and gender inclusive language may not be handled the same way. Speakers of global languages like English, French, and Spanish may have different views and ways of handling gender inclusive and gender neutral terms. For instance, in the previous takeaway on our list, I spoke about the issue of gender neutral and inclusive language in mainland France. But French-speakers in Quebec, for instance, are generally more open to gender neutral and inclusive language, especially gender neutral pronouns. These differences in the same language are important for translators to keep in mind.
● Different languages have different approaches when it comes to gender neutral pronouns and language.
For instance, in some Spanish-speaking countries, people will add an “e” at the end of a word, instead of a traditionally masculine “o” or a traditionally feminine “a”. Other Spanish-speakers, especially online, may add an “x”at the end of a word. Wetherbee also reports that on Spanish-language social media, you may see @ at the end of words instead, due to the fact that it looks like a combination of “o” and “a”. This allows for collective terms that include and acknowledge both females and males - for instance, chic@s instead of chicos or chicas.
Other interesting solutions include the creation of the gender-neutral pronoun hen in Swedish, which became an official dictionary entry in 2015; and the mixing of masculine and feminine pronouns, adjectives, and verbs in the same sentence in Arabic.
● In some places, gender neutral and gender inclusive terms may be encouraged - or even required. Translators should check their clients’ preference regarding this. They should also be aware of the requirements of the target audience’s local government. For instance, Wetherbee writes, certain German government institutions require using gender neutral pronouns in their official paperwork, and all official communications in the town of Hanover must use gender neutral pronouns.
These are some key things to keep in mind when it comes to gender neutral and gender inclusive terms in different languages. Wetherbee’s article offers many more fascinating facts about the evolution of gender neutral and gender inclusive language around the world. I highly recommend giving it a read.
And whether you’re a translator or just someone who wants to learn more about another culture, it’s a good idea to do more focused research on gender neutral and gender inclusive language in the culture(s) you’re interested in. The results may surprise you.