Black and white thinking

He, She, They

All over the world, language is changing. Gender politics are a big talking point and in order to name new non-binary and other gender identities, all sorts of linguistic experiments are being undertaken. These include returning to historical forms and creating completely new variants. Some examples:

“Iel / Ielle”

In 2021, the popular French dictionary, Le Petit Robert de la Langue Française, introduced a third pronoun: “iel” or “ielle” (with the plural “iels” or “ielles”). The word is a mashup of the French masculine personal pronoun “il” and the feminine, “elle”.
However France's Ministry of Education has banned such gender-neutral language in official documents because it makes learning French even more difficult, they say. Mostly that's not because of the new “iel” pronoun though. It's because nouns are gendered in French and things get very tricky when gendered nouns go neutral. For example: “électeurs” or voters become “électeur.rice.s”.


In 2015, a new gender-neutral pronoun - “hen” – was added to the living dictionary of the Swedish language, the Svenska Akademiens ordlista. “Hen” was borrowed from the Finnish “hän”, which is also a gender-neutral pronoun. Unlike Swedish, Finnish has never used pronouns like “she” (“hon”) or “he” (“han”). The popularity of the new Swedish pronoun was ensured by local LGBTQ+ groups, kindergartens and preschools.

“Huma / Intuma”

Modern standard Arabic is based on the classical Arabic of the Koran and nouns and verbs include both genders. When it comes to gender neutral language, it's possible to use “they” or “their“ (“huma“ (هما) and “intuma“ (انتما)). But contemporary spoken Arabic has largely done away with these forms. That makes the use of “they“ and “their“ sound formal to those who are unaware of the gender sensitivities, because it relates back to the most classical form of the language.

“La Presidenta”

When Cristina Kirchner was elected the first female President of Argentina in 2007, it became acceptable to feminize her official title. Instead of the grammatically correct masculine form, “la presidente“, Argentinians began to use “la presidenta“ - even while opposition politicians kept saying “presidente“.
In Spain and Latin America, locals who want to use gender-neutral language may use “e“ on the end of pronouns instead of the feminine “a“ or masculine “o“. For example: “ella“ (she), “el“ (he) and “elle“ (they).
English speakers have also taken to terms like “Latinx“ or “Latin@“ to denote a gender-neutral individual of Spanish origins. This has caused some controversy as native Spanish speakers feel this is a change promoted by English speakers and that really, any such change should come from them.

“Police officer”

When it comes to job titles in English, the genderless versions don't cause the same problems they do in other languages. For instance, a cook or a doctor has no gender. Should there be a gender involved, as in the case of the policeman, then gendering can be avoided by using the term police officer. A stewardess becomes a flight attendant.
Should an individual identify as non-binary, or gender neutral, the pronoun “they“ is more commonly used in English now. In 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary declared “they“ a singular pronoun but in fact its use as such is centuries old. While critics of gender-neutral language have said that use of “they“ may cause confusion, it has in fact been used by authors like William Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

Compiled by Stephanie von Hayek