Mx-ed Up: Navigating and communicating nonbinary identity in grammatically gendered languages
Issue 10: Voices Section | author: Jam Greenland
Jam Greenland is a second-year German and Spanish student at the University of Cambridge. In this article they discuss the problems they face as a nonbinary linguist in representing their identity in the languages they study.
Discussions surrounding transgender people and identity have become more and more common in recent years. The field of languages and linguistics is no exception. A frequent topic of discussion is how we include nonbinary people in languages where it is hard to avoid referencing either one’s own gender or the gender of others. For example, adjectives in both Spanish and German have to decline for gender. It’s something I certainly thought about a lot and actually what put me off wanting to study languages. I thought there would be no space for me within the language, and I would have to pick a binary gender to refer to myself, thereby misrepresenting my nonbinary identity and leading to gender dysphoria. Thankfully, many nonbinary people all over the world are coming up with creative solutions to make space for everyone within their language. However, I found when researching what pronouns to use for myself in German and Spanish that it wasn’t quite as simple as picking the most popular third-person gender-neutral pronoun used by nonbinary people in those languages, roughly equivocating the pronouns “they/them”.
In Spanish, the ending -o is used at the end of nouns and adjectives when referring to a (grammatically) male subject, and the ending -a for a (grammatically) female subject. But, there is also the ending -e on some adjectives such as interesante (“interesting”), which does not change regardless of the (grammatical) gender of the subject. For this reason, it has emerged as a popular alternative for referring to nonbinary Spanish speakers (e.g. mi hermane liste, “my clever sibling”) or to refer to a mixed-gender group of people (e.g. nosotres instead of nosotros or nosotros/as, “we”) instead of using the generic masculine or exclusively binary language. Similarly, the pronoun elle is a popular option for nonbinary speakers who do not wish to use either él or ella. This is the option that I have opted for due to its growing prevalence, and the fact that there are relatively few popular options.
German on the other hand is quite different, since grammatical gender is differentiated by the presence of the suffix -in on the end of nouns referring to female speakers, and its lack for male speakers. When referring to a group of colleagues, someone could either use the generic masculine Kollegen, refer to both binary genders with Kolleginnen und Kollegen (“(male) colleagues and (female) colleagues”), or use a gender-neutral alternative. Verbally, the common alternative is to use a glottal stop between ‘Kolleg’ und ‘innen’, but there are many debates on how to represent this graphically . My personal favourite is the Gendersternchen (“gender star”), which would be written as Kolleg*innen, as it’s common in German when referring to transgender people to use the term trans*, e.g. Ich identifiziere mich als trans* (I identify as trans), verbalised as a glottal stop. The lines of the star going in all directions represents the amount of diversity of gender identity and expression within the trans community. A potential issue for this would be that a glottal stop can be misheard or ignored, so I might be read as calling myself a female Kollegin rather than a nonbinary Kolleg*in. However, I wouldn’t want to call myself a Kollege: although this might affirm my transmasculine gender identity, I wouldn’t want people to understand it as me referring to myself with the generic masculine, which has become less and less popular in the context of feminism. There is the option of using the present participle form, e.g. Studierende for “student”, which is an ideal solution but not possible for every noun.
With pronouns, there is even less consensus about what could constitute a standard singular gender-neutral pronoun that would be the equivalent of “they/them” . ‘Er*sie’ is becoming more popular for talking about individuals without specifying their gender, but not very common among nonbinary individuals who want their nonbinary gender to be specified in language. There are many neopronouns that someone might choose to pick from, such as xier, nin, or borrowing the English they. The slightly more German version dey has also been coined (as the “th” [ð] sound does not naturally occur in German), and this is the pronoun I have chosen for myself.
Other than the difficulties of finding equivalents of how I express myself in English in other languages, I found on reflection that my relationship to pronouns in other languages is different from how I feel in my mother tongue. English is the language I have grown up in, and hence the language I’ve been exposed to queer culture in and formed my queer identity within. As to German and Spanish, I have exclusively used them in an educational environment where I become more “professional” – I do not talk about my queerness as much or in the same way. English is where I am my truest self and have experimented with gender more, using the pronouns “he/him” and “ey/em” alongside “they/them”, which I mostly use among friends or when in my drag persona. Conversely, I do not use “he” pronouns in either German or Spanish, although it might make my life easier, as I associate these pronouns with my queer transmasculinity that I’ve never had the opportunity to talk about in either language.
I also feel much less comfortable experimenting with language in German and Spanish because I am a learner. I often feel like I am a guest within these languages, and that any experimentation I made would lead to me enforcing anglicisms onto the language I spoke since my background of gender exploration is rooted in the English-speaking world and English terminology. Part of me would rather follow the lead of nonbinary German and Spanish trailblazers, and use them to decide what I feel I am and am not allowed to do with the language, but I’ve realised that this is not fair. Non-native speakers do not have a lesser perspective into the language they are learning, only a different one, and deserve to make themselves feel at home within it. In experimenting, they might find a necessary solution to help make others more visible within a language that a native speaker wouldn’t have even thought of.
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 ‘Das NoNa-System’. [n.d.]. Geschlechtsneutrales Deutsch https://geschlechtsneutralesdeutsch.com/das-nona-system/ [accessed 21 July 2022]
 ‘Transgender [Nichtbinär-Wiki]’. [n.d.]. https://nibi.space/transgender?redirect=1#trans [accessed 21 July 2022]
 ‘Pronomen [Nichtbinär-Wiki]’. [n.d.]. https://nibi.space/pronomen [accessed 21 July 2022]
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