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Non-binary Language Innovations: A Reflection on Gender Identities and Multilingualism

Written by Penelope Bollini


Hi everyone! In this post of the series, I would like to address the question of multilingualism and identities. In this series, we’ve already presented a few languages with their linguistic challenges to expressing non-binary identities and the several solutions people have been experimenting with. However, if I think of my experience and the environment I am immersed in my everyday life, it seems evident that most students navigate and express themselves in different languages. In this post, I would like to address the question of multilingualism, or to be more precise, I would like to ask the question “How do non-binary people cross-linguistically live their identity?” While I cannot answer this question in this post, I hope these lines can provide a beginning of a discussion about the intersection between multilingualism and gender identity, so let’s delve into it.


A starting point, or an assumption that must be made clear, is that this whole reflection is based on the idea that language and identities are intertwined. That means that language is a way to express one's gender identity, but is also a way to affirm it, perform it, and co-construct our identities through interactions. If language matters, then the way we speak about ourselves in different languages and the language resources available in different languages can impact our gender expression. Non-binary people who are bilingual or multilingual may navigate their identities in different ways depending on the languages they speak and the cultural context in which they live. For example, non-binary people may navigate multilingualism by:

  • Using non-binary alternatives in all languages: A non-binary person may choose to use non-binary language innovations in all languages to reflect their identity.

  • Using different pronouns or titles in different languages: A non-binary person may choose to use non-binary language innovations in one language but not in another, depending on the grammatical structure and cultural context of each language.

  • Using a different name in each language: Some non-binary individuals choose to use a different name in each language they speak, to reflect the cultural and linguistic context of each language.

  • Adapting to the gender system of each language: Some non-binary people may choose to adapt to the grammatical gender system of each language they speak, using masculine or feminine pronouns or titles depending on the context, while still identifying as non-binary. This can lead to misgendering or can be seen as an “accommodation” of misgendering.

  • Educating others about non-binary identities: Non-binary individuals may choose to educate others about their identity and the use of non-binary language innovations in bilingual contexts, in order to promote greater understanding.

  • Code-switching or code-mixing: non-binary people may choose to code-switch in bilingual (or multilingual) contexts only when it comes to certain words or pronouns (see Kaplan 2022). This alternative could be more or less acceptable in certain contexts. For example, in institutional and work contexts, code-mixing and code-switching is not often common practice or are accepted only when it comes to particular terms that are specific to the field.

As we’ve already seen in other posts, different languages may linguistically pose more or fewer barriers when it comes to talking about identities that do not conform to the masculine-feminine dichotomy. But what are the implications of this for people who are multilingual? What about people who grow up in a place but then move to a different place and use a different language in that context? Each of the alternatives described above is valid, but to further illustrate how language can impact non-binary peoples’ gender expression I would like to take two examples, one from a published paper in which the author discusses the experience of a non-binary English-speaking person living in the US (see Spiegelman 2022), and one from a person that described to me their experience as an Italian student in an English context.


The first is the case of Ari, a teenager who grew up speaking English in the US and who was identifying as non-binary since they were 14. While in high school, they studied French from the time they were 11 to 17 years old. In this institutional setting, Ari was presented with a version of French that was grammatically binary, and that did not provide alternatives to express their gender in a different way. While today there is a discussion on écriture inclusive (gender-inclusive language) in francophone contexts and a neopronoun (iel) was included in the dictionary Le Petit Robert (although it is still not recognised by the Académie Française), in Ari’s experience the teachers did not talk about such alternatives and Ari was asked to make a choice between the feminine and masculine grammatical gender in French.


At the beginning of their experience, Ari thought that it was in some way positive that the French teacher had asked them which pronoun they would prefer in French since there was no non-binary alternative. This was seen in a positive light especially when compared to other teachers that constantly misgendered Ari when talking in English, even though they had been notified that Ari’s pronouns were “they/them” . The French language, or the version of French that was taught in their high school, practically put Ari in front of the choice between masculine and feminine grammatical gender. When posed in front of the choice, Ari chose to use elle (feminine pronoun) in the beginning, but after a grade switched to il (masculine pronoun) without notifying their teacher first. Ari shared that they were feeling anxious that that might have had a negative effect on their grade since the teacher might have read that switch as a “language mistake” on their part, but that was not the case.


