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Cisnormativity and the gender binary: Its fundamental linguistic presence

June 5, 2022

Gendered languages, such as French and Spanish, are those with grammatical gender systems, meaning their nouns are assigned a gender. For example, the French word for pool, “la piscine,” is given a feminine gender and is thus treated femininely. In English, the word “pool” has no gender and is treated accordingly.

In some languages, grammatical gender extends past nouns. In French, verbs and adjectives often have a masculine and a feminine form. For example, “il est tombé” would be used to describe a man who fell, but “elle est tombée” would be used to describe a woman who fell. The masculine form of the adjective beautiful is beau, and its feminine counterpart is belle.

“For a lot of English speakers, it’s hard learning a gendered language. It’s hard trying to wrap your head around gendered words because you have to figure out a whole new grammatical structure while also getting used to the mental act of dividing your language,” said Mick Krayn, a genderqueer senior.

Although English isn’t classified as a gendered language, it isn’t exempt from gendered words. For example, words such as actor and host can be tagged with a feminine suffix, transforming them into actress and hostess.

Other words, such as beautiful and handsome, while not officially restricted to certain genders, have gendered connotations. Although a woman can be described as handsome, many often opt for feminine descriptors, such as pretty or beautiful.

However, the gender that words are associated with is not stagnant and often changes depending on societal norms.

“In the past, it was more common to see women being described as handsome, but we started gendering that term later on in the 20th century. There’s no explicit rule in English requiring us to reserve descriptors for specific genders, and these implicit rules gendering certain words often change,” Krayn said.

Despite the fluidity of social linguistics norms, it’s not uncommon for languages to remain rigid in some aspects. Oftentimes, gendered languages act as strict enforcers of the gender binary and can be unforgiving to genderqueer individuals who identify outside of the male-female binary ingrained in many gendered languages.

“If you speak a gendered language but you don’t identify with its gender binary and you don’t have the tools to describe yourself, that can definitely be very detrimental,” Krayn said.

Grammatical gender systems often invalidate the gender spectrum by presenting gender through a limited lens, imposing the belief that there are, at most, only a handful of genders.

“I feel like that’s why there are a lot of cross-dressing stereotypes in cultures that speak a gendered language. You don’t really think of a nonbinary French person; instead, you think of a cross-dressing French man. The gender binary is very pervasive within cultures like those, and their stereotypes reflect that,” said Elliot Sum, a genderfluid senior.

For those whose native language is gendered, exploring the gender spectrum can be difficult and contrary to the gender binary found at the very core of the language they speak.

“When you speak a gendered language but encounter gender identities outside of the male-female binary, you suddenly have to question your entire language. How do we fit this in? How do we change our perception of the gender binary that’s been so integral to our society that it’s embedded in the very language that we speak?” Krayn said.

To counter this, there has been an uprising of movements calling for the introduction of gender-neutral alternatives to gendered languages. For example, in Spanish, an O-suffix indicates a masculine gender, whereas an A-suffix indicates a feminine gender. To remain gender-neutral, some have begun to adopt an E-suffix. While “payaso” would be used to refer to a man and “payasa” would be used to address a woman, with an E-suffix, Spanish speakers can use “payase” to avoid masculine or feminine connotations.

“A lot of people have been using the E-suffix to be more inclusive. It’s a shift in perception; no single aspect of language is set in stone. Not only do we define our language but our language defines us in terms of how we perceive the world around us,” Krayn said.

Other alternatives include adopting words from non-gendered languages or using neopronouns, which are neologistic third-person pronouns that are often considered gender-neutral. While some popular neopronouns in English are ae/aer and xe/xem, the most commonly cited one in French is iel or some other combination of il and elle — the French pronouns for he and she, respectively — according to a study on the language practices of nonbinary Francophones on social media.

Another movement in francophone culture is the fight to adopt a more inclusive writing system. Through inclusive writing, the feminine form is acknowledged rather than overshadowed by its male counterpart. For example, with inclusive writing, instead of referring to a group of students as “les étudiants,” it would be written as “les étudiant·e·s.” Words whose feminine form has a completely different spelling rather than an additional letter follow the same format. For example, a group of farmers would be written as “les agriculteur·rice·s” instead of “les agriculteurs.”

One of the main appeals behind inclusive writing is its push to make the French language less masculine and subsequently remove its patriarchal emphasis on male domination. To refer to a group of friends, “les amis” would be used for an all-male group and “les amies” would be used for an all-female group. However, in a mixed group, no matter how many women outnumber men, as long as there is one man in the group, it defaults to the masculine form, “les amis.” Due to this, although the masculine form is gendered, it is also seen as gender-neutral since it can simultaneously be seen as the default form.

However, given the rigid and carefully monitored nature of the French language, inclusive writing has received significant institutional backlash. One of its most notable and ardent adversaries is the Académie Française, France’s supreme authority on the French language, known for its history of ruling conservatively.

“Faced with the aberration of inclusive writing, the French language finds itself in mortal danger,” the Académie said in a statement.

A prominent factor behind the Académie’s decisions is the linguistic bond and sense of shared culture and identity that many Francophones have. This collective pride often manifests itself in the strict regulation and standardization of the French language, where even the smallest changes are often looked down upon. Due to this, some Francophones have also expressed concerns over appearing uneducated when using neopronouns or other gender-neutral alternatives, as they do not comply with the language’s already existing structures and words.

“I feel like the French language wasn’t constructed to be accommodating. Not a lot of people are willing to accept linguistic change through social influences,” Sum said.

Oftentimes, according to Krayn, the push for gender inclusivity is seen as a “direct attack on people’s culture.”

“The gender binary is so ingrained in a lot of these cultures that anybody trying to make change or create the tools that they need to describe themselves are met with a ton of backlash because people are very protective of their language,” Krayn said.

For many languages, especially gendered ones, the gender binary is an essential figure embedded into the very basis of their culture and, subsequently, language.

“Cisnormativity presents itself in gendered languages because the gender binary makes it seem like there’s no other way to approach gender in the first place,” Krayn said.

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