Dear Romance Languages: Don’t Gender Me

by: Johnny Gall

Dear Romance Languages,

This is an intervention.  Look, you all know I love you very much, right?  French, you sound incredibly sexy.  Italian, you come from a country where everyone is unbelievably attractive.  Portuguese, if it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t have that great story about the time my friend messed up and said something dirty to his Brazilian boyfriend’s mother.  And Spanish, we’ve been through a lot.  And even though your subjunctive still rankles me, as does the imperfect tense, you’ll always be my first love.  Second, if you count that guy from South America, but you two really kind of showed up at around the same time.

There are a lot of things I love about all of you, but there’s also something we need to talk about.  Why are you all so obsessed with arbitrarily gendering everything?  Spanish, I’m mostly going to address you, because I know you best; but French, Italian and Portuguese, I know you all have the same problems.

So, my first issue is that it’s damn near impossible to speak in gender neutral terms in you.  Not only are all your pronouns gendered, all your nouns are gendered, too.  That’s difficult for me because I try to avoid gender if at all possible.  There are too many ways for me to potentially hurt people I love and respect when every word, other than verbs, has to be male or female.  I know you’ve made strides.  Some Spanish-speaking queers have begun to use @ as a way of avoiding the masculine of feminine endings (e.g. no soy gringo y no soy gringa. Soy gring@).

And, from what I’ve heard, Italians use * for the same purpose.  But I can’t pronounce that verbally.  I know you’re trying, but you’re just not growing fast enough for me.  Beyond that, like most things with binary gender, you’re confusing.  You tell me –o is masculine and –a is feminine.  But then what about el problema or el agua or la foto.  Gender is confusing enough when it exists, but even worse when it’s not consistent.  And it’s so much easier to just not bother with it at all, or else not in such a rigid fashion.  Why can’t we allow fotos and problemas to express themselves however they feel?

And another thing about that: why is everything so arbitrary?  Spanish, you make dresses masculine.  Spanish, French and Italian, you all make beards feminine.  Call me old-fashioned, but usually if I see someone in a dress, I think feminine and if I see someone with a beard, I think masculine.  Granted, these aren’t hard and fast rules, and I understand that.  But you go the opposite way.  Your rules are rigid, completely arbitrary AND counter-intuitive.  You force beards to be feminine, even though I’m sure many don’t want to be.  (Mine certainly doesn’t.)

Part of me wants to celebrate this gendering.  What better way to demonstrate the flawed binary gender system in which we operate than by demonstrating its shortcomings and confusions?  Maybe your entire structure is really just a clever way of pointing out how stupid our way of thinking about gender really is.  Maybe forcing every noun or adjective to be masculine or feminine is your way of pointing out that we, as people, have a nasty habit of making every person either masculine or feminine.  Maybe assigning these words completely arbitrary, counter-intuitive genders is your way of questioning why we decide certain things are male and others are female.

But if that’s so, why do you have to be so hardcore about it?  I respect genderfucking, but I also don’t know a single person who decides to defy the rules of gender by imposing completely different, yet equally rigid, rules of gender.  I thought the point was to do away with all that nonsense, not to found a completely new system of nonsense.  That’s just absurd.

I mean, let’s face it; I’m never going to stop loving you all.  English has its problems too.  Why are we supposed to use “he” when the gender is unspecified?  Why can’t we just get over ourselves and start saying “they”?  And, this isn’t even to do with the gender issue, but why doesn’t English have a plural second person?  I’ll use y’all if I have to, but I won’t enjoy it.

But that’s beside the point.  The point is, I want you all to find some way to be more inclusive of those who take issue with gender.  I don’t hate you for these things.  I want you to get over them because I love you.  And I want you to start showing more affection and respect for the people I love who don’t like rigid, arbitrary gendering.  It’s bothersome, and it’s just been done to death.  I’m not going to leave you, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings.  But I wish you would change.

Love, amore, l’amour, y amor,

Johnny

Johnny Gall is so, so very close to completing his B.A. from NYU in English and Creative Writing. He has hopes of moving on to seminary, and then to ordained ministry and works with several groups which advocate queer equality in the Methodist church. He is a feminist, anarchist, person of faith, part-time librarian and an all-around good guy.

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20 responses to “Dear Romance Languages: Don’t Gender Me

  1. Of course, you make a solid argument. Perhaps the newest generations in the cultures that employ these languages can fight for it, but it will be an uphill battle against a part of the language that has been there for centuries.

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  6. I understand what you are saying here– it’s a comment that many of my students make as well (I teach Spanish). I encourage them to think of gender the way they think of verb conjugation. We say “I am” because “am” goes with “I” and not “you”, “Yesterday I went” because “yesterday” goes with “went” and not “go”.
    But what would you think if we translated the word “género” to “genre” instead of “gender” (both of which are correct translations)? When we think of “genres”, we don’t think man or woman, we just think of different types, which is what we are really talking about with “género”. Spanish, as a Romance language, comes from Latin, a language that has three: masculine, feminine, and neuter. In the process of becoming its own language, Spanish lost it’s its neuter form. As you mention, the object itself isn’t thought of as being for a man or for a woman (corbata-tie is feminine, vestido-dress is masculine)– only humans and animals are truly differentiated by sex. And the rules for determining if a word is masculine or feminine aren’t completely arbitrary– words like “mapa” and “problema” are from a Greek influence, and the default gender for a new word is masculine. The gender of other words is usually consistent with its Latin relative.