While Ari was given the choice between il and elle, it must be noted that through this choice there was no way to avoid misgendering themself. That is, of course, if we follow the assumption that grammatical gender should match the societal gender of the person. Ari was still non-binary when talking about themself in French and referring to themself through elle, however, the choice of using elle in this case created a basis for misgendering. In fact, that had an effect on the teacher that, on a particular occasion, repeatedly misgendered Ari saying that “she” was making a good argument. Especially relevant in the fact that this misgendering occurred in English. While Ari had been clear with the teacher about their pronouns and had complied with the teacher’s request to choose either il or elle in French, the teacher transposed the choice of pronouns in French back to English talking about them and complementing them while using “she/her” pronouns. Another student interrupted the course to let the teacher know that she was misgendering Ari; as a consequence, Ari had to stay after class and listen to the teacher tell them that she “could not be expected to learn new special rules for students as she spoke four languages”. This experience was particularly difficult for Ari because they felt they had done nothing wrong and the teacher was aware of their pronouns since she asked them to make a choice at the beginning of the course. Moreover, Ari’s gender seemed to be a problem and an inconvenience not only in French but also in English. Ari said: “I was so happy the moment that I finished my French final because I was just able to walk out and be like, I never have to take the French language again and I never have to deal with this situ- kind of situation again.” From their experience, it is clear that French grammar posed problems to Ari’s gender expression, but also that when a person expresses themself in different languages, the choices they make (or have to make) in each language can have an effect on the way people see them. This also bears the question of to what extent can a person’s identity be perceived as non-binary if they do not use non-binary linguistic alternatives in one or more languages. Sure, Ari’s gender identity had not changed because they were using different pronouns, however, the fact that the teacher was referring to them with elle in French created an image of Ari as a woman.


The second case is almost the opposite: Sofia is a genderfluid person who grew up speaking Italian and using grammatically feminine gender pronouns and suffixes. Sofia started to identify as genderfluid after they were 20 and did not change the way they were talking about themself in Italian. When they moved abroad for their studies, they were immersed in an international context and communicated in English in their everyday life. Suddenly, it seemed to them that they had the choice to pick a different pronoun to be addressed with. While in Italian Sofia thought there was “no way out” of the grammatical binary language, English seemed to provide them with new linguistic resources to express their gender. Moreover, Sofia noticed how freeing it was to be able to speak about themself without having to express their gender in every conversation. In fact, due to the language structure of English, Sofia could talk about themself without disclosing their gender identity in their everyday life, as their gender was not marked in every adjective or participle. They appreciated that aspect of English and became more comfortable with their gender identity and with the fact that they did not have to mark their gender in every phrase.


However, Sofia knows that they are quite cis-passing, and therefore people would easily assume that they are a woman. This assumption is not reinforced by their language when Sofia talks in English as they are not marking their gender in different parts of the sentence and they systematically use gender-neutral alternatives when it comes to semantically gendered nouns (e.g. using “sibling” instead of “sister/brother”). On the contrary, when talking in Italian, this assumption is reinforced by the fact that they use grammatical feminine gender when talking about themself. This constant need to gender themself in Italian makes Sofia wonder whether they can be perceived in their non-binary gender identity when speaking in Italian. This fear or discomfort comes from the fact, again, that grammatical gender is generally assumed to agree with the societal gender of the person, therefore, in a way, by choosing to use feminine pronouns for themself in Italian Sofia could be “misleading others into misgendering” them. While talking about themself through feminine pronouns, Sofia is still genderfluid and is not indicating that they are a woman. Nonetheless, the general interlocutor would probably assume that they are a woman based on what they use to refer to themself if Sofia had not communicated their gender identity to the interlocutor yet.


In this case, we can also notice how language can play a role in a person’s coming-out experience. On this issue, Sofia comments: “I do not want to come out to every single person I have an interaction with, and, in English, I don’t have to! I can go a whole evening just chatting with people without having to tell them about my gender identity if I do not feel about it, without misgendering myself, and, in most cases, without being misgendered. But when I speak in Italian, I know that any time I use feminine forms for adjectives and verbs I am basically saying that ‘I am a woman’ in the ears of my interlocutor, but I would like them not to think about me as a woman and not contribute to them thinking about me as a woman through my language”.


