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In Hebrew, it has to be he or she

Hu is he, he is she and there is no neutral word for 'it': The Hebrew language’s gender problem

Yes, Hebrew has a gender problem; and no, creating new, fashionable gender-neutral pronouns won’t solve it.

The re-emergence of non-binary (i.e., gender-expansive) pronouns is inarguably a current social trend as well as a lexical one. Expressions of gender are diversifying. Communities are furiously trying to keep up by examining topics like gender fluidity and are openly discussing ideas about gender identities in national forums.

As a result, the language we use to convey and discuss gender is being re-evaluated. Recently, there has been a slew of articles debating “they” and “ze” as English singular gender-neutral pronouns. While many argue that these new pronouns will never ultimately catch on, genderqueer communities are grasping at them, and using them intentionally in an effort to affirm their identities.

The American Dialect Society actually voted “they” – used as a singular gender-neutral pronoun – 2015’s Word of the Year, deeming sentences like “They and I went to the movies” grammatically correct if the “they” references someone who does not identify strictly as either male or female. Many prescriptivist English speakers cringe at this usage, but it is English’s attempt at being socially inclusive, linguistically representing people with alternative gender expressions.

Smart riffs on gender-inflected endings are also popping up. For example, the inclusive “Latinx” is being offered to describe people of Latin descent who identify in a non-binary way, rather than boxing them into either the masculine “Latino” or feminine “Latina” form.

Within the last year or so, the Swedish Academy established a new gender-neutral pronoun, which was added to its official dictionary. Swedish uses han (m.), hon (f.), and now hen (n.), if gender is unknown, irrelevant, or non-binary.

There have been some mumblings about a gender-neutral “atemen” (a combination of the gendered second person plurals atem and aten) for the Modern Hebrew “you.” Still, this language has a more extensive problem.

Modern Hebrew is, as Orit Bershtling of Haifa University puts it, “[o]ne of the most sex-manic languages out there. [It] creates clean distinctions based on gender in most grammatical forms and obligatorily marks the gender of its speakers . . .[it is] a language that is shaped by the restrictive system of gender.”

Let me explain.

As in many other languages, every Hebrew noun has an inherent grammatical gender of either masculine (zachar) or feminine (nekeva). However, this is somewhat irrelevant, as it is entirely arbitrary and does not reflect any individual’s gender identity; it is hard to believe that anyone would be offended by a table’s being designated as either masculine or feminine. Hebrew pronouns, again as in many other languages, are also gendered, and any Hebrew language attempt to adopt a gender-neutral pronoun (such as “hen”) could work, as it has in Swedish.

The greater problem, however, is inherent in the Hebrew verb system. Modern Hebrew verbs have two essential components: the root (shoresh) and the morphological affixes that inflect for tense, person, number, and gender.

In the present tense, where an explicit subject is required for verb formation, the verb itself is still inflected for gender, ultimately forcing the speaker to state a gender identity. “I study” (m.) is “ani lomed,” while “I study” (f.) is “ani lomedet.” To say “I study” (or I anything) presently in Hebrew, one must choose a gender – ani lomed or ani lomedet; there is no in-between, there is no gender-neutral, there is no genderqueer. For a Hebrew verb to have meaning, it must be marked as either masculine or feminine.

Even if a Hebrew equivalent of “hen” or “ze” appeared, percolated into spoken language, and stuck, which verb form would follow it? Or, does Hebrew need a whole new set of genderqueer suffixes? This is certainly something to watch for.

If no new suffixes develop, the Hebrew verb system will continue to undermine the entire idea of gender fluidity. The system as it is makes it virtually impossible for people who identify as something other than either male or female to partake in conversation without linguistically committing to one or the other.

Language is a powerful thing. It has both the power to validate and to subvert. If Hebrew speakers are really going to accept, affirm, and represent the evolving forms of gender expression, then the Academy of Hebrew Language has some serious reworking to consider.

Laura Milmed has a degree in Linguistics from Columbia University, and is pursuing a Masters degree in Speech & Language Pathology from Boston University.

About the Author
Laura Milmed has a degree in Linguistics from Columbia University, and is pursuing a Masters degree in Speech & Language Pathology from Boston University.
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