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  • Writer's pictureKAT-Blad

Non-binary language innovations in Hebrew: playing with(in) the structure

Hello everyone, this is the third post of a series in which we will be discussing language innovations related to non-binary identities in several languages.

Language innovations can occur in different ways: from loanwords to neologisms, languages change and re-invent themselves. Language change is always embedded in social reality and language innovations come alongside social movements. The case of non-binary language innovation is not an exception. With the rise of performative and constructivist theories of gender, gender binarism was challenged and, with it, binary linguistic norms. The linguistic representation of gender(s) was contested and together with a request for the recognition of non-binary identities, a way to linguistically represent these identities was needed. Every language has its own challenges when it comes to gendered language, and the intertwinement between language and culture makes the introduction of non-binary language innovations case specific. The goal of the series is to explore the way different languages have been dealing with non-binary language innovations.

In this post, I will talk about the challenges that are specific to Hebrew in the expression of non-binary identities. To get acquainted with Hebrew and its specificities I talked with two students from our department: Galya and Dylan. I want to thank them both for guiding me in the discovery of this language and for your patience in explaining how the language works (repeatedly!). Without them, this post would not have been possible.

Let’s delve into it.

Gender in Hebrew

Hebrew is a grammatically gendered language in which each noun is either masculine or feminine. In their singular form, masculine nouns are generally unmarked and feminine nouns are marked by specific suffixes (e.g. /ah/, /et/, /it/); while in the plural form both genders are marked in specific ways (/im/ for the masculine, /ot/ for the feminine); although exceptions exist. Moreover, satellite elements such as verbs, pronouns, adjectives, prepositions, and numerals are inflected according to the noun they refer to as illustrated in the following:

In this case, the noun “girl” as well as the adjective “tired” and the verb “returned” are inflected in the feminine singular form. However, a distinction must be made between the written and the spoken language. In fact, for some words, the difference between the masculine and the feminine form only relies on the use of different vowels; since in written Hebrew only consonants are written, in these cases, the difference would not appear in the text. As is the case for the word “teacher”:

In the second and third case, the vowels are also spelled out therefore the gender of the teacher is evident. However, generally speaking, “teacher” would be written מורה, without the vowels, hence the gender would not be explicit. Nonetheless, it must be noted that also in this case a person would read מורה either in the feminine or masculine form and would accordingly understand the teacher to be either a man or a woman.

Masculine form as unmarked and feminists’ criticisms

If you’ve read Kyle’s post on the history of Hebrew, you’re already familiar with the fact that Hebrew has been kept alive for centuries through liturgical use and is the only example of successful revitalisation up to this point. One of the strategies employed to revitalise Hebrew was corpus planning, in the form of the standardisation of the language, a process that is currently passionately advocated by the Academy of the Hebrew Language, the ruling institution in the field of the Hebrew language. According to the Academy, the masculine form is the unmarked one that can be used to refer both to men and women.

This stance has been criticised by feminists that saw the acceptance of the masculine form as the neutral one the erasure of women from the language which contributes to their exclusion from social reality as well [1]. Therefore, making women explicit in the Hebrew language has been seen as a way to affect attitudes and perceptions, as well as to promote gender equality among Hebrew speakers.

The Academy of the Hebrew Language has not been completely oblivious to women’s struggles and demands, officially recognising the introduction of certain feminine forms. Moreover, the Academy stated that it is possible to double the nouns (expressing both the masculine and the feminine form) when it is necessary to underline the presence of women in a group. However, the institutional recognition still privileges clearness of writing and longstanding grammatical rules over women’s linguistic representation as it is advised to double only the noun while every other element in a phrase should be kept at the “masculine neutral form” in order to avoid “burdening of the text”.

Playing with the rules

Even though the Academy of the Hebrew Language has opened up a very small and defined space for women in the language, Hebrew writers/speakers have been experimenting with the possibilities that the language system offers in order to make Hebrew more inclusive. Like in every other case we’ve talked about in previous posts, historically the requests for non-binary (“neutral”) solutions followed the requests to make women visible in language. The solutions proposed can be divided into two: those that work well in the written medium, but cannot be verbalised, and those that can be verbalised.

Solutions that cannot be verbalised

The first way around expressing gender has already been introduced above and it implies only using words for which the difference between masculine and feminine is expressed by vowels and not consonants. However, this solution is not applicable in all cases because for some words the consonants also change between the masculine and the feminine form. Moreover, the reader will understand the written word as either masculine or feminine and will have to choose between the two in speaking.