To counteract this ingrained idea of grammatical gender agreeing with the societal gender, other people have chosen to adopt pronouns and grammatical gender suffixes that are “opposite” of what one would expect. That is, if a non-binary person grew up with people referring to them in the masculine form, and they are cis-passing as men, once they came out as non-binary they adopted the feminine form in order to create distance between them and the gender people assume. This creates contrast and friction between the appearance of a person and their language which can make the interlocutor stop and think about what they thought they knew about a person’s gender identity. When talking about this strategy with Sofia, however, they shared that they would not feel comfortable if people referred to them with masculine pronouns since they are “not a boy and do not want to be associated with men.” Once again, the grammatical gender seems for them to indicate a link with societal gender that is too strong to break.


As introduced in a previous post, there are currently non-binary language innovations in Italian that are being more-or-less used by people, therefore, at least in informal settings, Sofia could choose to adopt one or more of these strategies when talking about themself. When discussing Sofia’s non-use of these alternatives, they shared that, alongside not wanting to come out every time they talk with someone new (because sometimes they feel like it is not the right context as they would feel singled out or unsafe), there are two other reasons that prevent them from using these strategies. The first is that they do not want to be “an inconvenience”: asking people to adjust their language use, especially people who had been referring to them in the feminine form for their whole life, seemed to Sofia a way to burden them with “useless demands”. In other words, these people feel that as long as they know that Sofia is genderfluid, there is no reason for them to use something different. With English-speaking friends, Sofia sees this as less inconvenient as they would only need to adjust when using a pronoun and semantically gendered words. The second reason is summarized in this thought they shared: “I don’t know what to use when I talk in my native language, everything feels artificial, to a certain extent, it feels like my non-binary identity is more genuine in my English-speaking experience.” The first half of this affirmation shows how difficult for Sofia also is to adopt new language strategies after having passed most of their life using the feminine grammatical gender and the sense of “artificiality” that they also feel when it comes to adopting these new strategies. The second half of the affirmation underlines a deeper link between the way people live their gender identities in different languages. The fact that Sofia feels that their experience is more genuine in English than in Italian is linked to the fact that they find it easier to linguistically express (or avoid expressing) their gender identity.


Bringing together Ari and Sofia’s cases, it seems that they both find it easier to express their gender identity when they “do not have to deal” with a language in which they grammatically do not seem to “naturally fit in”. Of course, we must not forget that languages change: just as the singular they is now widely accepted in particular English-speaking contexts, non-binary language innovations could in the future become more widely accepted both in French and in Italian. Moreover, the context also plays a role and non-binary people that live their everyday life in more than one language have to adjust their language use at different levels: from the grammatical structures of the languages, to how accepting of the non-binary language innovations the contexts are, and to how queer-respecting and accepting the people they are communicating with are. From these narratives, it seems that navigating all these levels seems challenging and exhausting as non-binary people constantly need to compromise between being misgendered, causing discomfort, feeling safe, and affirming their truest identity through language.


These two cases provide just a small insight into how gender identity and language are intertwined and how navigating a multilingual environment can be at times liberating and constraining based on the language structure of the other language. It furthermore shows how important the context in which one is immersed is as it is in providing a space for non-binary identity expression. What has been your experience navigating multilingualism and your or your friends’ identities?


P.S. I am always up for a chat about this topic and am extremely curious to explore how different language communities are discussing (or not discussing) the possibility of non-binary language. So if you’d like us to write an article about your language, let me know if you’re up for a coffee or tea to give me some insights. If you’re also interested in writing, we can produce a four-handed post or you could even write your own piece.


P.P.S. If you’re interested in another KatBlad piece that discusses how multilingualism relates to our identities and relationships check out Joanna Walker’s contribution to the last issue of the KatBlad magazine (issue 115, p.30: “Does language define who we are?”).

References:

Kaplan, J. (2022). Binary-constrained code-switching among non-binary French-English bilinguals. Proceedings of the Linguistic Society of America, 7(1), 5279.

Spiegelman, J. D. (2022). " You used 'elle,' so now you're a girl": Discursive possibilities for a non-binary teenager in French class. L2 Journal, 14(3).

Cover image: https://www.them.us/story/coming-out-they-them-pronouns

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