April 2, 2023


In English, it has become customary in some circles to introduce yourself with your first name and favorite pronouns. These range from the traditional (his/his/his/her/her) to the non-binary but singular “they”, all the way to groundbreaking new words like ze or zir.

Often, the key is to break free from the psychosocial constraints of binary sex and corresponding assumptions about gender roles.

This verbal acrobatics can drive other people, especially older people, crazy. Some people live long and happy lives, never thinking about pronouns, and they don’t see the need to start now. Others are grammatical purists and don’t want everyone to speak their own plural. Others — from right-wing American shock athletes to Russian or Hungarian demagogues — see non-binary pronouns as another step toward fire and brimstone.

For perspective, English speakers are effectively in the language middle ground by default. As usual, Scandinavia is on the progressive end. Finland is particularly fortunate because it has both a culture that is relaxed about sex and a language that has been genderless from the start. For example, the pronoun han has been used to refer to man, woman, and anyone in between.

Sweden is also progressive, although its languages, like English, do have gendered pronouns. So, ten years ago, the country officially introduced third pronouns. In addition to negative and positive hens, it also employs neutral hens. This initially caused a backlash even among the usually moderate Nordics. But they got used to the idea and accepted it now.

However, based purely on syntax and syntax, most language communities cannot be that flexible. Thai, Hebrew, Russian and other languages ​​all have gender as their basis to varying degrees. For example, in Thai, even if the first person (I/me/mine) is feminine or masculine, so is the rest of the sentence. In Hebrew, verbs have gender. German, French, Italian, Spanish, and other languages ​​assign gender to articles, adjectives, and nouns.

Before the Age of Awakening, artistic genres often found the resulting nuances and tensions captivating rather than depressing. Take the late French director François Truffaut and his 1962 film Jules and Jim. It’s about a love triangle between two male friends – one French, the other German – and a woman. No skin. But the screen is almost detached from sexual tension—from homosexuality to jealousy, from lust to frigidity, from love to chaos.

In one scene, French Jim visits German Jules. Jules argues that in German war, death and the moon are masculine, while love and sun are feminine, whereas in French the opposite is true. But in German, life is neutral. It’s “beautiful,” Jim replied, “very logical.”

Today, Europeans are more likely to find the gender of words problematic than funny. As ever, the culture decides to use. In relatively conservative Italy, even female politicians – including those with a chance to become prime minister – only use traditional male forms such as president, minister, etc.

Not so in politically correct Germany. There, centrist politicians, managers, TV hosts, etc. should be wary of potential gender bias in language. This can take many forms.

In one of these cases, people openly (though never privately) used the masculine and feminine forms of the noun twice. For example, a Secretary of Defense would refer to her troops as “Dear Soldiers and Minions.” Sales reps pitch to “Dear Clients and Customers.”

This obviously undermines any potential for pleasing rhythm, brevity, and efficiency—let alone poetry or superb speech. As a result, many Germans reused characters such as asterisks. They call them “soldier*ettes” or “customer*ettes” in writing. When speaking, they mark the gaps with glottis, such as “soldier ettes” or “customer ettes.”

When pollsters asked Germans what they thought of this linguistic innovation in the media, most said they didn’t like it. The spectrum seems to go from confused to livid. A group of linguists and linguists recently wrote an open letter protesting the trend.

Inadvertently, these German excesses offer lessons for other language communities. They are gentle reminders that all revolutions – from France to Russia to sex – enter the danger zone once they lose their sense of the ridiculous and become unwittingly parodies of their founding ideals. In later stages, language became Orwellian and used to distort reality rather than enlighten and connect people.

Another lesson is that there is beauty in the way different languages ​​have evolved. So we should use them jokingly, but respectfully. Of course there is no need to weaponize grammar to indoctrinate others. Such attempts often alienate the target audience and polarize our society even more.

By the way, everything I just said about language also applies to sex. Both can be complex, confusing and frustrating – or, from a different perspective, mysterious, free and exciting. He, she, them and ze don’t need new words – just tolerance and lots of humor.

More from Bloomberg Views:

• Feminist or not, Giorgia Meloni is responsible for Italian women: Maria Tadeo

• Next, the Supreme Court decides how to punish American diaspora: Andreas Kluth

• Even by European standards, life in America is good: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg columnist covering European politics. He was the editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global, a contributor to The Economist, and the author of Hannibal and Me.

More similar stories are available at Bloomberg.com/opinion

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