English, as a whole, is already relatively less gendered than other languages. It doesn’t assign masculine or feminine articles to nouns, and the use of the singular “they” has actually been in use for far longer than many people realize — way before the current discussion around gender-neutral pronouns began.
The origin of “they” as a singular pronoun dates all the way back to the 14th century and can be found in the writing of authors among the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen and Lord Byron. In the 18th century, grammarians took issue with this on the pretext that English grammar should mirror Latin grammar, and that’s why your elementary school teacher probably discouraged you from using it. However, as we all know, the singular “they” never fell out of use in colloquial spoken language. That’s part of why it has recently gained more nods of legitimacy, whether by inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary, or as the American Dialect Society’s 2015 Word of the Year, or by official acknowledgment from the AP Style Guide.
As society changes, language changes, as well, to reflect that development.
Of course, the biggest difference between the 14th century and the 21st century is that gender-neutral pronouns are no longer merely a way to describe an unspecified person, but also a way to affirm the identities of queer, transgender, intersex and non-binary people.
“I hope that people will start to understand that it’s not about accommodating someone’s ‘whims,’ but that gender identity is essential to every person’s personality,” explained Nicki Hinz of Babbel’s Didactics Team in a blog post. “It constitutes our social identity. And as society changes, language changes, as well, to reflect that development.”
This movement is hardly only occurring in English-speaking communities, and some languages also have their own newly established gender-neutral pronouns. They exist on a spectrum of mainstream acceptance in their respective societies, as well as on a spectrum of “experimental usage” to “fairly standardized.” They each come with a side dish of controversy, and almost all of them come with an asterisk for additional notes and context.
In short: there’s no truly simple answer to the question of gender-neutral pronouns, but we made our best attempt to provide a simplified guide to inclusive pronouns in other languages.
Check out our infographic below, as well as some language-specific notes for additional context.
How Other Languages Treat Gender-Neutral Pronouns
Germans are currently grappling with the question of whether it’d even be possible to neutralize the three-gendered noun system. The dialect Niederdeutsch manages to succeed at this, however, by eliminating der, die, das (the masculine, the feminine, the neutral) in favor of de. As for pronouns, you might encounter Germans who use sier and xier in addition to the more common sie, but most people are unlikely to understand these outside of queer and activist spaces.
Swedish is, like English, semi-genderless, but its relatively successful adoption of hen makes for an interesting case study. The use of “hen” as a gender-neutral pronoun was initially met with a lot of skepticism when it was first introduced in the ’60s, including from linguists, whose main concern that it would muddle the clarity of who was being referred to. But over time (and especially during the 2000s), hen gained traction as a pronoun for non-binary people, and after a spike of media attention and debate in 2012, it was added to the Swedish dictionary SAOL in 2015. Today, it’s used in the media, in the parliament, in everyday speech and official texts. More importantly, almost everyone in Sweden understands the word, and it hasn’t led to as much confusion as linguists feared.
In French, the gender-neutral pronouns are still not officially defined. The pronouns listed in the infographic are the most commonly used gender-neutral pronouns within the community, but relatively few people will understand these outside of activist spaces.
Russian is another gendered language that doesn’t have a well-established gender-neutral pronoun. Some non-binary people in Russia take the masculine “он” because it aligns with other terms that are more neutral, some feminist communities use female as a default gender and separate the female suffix with “_,” and some use “они” (“they”). For more background, click here.
The move toward a more gender-neutral Spanish has led to various linguistic innovations in recent years. Among these: the use of the @ symbol as an alternative to –o and –a endings. The use of Latinx in the Americas as an alternative to Latino or Latina has picked up a lot of steam and institutional recognition as of late, though some critics say this is something you hear used more in the U.S. than in Latin America. Though the use of elle as a gender-neutral pronoun is not super common, there is certainly a growing interest in coming up with alternatives for personal pronouns. For more background on gender neutrality in Spanish, click here.
In Portuguese, it’s becoming more common to swap the masculine –o and feminine –a endings out for the gender-neutral –e. There doesn’t appear to be a well-known gender-neutral pronoun in either Brazil or Portugal, and gender identity is rarely expressed in a straight-forward manner. However, some members of the gay male community intentionally refer to themselves using female pronouns, despite not identifying as female. Oftentimes, they randomly alternate between male and female pronouns. This confuses “outsiders” and challenges the limits of a binary categorization of gender and sexuality. In Brazil, some queer people have a sort of “secret” language called Pajubá, which draws elements from languages from the Yoruba family. In those languages, age is claimed to play a much bigger role than gender.
Sadly, the Italian language doesn’t have neutral pronouns to express non-binary descriptives. The use of the plural is avoided due to cultural implications: it is, in fact, considered classist in the everyday language. That’s because “they” (loro) was historically used as an overly formal tense, the one that you would use with royalty or with anyone you would consider way above your social standing. The linguistic non-binary issue is currently a topic of discussion in the LGBTQ+ community, which introduced the use of the * in written language to avoid declination (mostly as an act of activism), but has not yet found a solution for the spoken language. In conclusion: using the plural as a literal translation of “they” is not a solution and can only cause misunderstanding. For more background on this, click here.