    That objects have “gender” really shouldn’t be taken literally– you might as well call masculine, type one, and feminine, type two. As for the need to mark masculine and feminine for people, I would remind you that to say “his” or “her”, in Spanish you only say “su”( there is a fantastic short story about a woman’s romantic relationship in which the reader does not learn until the end that the lover is another women, due to this pronoun). I think it is a mistake to want to erase gender markers in a language, just because they don’t fit everyone’s gender identity. Although they are called “gender markers”, they describe a person’s sex, which I hope you agree, is not determinant of one’s gender. In my study of the history of the Spanish language, I have learned one very important fact—that language is a human product that responds to human needs. Now that humankind is learning to embrace multiple gendered realities, it would be strange if a new way of communicating “gender” (as we define the word in English) did NOT emerge, which I happen to think would be a useful addition. In the meantime, you can call men, women, and those who don’t fit these categories exactly what you would call them in English—people. And wouldn’t you know it, that word is feminine (persona).

  7. Honestly, I don’t know whether to laugh at your absurdity or weep for the future of the world, if it’s up to people like you. You yourself said it so many times in your rambling – the gender assignments are completely ARBITRARY (so really, who gives a flying fluff).

    But what you and so many other SJWs seem to be doing is fighting every single social/political/and now even linguistic (and then some) construct regardless of if it is actually detrimental to members of the society. So does ostracizing anyone who does not fall within either gender binary actually hurt that person? You bet. Does using a feminine article to tell someone to sit in “la chaise” (the chair) actually offend or harm anybody? Well, ,maybe artificially in your case.

    Nice try, let me know when you have a valid argument besides your feels.

  8. Let’s change a full language because i don’t understand it.

    Also, i don’t like the sun’s color, let’s make a petition to change its colors. Yellow offends me.

    SJWs like you offend everyone by trying to defend thngs that do not matter. If you are offended by a language, maybe you should stop using it.

  9. Man people like you like try so hard to make yourself look “liberal and progressive” are exactly the ones who are destroying this movement. I am a Spanish speaker and not once, ONCE have ever encountered something so hilarious and (excuse my language) retarded as ostracizing romance languages for their ARBITRARY gender of many things.

    You should reconsider what are you doing with your time because this is clearly a waste of it.

  10. Considering gender in language has been around for thousands of years, you’re passive-agressively demanding that a large chunk of the world shift the way it speaks because…why?

    Why does it matter if things are gendered in languages you don’t even speak? Personal pronouns I understand, but objects? Your advocating the gender-fluidity of inanimate objects. Aren’t there more important gender issues to tackle?

    Also, for someone who doesn’t like being gendered, there sure are quite a few masculine words in your biography.

  11. As a trilingual in English, Spanish, and French, you clearly don’t understand how gender makes many romantic languages work. Wow MAN (see what I did there?), get off your liberal-pretentious ass and accept the nature of languages.

  12. Hehe. You make the point gender allocation in the language is arbitrary. That is exactly what it is! Don’t think much of it. It really doesn’t mean anything.

    I’m a native Greek speaker for instance. Instead of seeing it as “a door is a she because men don’t like doors”, think of it as, “a door is an abstract object. ‘Genders’ are abstract in the language and are just as abstract as any other syntactically-focused word”.

    English speakers often have difficulty with this because they’ve been told for years that genders are necessarily sexist or else, yet to native speakers they seem like arbitrary nouns, because that’s exactly what they are. To use a computer term, they’re “syntactic sugar”, just like the conjuction “and” is in the English language.

    • Gender has only existed for the past 5,000 years though, before it was a non-arbitrary living/inaminate assignment for PIE. Gender is a fluke really when one thinks about it, other languages never had it to begin with.

  13. So, we are backwards languages that need to change to fit you.
    Ok, nice to know. We will try to fix centuries of culture and grammar because English speaking people think we are being offensive by exiting.

    Nice. Because God forbid that we assign gender to objects becuase of reasons, because the Neutral of Latin merged with the masculine when Latin slowly became romance languages over the influence of cultures, of political organization and time.

    God forbid that we understand that gender for humans is not the same than gender for spoon or bridges. Gender depends on the end of the word and on it’s nature not in some patriarchal ideas. Because I reassure you, we are not crazy and we do not thing that my laptop is female or my cup is male.

    We speakers are thiking in ways to change that in some languages and in other we are not, Because we are different societies with different process of growing and of dealing with problems. Honestly, how dare we.

    How dare we try to make our language comfortable for us with the Spanish @ and with collective name like “people” or “person” that work perfectly for us. But no, is the core of grammar the language structure that allows French and Spanish and Portuguese and Italian to stand. To exist. We have to make it more efficient. More like English y suppose, or Scandinavian language.

    As quick as possibly, you advice us. It’s not possible I think. I think we are not as efficient open minded and great as English. Backwards languages all of us.

    I’m deeply sorry. Also, con amigos como tú no se necesitan enemigos.

  14. Romance language speaker here.

    We don’t give a single shit about what anglophones think about our language.

    Have a nice day.

  15. You should stay away from the keyboard for a moment and think what are you doing with your life

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