A second solution used is doubling the ending, therefore, writing, one after the other, the masculine and feminine endings. In Hebrew, five of the twenty-two letters of the alphabet are written differently based on their position. In particular, each of these letters is written in two different ways, based on whether it is in the ending position or not. When stacking endings one after the other, the writers also choose whether to use the final ending for the masculine ending or not (even though that letter appears not at the end of the word). The stacking of the endings can be done in different ways, take for example the word “students”:

These solutions are increasingly common for inclusive language, although they still rely on masculine and feminine forms and cannot be used in the spoken language (technically, the first two could be verbalised). However, the Academy of the Hebrew Language has explicitly expressed that these solutions are not recommended as they go against the rule of Hebrew writing [2].

Finally, a graphic artist has created an alternative by adding a dozen letters to the Hebrew alphabet. The “multi-gendered Hebrew” [3] is an alternative in which the character for the masculine and for the feminine final letter are mixed. In the blended character, the masculine and feminine forms are still recognizable, but the sign is a new one that aims to include all genders. For example, “welcome” is written as:

The font is free to download from her website [3] and is increasingly being used as well, although as with the other solutions, it cannot be verbalised.

Solutions that can be verbalised

Talking in a non-binary way poses more challenges than writing in it, nonetheless, Hebrew speakers have been experimenting with different ways to achieve this, starting with using tenses for which gender is not specified. This includes two main strategies. The first is gender avoidance through the use of passive forms: since the passive form is not gender-marked, expressing oneself in this way allows for overcoming the need to express gender. The second, is the use of past or future tenses, even when talking about the present, for example:

In these strategies, contextual information is essential to understand that the choice of a different tense is prompted by the willingness to express non-binary identities. The possible confusion that one could experience by mixing the tenses can be averted by the attention to the context.

Alongside the use of different tenses, another strategy is playing with the agreement between elements. In particular, this is done through the use of inverse pronouns or through mixing gender markings. In the former case, the use of the inverse pronouns allows non-binary people to distance themselves from either gender and to express a separation between their sex and gender [4]. In the latter case, gender markings on different elements of a sentence are mixed for example by using a masculine pronoun with a feminine verb or vice versa:

All solutions that can be verbalised, can also be used in the written text, although due to the relevance of the context, in some cases the fact that a solution indexes a non-binary identity might be lost in the written medium. For example, if a text is sent using inverse pronouns to talk about a third person, and the receiver of the message has never met the third person, they might assume that the person is either a man or a woman based on the pronouns and gender markings used in the text. Conversely, mixing gender markings makes it evident that at least “something is going on” and the gender identity of the person referred is explicit.

In real life, people mix and match these solutions based on the context, but all solutions are rooted in the linguistically binary system of Hebrew. This raises the question of whether non-binary identities can actually be expressed through the binary system. For what concerns non-verbalised solutions, it is undoubtedly true that doubling the endings is an inclusive way of writing, but to what extent is it not only inclusive of women but also of non-binary people? After all, there are two endings displayed, and each of them refers to the gender binary system.

I think the answer to this question can be found “in the reader’s eyes'', that means: if the readers understand gender as a spectrum and the use of the two gender endings as indexing every possible gender identity, the combination of the masculine and feminine endings also includes non-binary possibilities. Conversely, if the reader understands gender as binary, the stacking of masculine and feminine endings will “only” have the effect of including women. The multi-gendered Hebrew makes the inclusion of non-binary people explicit by creating a new character to index every gender variation.

Verbalised solutions also make use of masculine and feminine endings to index non-binarity by playing with the rules of agreement between elements as well as the agreement between the social reality and its linguistic expression of it. Is Hebrew’s grammatically binary system an obstacle to the expression of non-binary identities? It certainly was and still is in institutional settings and due to the resistance of the Academy of the Hebrew Language. However, in everyday life, people have found a way to maximise the possibilities offered by the system and play with the rules in order to express non-binarity. This way, Hebrew enables rather than restricts the expression of non-binary identities and provides a playground for criticism of the gender binary. Nonetheless, the question of social legitimisation of non-binary expression remains open and non-binary Hebrew is far from being institutionalised.

What do you think of this? What has been your experience with non-binary innovations in Hebrew? Personally, I find it fascinating how in Hebrew people have managed to express non-binary identities exploiting the grammatically binary gendered system instead of trying to expand the grammatical gender to new alternatives and I wonder whether that could make it easier to make these innovations (or way of speaking) more common.

Which languages would you like to explore next? Let us know through a comment or send us a message!

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.

[1] see pdf1

[4] Speech creates a kind of commitment (Bershtling) pdf2

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

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