Translating Identity Across the Language Barrier

Genderqueer vocabulary in English can be tricky enough–but talking across languages brings both freedoms and restrictions

10 min read

Detail of a scene in the bowl of the letter 'P' with a woman with a set-square and dividers; using a compass to measure distances on a diagram. In her left hand she holds a square, an implement for testing or drawing right angles. She is watched by a group of students. In the Middle Ages, it is unusual to see women represented as teachers, in particular when the students appear to be monks. She is most likely the personification of Geometry, based on Martianus Capella's famous book De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, [5th c.] a standard source for allegorical imagery of the seven liberal arts. Illustration at the beginning of Euclid's Elementa, in the translation attributed to Adelard of Bath.
Image credit: British Library
The logo for How We Get To Next's Identity month–a piece of paper with a face made up of other faces.

For Elias, different languages provide different shelter. The child of an Algerian immigrant father and an American mother, Elias grew up between New York and Houston. They spoke both Arabic and English at home. Elias’s father made sure the family spoke only Arabic at the dinner table during certain meals, in an effort to keep a connection to the family’s Islamic faith and Arab heritage. Out of all the siblings, Elias was the only one who learned the language well enough to make it part of daily life.

While English is the language Elias speaks most often, Arabic is the language of their faith. “It helps me a lot with connecting to God,” they told me over the phone. It’s also the language Elias speaks with their partner, a Syrian activist, when they don’t want the outside world to intrude on their conversations. “Whenever we’re in public and we’re trying to be private, that’s the language we default to,” Elias said. Since Elias is hard of hearing, American Sign Language serves as another tool–especially when they’re somewhere too loud or simply too stressful. “If I feel overwhelmed in a space and I don’t feel comfortable talking, I’ll sign–and I taught my partner some signs just so that if I ever go nonverbal they’re like, “‘OK, this is what I need to know.'”

Elias’s non-binary gender identity is often a source of stress. While language can offer relief, it can also add layers of complication. In English, it’s theoretically easy to get around the gender binary: Genderqueer people can state their preferred pronouns, and the rest of the world simply has to honor those preferences–as I did while writing this article (Elias prefers they/them pronouns). However, they don’t always find themselves in spaces where it’s that easy. Elias is a 24-year-old sex educator earning a Master of Arts in photography at Howard University, and they identify as genderfluid–meaning that they can inhabit multiple genders at once or fluctuate among them. Because of this, Elias must renegotiate their expectations and presentation within different spaces, based on whether others will recognize the fluidity of their gender.

“All of my professors, they have access to my birth name. So going on to campus, I’m like, “‘OK, this is a situation where I’m going to be misgendered,'” they said. On campus Elias flips a switch, and then flips it again once they leave. “My friends and my network and my partners and the people who I live with, they all use my chosen name, my pronouns. So that part is decent. But it’s definitely frustrating and can get very grating. Constantly switching.”

In Arabic, it can be harder to get around the gender binary, because sometimes verbs carry feminine or masculine forms. But the language does serve as a private retreat, either into Elias’s spiritual life or life with their partner. The two have come up with a genderfluid, Arabic nickname for Elias, melding the Arabic word Habibi, a masculine term of endearment like “darling,” and the word “boi,” which is used to express gender variance in English-speaking LGBTQ communities. “My partner came up with it first. She would call me baby boi, and eventually in the middle of calling me habibi, she realized she could add the English boi to the end and create a new term.” Elias now has a tattoo saying “Habiboi” on their bicep.

Genderfluid people, like Elias, are part of a spectrum of genderqueer or non-binary-identified people. Since languages often restrict gender expression, non-binary people have often engaged with grammar on a deeper level than someone who subscribes to the binary might. Their relationships with language are complex and deeply personal. While this engagement with language can be trying for people living in a society that does not fully accept them, it’s also a way to promote genderqueer visibility; non-binary activists have even come up with ways to change language so that it doesn’t have to be quite so gendered.

A map of the world showing four categories of pronouns in language.
1. In 3rd person + 1st and/or 2nd person (18 dots)
2. 3rd person only, but also non-singular (104 dots)
3. 1st or 2nd person but not 3rd (2 dots)
4. No gender distinctions (254 dots)
A map of gender distinctions in independent personal pronouns. Image credit: M. Haspelmath, M. S. Dryer, D. Gil, B. Comrie (2005) in “WALSin, The World Atlas of Languages Structures.”

