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June 30, 2016



Hopefully we'll see more countries taking steps towards gender equality in the near future.

the illuminator

1. You write: "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."

I know certain trans folks who agree with you entirely about this: they spend a decent amount of time creating various bulwarks for the binary -- arguing that it does some good, has some advantages, etc. (or at least a reformed binary would have advantages). This often surprises (cis) folks who think the only progressive/ enlightened view is something like non-binarity or something even stronger like gender abolitionism.

2. You write: "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?" ... "We are, none of us, 'cis'."

Maybe I'm being uncharitable to you here, but this strikes me as over-reaching. (i) the gender assigned to me at birth by my doctor and parents was 'Male', (ii) I acknowledge an inward affinity to maleness, and (iii) I tell you and other people that fact (both explicitly and implicitly). (i) and (ii) together mean I fit the usual definition of 'cisgender,' and adding (iii) is how you and others would know that I am cisgender.

Perhaps your point is that I probably have other inward affinities -- e.g. let's say towards the jaguar. Yet my doctors and parents classified me as human/ homo sapiens. So I would be 'trans' in that sense of being attached a label at birth that does not match my inward affinities. That strikes me as sensible and correct.

But I think one can also say (in the most common understanding of the terms today): yes, I am cisgender, because of my inward affinity for maleness matches the 'Male' written on my birth certificate. I currently think the pros of that way of speaking outweigh the cons of declaring nobody cis.


There are languages wherein classes are based on physical characteristics - flat, round, long, thin, heavy, etc. I think the significance of classes - however defined and used - is that they are attempts to understand the world and our place in it. One of the major values of language is its ability to condense ideas into functionally useful units to facilitate grasping the relatedness of different things. I also think the obsession with matters of self-identity indicates serious problems in the social environment. Something's wrong when how you classify yourself becomes the most critical issue in your life. It reflects an unhealthy narcissism.

On the general subject of linguistic musing, note than in Russian, the object of a verb is normally in the accusative case when that object is inanimate, but in the genitive case when the object is a person. This usage may reflect on the whole concept of 'genitive refers to possession'. I've seen the same grammar in old dialects of German, and since German and Russian stem from Wes/East branches of IndoEuropean, the usage may be very ancient.


One interesting manner, I think, to frame language is as a tool for attention (but not as the only such tool, there are a lot, labels, jingles, colors, odors, wears...). So, when we are constrained to use the pronouns she/he we will be attentive to the gender of the person we are seeing for instance, because otherwise we would be unable to speak about that record. The language constrains the parents among others to ask to the child, "was it a boy or a girl whom you are speaking about" to correct her; the parents then concretely teach the child to be attentive to that criteria (but, even in a language without grammatical gender, there are a lot of other tools that will teach the child to pay attention to it, language is a tool for attention, not the only tool). Every language has a particular way to dispose, but not to determine, its speakers. I recall my then-almost-three-year-old son saying me "il y a beaucoup de personnages dans le metro"; I laughed and I corrected him, they are not "personnages", characters, but "personnes", people. I was attracting then his attention to the distinction between fiction and reality, game and life; the French language constrained to teach that distinction to my child. There are no language that doesn't dispose in a way or in an other its speakers. I can understand the non-gender project : it is maybe not always appropriate to pay attention to gender; but I think your proposition not especially to eliminate but to add more grammatical markers as in "archaic" languages is more relevant because it stimulates our inventiveness and attentiveness, we would learn new ways to be attentive to the world, whereas eliminating all classes will eliminate language tout court without creating anything new.

Alon Levy

A few things.

1. Stoning is no longer used in Iran. It's a recent development, from 2002... but decriminalization of homosexuality in Western countries is fairly recent, too, from about the 1960s or so. Yes, it's a quibble, but if you want to make an argument that Islamic countries are sexist, please get it right. And if you don't want to talk specifically about Islamic countries, why specify Turkish and Persian, and not Chinese or Lingala or Zulu or Japanese?

2. More to the point of Swedish gender-neutral pronouns, Swedish specifically borrowed the pronoun used in Finnish, which has no grammatical gender. This is why the other North Germanic languages, which have not had the same contact with Finnish, have not done the same. In similar vein, Malay, whose indigenous pronoun system distinguishes degrees of politeness, borrows the socially neutral English pronouns I and you.

3. You ask why abstract nouns are feminine. There is an answer: it comes from an animacy hierarchy, in which men > women > inanimate objects. It's no coincidence that the Latin nominative suffix for neuter plurals and feminine singulars is the same. When late Proto-Indo-European developed the three-gender system familiar in so many classical languages, it treated some neuter plurals as abstract concepts that could be animate, like aqua (but not hudor...), and those got their own gender, which also got to include women. All of those early civilizations were extremely patriarchal, and their language reflects this. There was as far as I understand the mainline of IE research no stage in which proto-IE had many noun classes; as reconstructed, it had an animate vs. inanimate distinction, which evolved into masculine vs. neuter, with the feminine coming from a new medial category of collective nouns and abstraction.

4. There exist communities of otherkin - people who believe that they're really various animals, or sometimes even mythological creatures like unicorns. They're derided by pretty much everyone else, for a simple reason: the gap between humans and animals is vaster than any distinction within humanity, including the gender distinction. Gender is for the most part binary, but there is a fair number of exceptions, hence trans and genderqueer people. By analogy, most people in Europe live on one side of the Alps or another, most in North America live on one side of the Rockies or another, and so on, but a few straddle the boundary, and in some places the boundary is fuzzy - perhaps the watershed boundary is fuzzy, with water seeping across the border (as with the Rhine-Danube watershed), perhaps it doesn't correspond perfectly to cultural regions.

5. Technically, grammatical gender is indeed a conservative feature of Indo-European languages - conservative in the linguistic sense, not the political one. People do say things like "Greek is more archaic than the Romance and Germanic languages in that it's maintained most of the classical case system and all three genders." This is specific to how grammatical gender (and case) is encoded in IE languages: final vowels, which have a tendency to erode over the millennia. This is especially true in Germanic languages, where the strong stress accent causes unstressed syllables to erode faster. In Afro-Asiatic languages, where the feminine is encoded with a -t (or t-, or both), gender is not considered an archaism.

6. Bantu word classes have some similarities with grammatical gender, but I think you're going too far in talking about how much richer the system is. First, it counts singulars and plurals separately, by which standards Indo-European languages ancestrally had 9 classes (3 genders times 3 numbers: singular, dual, plural). Second, a fair amount of this system is derivational: in Swahili, mtoto = child, classed with people; kitoto = infant, classed with diminutives; and utoto = childhood, classed with abstractions. Third, as far as I know, in no Bantu language does the noun class system distinguish men from women. A vague European equivalent is that any diminutive in German using the -chen suffix is grammatically neuter, even brazenly gendered words like Mädchen.

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