Some English-speakers have been hailing the recent mainstream campaign to eliminate gender-specific pronouns in Swedish. A few Anglophones, though far from the mainstream, have also been seeking for some years now to implement neologistic gender-neutral replacements for ‘he’ and ‘she’. The Swedish case in particular has been held to be a reflection of that society’s relative progressiveness in the politics of gender. What is missed here, out of ignorance or wilful avoidance, is that there are many languages in which gendered pronouns have either gone extinct or were never used in the first place, and which are spoken in societies that are hardly known for their gender egalitarianism: for example, Persian or Turkmen. Somehow, even without access to ‘she’ or ‘her’, but only an all-purpose ‘he/she/it’, Iranian courts manage to sentence women to death by stoning for ‘adultery’. We might just as well predict that Swedish society would take up lapidation and anti-adultery laws as a result of the elimination of gendered pronouns, as that it would thereby draw closer to full gender equality.
Both predictions are absurd. And yet, this interest in gendered personal pronouns does at least remind us of a way of thinking about grammatical gender that is generally underemphasised by linguists and language instructors: that the masculine and feminine genders of pronouns, and more interestingly of nouns, reflects a division of the cosmos into categories that radiate out from the sexual dimorphism of human bodies. In English there is only vestigial gender for substantive terms for non-biological entities: ships, sometimes countries, sometimes sportscars, are ‘she’. In French, every noun is masculine or feminine, sometimes in ways that seem arbitrary. What is it, for example, about abstractions, such as those words ending in -ité or -tion, that is inherently feminine? And why is the word for ‘vagina’ masculine, or the most common slang term for ‘penis’ feminine? Yet there are also some ways in which the non-arbitrary ideology of gender is reflected in grammatical gender: the words for ‘father’, ‘son’ ‘god’, etc., are all masculine, which seems obvious of course, but which would not be obvious if, as we are sometimes told, there were no connection between grammatical gender and the presumed biological (or in the case of God, spiritual) sex of the entity in question.
In modern French the masculine has absorbed the neuter, which was the third gender in Latin, the principal ancestor language of French, as well as in Greek, Sanskrit, and Proto-Indo-European, and which remains the third gender in living Indo-European languages such as German and Russian. What is the neuter, and what does it reveal about the cosmology of those language-users who divide the world not just into masculine and feminine entities, but also into entities that are neither/nor? It may be that this category is not simply for the leftover entities that are neither masculine nor feminine, but rather is the vestige of an archaic system of noun classes in which the masculine and the feminine were only two instances of a much richer and more diverse way of carving up the world.
When I studied Old Church Slavonic with Boris Gasparov in the 1990s, he was actively interested in the noun-class system of the Niger-Congo languages, which include up to 22 nominal classes based on semantic hyperonymy in which more specific categories of being are grouped in more general nominal classes. Place, animacy, number, and so on exist alongside gender as basic noun forms. If I recall correctly, Gasparov was drawing on the work of some earlier formalist from Prague or Tartu who argued that the distinct declensions for animate and inanimate nouns in Slavic languages (in the masculine accusative singular for example) reflects an earlier system akin to the Niger-Congo languages in which masculine and feminine in no way exhaust the possibilities for carving up the world of things named by nouns, as they do, say, in modern French. On this view, then, the neuter could be the residue of what were once several different gender-like noun categories that unlike the masculine and feminine genders have not even a putative grounding in biological sex. These all could have been folded into the neuter gender in the same way that the neuter was in more recent times folded into the masculine in French.
