The Movement to De-Gender Hebrew is Linguistically Mad

It is practically impossible to utter a complete sentence in Hebrew that lacks gender.

Teaching Hebrew in 1955. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images).

Teaching Hebrew in 1955. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images).

Observation
Dec. 19 2018
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at philologos@mosaicmagazine.com.

“In an Increasingly Non-Binary World, Is Gendered Hebrew Willing to Adapt?” was the title of a recent article in the Times of Israel describing attempts to introduce non-gendered language into Israeli speech.

A more pertinent question might be: “In a world increasingly threatened by an assault on age-old categories of male and female, should the human race be willing to adapt?” But I’ll try to keep my personal views out of this. That’s hard to do, though, and especially when it comes to language. Men and women who liked the world the way it was when it was divided into men and women are able to stand up for themselves. Languages need someone to defend them.

The idea of freeing language from gender distinctions first arose, to the best of my knowledge, in the 1960s and 70s in America under the impact of feminism, and was initially restricted to English nouns like “stewardess” and “chairman” that marked someone’s sex. Since English has very few such nouns, it was easy to persuade most speakers to begin saying “flight attendant” or “chairperson.”

On a scale of 1-to-5, with 1 denoting languages that make no gender distinctions at all and 5 denoting those that make a maximum of them, English might be ranked as a 2. The only thing that keeps it from being a 1 (as are, for example, Turkish, Hungarian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese) is its pronouns. A flight attendant must be either he or she. You can’t say, “I tried getting the flight attendant’s attention, but it didn’t see me,” as you can in Turkish. In fact, that’s all you can say in Turkish, in which the pronoun o means “he,” “she,” or “it” and is the only one applicable to such situations.

Late-20th-century American feminists specifically opposed the use of “he” or “she” when it was sexually stereotypical. Thus, they fought to amend sentences like “If someone is a good bus driver, he will announce the stops to his passengers” to “If someone is a good bus driver, he or she will announce the stops to his or her passengers.” Less awkward was the colloquial “they,” as in “If someone is a good bus driver, they will announce the stops to their passengers,” which eventually received the approval of language pundits who had long frowned on it. And, while limited to academic prose, one sometimes also saw “he” and “she” used interchangeably for the same person—e.g., “If someone is a good bus driver, he will announce the stops to his passengers. . . . She should do so well in advance.” As confusing and unnatural as this was, it wasn’t an attack on “he” or “she” per se.

All of this changed with the vocal LGBT movement of recent years with its support of “genderqueer people”—i.e., those, in one definition, “having two or more genders, having no gender, moving between genders, having a fluctuating gender identity, or being third gender or other-gendered.” Now, we are told that at least when talking about such people, “he” and “she” must be considered inherently discriminatory. In their place, just as the Turks say o, we should use “ze,” “ey,” or some other invented word (a consensus on the preferred one not having yet been reached). For example: “If someone is a good bus driver, ze will announce the stops to zir passengers.”

Is it impractical to think of getting hundreds of millions of English speakers to speak this way? You would think so. Still, I was recently told by a professor at one of America’s leading universities that its faculty has been requested to ask participants at each of its meetings what pronoun they would like to be referred to by, with, I assume, “ze” and “ey” as possible options. Although this might take some getting used to, it’s admittedly simpler than conducting faculty meetings in Turkish.

 

Is it time to put “he” and “she” on the endangered-pronoun list? Not yet. And if it’s too soon in English, it’s a hundredfold more so in Hebrew, which on our scale of 1 to 5 might be put at 4.5. Yet there is now, the Times of Israel informs us, a movement to float, along with other non-gendered usages, the newly minted pronoun hey as an alternative to Hebrew’s hu, “he,” and hi, “she.” (That hi, pronounced “he,” means “she” in Hebrew is one of those oddities that unrelated languages sometimes exhibit.) Several progressive Hebrew teachers are already said to be trying this out in their classes.

Hebrew gets a 4.5 not only because every noun and pronoun in it is either masculine or feminine (this is the case with French and Spanish, too), and not only because every adjective qualifying a noun must be equally masculine or feminine (French and Spanish share this trait as well), but because nearly every one of its verbal forms is also declined masculinely or femininely (this is true of no European language).

Thus, for example, a boy is yeled, a girl yaldah. A good boy is yeled tov, a good girl yaldah tovah. “A good boy comes” is yeled tov ba, “a good girl comes” yaldah tovah ba’ah. If Hebrew doesn’t rate a full 5, this is mainly because, unlike French with its masculine definite article le and feminine definite article la, the Hebrew definite article ha- is genderless and used with masculine and feminine nouns alike.

It is practically impossible to utter a complete sentence in Hebrew that lacks gender, from “It’s raining” (masculine third-person singular verb yored, “is falling,” masculine noun geshem,”rain”) to “human rights are inalienable” (feminine plural noun z’khuyot, “rights,” masculine noun adam, “human,” feminine third-person plural verb bilti-nitanot, “are not subject,” preposition-plus-feminine noun l’shlilah, “to negation”). And since the gender of Hebrew nouns is often not predictable from their sound or appearance, this means that every Israeli child must learn, in the course of language acquisition, the correct gender of thousands of words.

Sometimes this is counterintuitive. Thus, for example, shad, a female breast, is masculine, while beytsim, testicles, are feminine. And to complicate matters still further, while most Hebrew nouns take one of two plural endings, the so-called masculine –im and the so-called feminine –ot, many masculine nouns take feminine plurals and some feminine nouns take masculine plurals. Here, too, this is sometimes the opposite of what one might logically expect. The masculine noun av, father, for instance, is pluralized femininely as avot, while the feminine noun ishah, woman, is pluralized masculinely as nashim. Go figure.

 

All of this gives rise to two fundamental thoughts. The first: the notion that a language like Hebrew can be de-gendered is linguistically mad. Although, for just about every Hebrew word, LGBTers can propose, as they have done, new neuter noun forms, new neuter pronoun forms, new neuter adjective forms, and new neuter verb forms, what they are proposing is an entirely new language. English would still be recognizable as English if “he” and “she” were gotten rid of. A genderless Hebrew would not be Hebrew.

But the second thought is this: should a gendered Hebrew really matter, even to an ideologically committed LGBTer? As paradoxical as it may sound, in a language in which everything is gendered, and often inconsistently, gender may count for less than in a language in which only a few things are. If every Hebrew-speaking man has to share a gender with kitchen tables, chairs, olive trees, shadows, walls, streets, cabbages, and air conditioners, and every Hebrew-speaking woman has to share one with night tables, sofas, fig trees, reflections, ceilings, alleyways, cauliflowers, and automobiles, what exactly is it that they are sharing? We don’t normally think of walls or ceilings as having a sex. They are male or female grammatically, not socially or biologically. Why can’t “genderqueer” Hebrew speakers think of themselves in the same way? It’s much easier to do than in English.

People should be respected. So should languages, which represent the accumulated experience of vast numbers of people over vast numbers of years. When it comes to specific words that are overtly offensive to minorities, it is reasonable to expect a language to accommodate itself accordingly. When, however, it comes to what is linguistically structural, the shoe needs to be on the other foot. Here, minorities should accommodate themselves to the language. And we, as speakers of languages that make a minority feel uncomfortable just because the languages come with structural gender markers, should respond: “If you don’t like it, there’s always Turkish or Vietnamese.”

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at philologos@mosaicmagazine.com.

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