Recent desultory clicking brought me to the website nonbinary.org. This organisation, I think, offers the purest expression I have seen of contemporary transgender ideology. I will make no secret of my inability to accept, or understand, certain elements of this ideology, nor will I hide my horror at the quickness with which inability such as mine is denounced these days as ‘transphobia’. I take it rather that the inability results from real inconsistencies in the ideology. In particular it is not at all clear to me how human social reality can be carved up into ‘cis’ and ‘trans’ if we are in fact committed to non-binarity. You can argue that ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are just the tip of the iceberg, that one can also be, to take an example from nonbinary.org, ‘frostgender’. But if this is your view, if you think there are countless ways individual human beings might discover within themselves an inward affinity to some entity, process, or phenomenon in nature or in abstraction, and that the acknowledgment of such affinity is the only adequate account of gender, then don’t you dare tell me I’m ‘cis’. How on earth would you know?
It seems to me very plausible that such affinities are indeed the expression of a richer system of placing human beings within a cosmos of classes of entities than the one that divides everything into masculine and feminine. If it seems too fine-grained to believe that a person might truly be ‘frostgender’, by hyperonymy we might still be able to imagine a system in which some people affiliate with the class of water-based entities, or the class of cold things. Acknowledging our affinity to the animal world in particular, and expressing this affinity through our social identities, seems a particularly natural and appropriate thing to do. I am confident in fact that there is just as much sense in a human being saying that, though they were born in human form, it is to the class of jaguars or crows that they truly belong, as it is for, say, a human being born biologically a male to say that it is nonetheless to the class of human females that he truly belongs. At present the latter statement is supposed to command our full and unquestioning respect, while the former would be received at best with curiosity and most likely with unsanctioned ridicule. This distinction is arbitrary and culturally specific in the extreme.
The only social outlet the person who identifies with an animal has in our society is in outward affiliation to shabby sexual subcultures like the ‘furries’ or the ‘pups’. The profound truth that these subcultures skim seems to go unnoticed either by their members or by their mockers: that we are, not just in our ‘fetishes’ or ‘kinks’, but in our deepest natures, the kin of other living beings. Our historical bond with them is older even than sexual dimorphism, and it is not at all surprising that it moves some people to commit themselves in their social comportment to not just kinship, but inward identity, with a given animal kind. They do not need to go out and buy some rubber costume in order for the claim of identity to be veracious, either, any more than someone who claims to be frostgender needs to dress up as a snowflake. And mistaking the trouble one is willing to go through to manifest themselves socially as a member of this or that trans identity with trans identity itself is to mistake the trivial appearances for the fascinating and important metaphysics at work in human identity. We are, none of us, ‘cis’.
But back to grammar. There are vestiges in many languages of a vision of the world in which gender is largely ungrounded in biological sex: the vast majority of gendered entities —stars, houses, rocks, and so on— plainly have no biological sex at all. In languages such as English, gender has mostly retreated to those entities that are thought to have a sex, and until recently it was supposed that the classification in terms of gender was grounded in that sex. This grounding has been called into question in the past few decades, but if grammatical gender for pronouns withers away or is abolished by decree, this will only be the completion of a process of de-gendering that has already occurred for the vast majority of entities in the world. There was a time when stars and rocks could be masculine or feminine, with no expectation that this classification be grounded in biological sex. And now we have arrived at a point where even biological sex is not enough to ground gender, but what is forgotten here is that for most of human history, if natural language is any indication, there was no expectation of such a grounding.
Now we might say good riddance to grammatical gender, we might say that English is ‘more evolved’ than French to the extent that it mostly lacks gender. But we might also look back to richer systems of noun classes in other more distant languages as holding out for us a more adequate expression of the non-binarity we now claim to be seeking in the social expression of gender. What if we could find, in natural language, the elements for a conception of gender-like classes that do not stop at masculine and feminine, that presume no grounding in biological sex, and that help us to make sense of the sort of affinities, for example to entities in the natural world, that the new non-binarity is asking us to recognise? What if the best hope for progress is in archaicism, finding those old ways of speaking in which my inward affinity to another being can be expressed as true, even if my outward form is nothing like that being? Une étoile is not really feminine, and no human being is really a jaguar; it is also likely that no human being is a ’man’ or a ‘woman’ in any clear and incontestable sense. But these are all ways of talking, of making meaning in our human lives.