English-speakers already use the singular “they” all the time, so it’s easy enough to figure out how these pronouns should work. Some who are opposed to the singular “they” for genderqueer people claim that their interest is in preserving the purity of English grammar. For example, in an interview last month, University of Toronto psychology professor Jordan Peterson had this to say about non-binary pronouns:

“I don’t recognize another person’s right to decide what words I’m going to use, especially when the words they want me to use, first of all, are non-standard elements of the English language and they are constructs of a small coterie of ideologically motivated people. They might have a point but I’m not going to say their words for them.”

While students have been protesting Peterson’s remarks, others were quick to note that in his argument against “non-standard elements of the English,” specifically the singular “they,” Peterson actually uses the singular “they” himself. This is probably because, while many style guides will tell you that the singular they is incorrect, many English-speakers use it all the time.

Gretchen McCulloch, a linguist who has written about non-binary language, says there are linguistic as well as political arguments for using the singular they. “We’ve been using it in some contexts for a very long time,” she told me. For example, despite some grammarians’ best efforts to get rid of the singular they, if someone leaves an umbrella behind in a restaurant, it sounds a lot more natural to say, “Someone left their umbrella here,” than it does to say, “Someone left his umbrella here” (although grammarians have pushed for the universal “he”) or “Someone left his or her umbrella here” (a more contemporary attempt on the part of grammarians to avoid the singular they).

That the singular they actually does sound natural makes logical sense with the rest of the English language, according to McCulloch. “The idea that once a pronoun is plural it always has to be plural has never been the logic that English has followed,” she explained. The most prominent example is the word you, which we use every day and used to be exclusively plural. McCulloch said that at first “thou” was exclusively singular and “you” was exclusively plural. Today, thou has disappeared from modern English, and you can be singular or plural.

Opposition to the singular they, according to McCulloch, stems from the same impulse that has led grammarians to oppose other common grammatical structures in English, including split infinitives and sentences that end in prepositions; they’re trying to mold English into the grammar of Classical and Romance languages. “This whole idea that you can’t split an infinitive comes from the bizarre misapplication of Latin grammar,” said McCulloch. “In Latin an expression like “‘to go’ is all one word. It’s completely incoherent to try to split up a word like that and put “‘boldly’ in between, but in English they’re two words. We already write them with a space between them, we always have.”

McCulloch hopes that genderqueer activism will convince grammarians to accept the singular they, not only as a non-binary pronoun, but also as it’s already often used. She’s not the only one: In 2015, the American Dialect Society named singular “they” Word of the Year.

Using they to refer to specific individuals who are genderqueer or non-binary is a newer innovation, but one that McCulloch says makes a lot of sense–not only because it’s not a far leap from how English-speakers already use the pronoun, but also because it’s different enough that it gives genderqueer people a way to signal their identity. While some languages, like Arabic, have gender encoded deeper into the language than English, many others such as Malay, Bengali, and American Sign Language have no grammatical gender. (In ASL, for example, instead of referring to people with the pronouns he or she, you refer to different people by assigning them a position in space. In Malay, he and she are the same word, as are his and hers, etc.) In languages like these, neither pronouns nor verbs reveal whether the subject is male, female, or genderqueer, which means you probably won’t misgender anyone–because you don’t acknowledge their gender (or lack of it) at all. In English, when we use they to refer to individual non-binary people, not only do we avoid misgendering them, but we also acknowledge their non-binary identity.

An abstract image, taken from page 74 of 'Pastor Fido; or, The Faithful Shepherd. A pastoral [in five acts, in verse. Altered from Sir R. Fanshaw's translation of Guarini]. By E. Settle', dated 1694.
Image credit: British Library

A friend of mine and fellow writer, Charlie Tetiyevsky, agreed that adopting the singular they for genderqueer people should be simple. We met on a balmy autumn day in Los Angeles to talk about gender and language, and Charlie told me about how before they were born, their family migrated to the United States from the Soviet Union; they grew up in a Russian-speaking household in New Jersey. Even when they were too young to understand non-binary gender, they inhabited multitudes. At home, they spoke Russian. In school, they translated Russian into English for their mother.

Although Russian is Charlie’s first language, it’s also one that they’ve struggled with over the years. Charlie said that not only are Russian pronouns gendered, but even objects change based on the gender of the person speaking about them. (For example, the word for cat in the phrase “my cat” will change based on whether the cat belongs to a man or a woman.) “It’s a whole package, like a gendered package delivered to you and it’s too much to calculate,” Charlie told me, which they think is part of the reason they’ve had trouble keeping up with the language as they’ve gotten older. “I don’t know if that’s because of my own gender fluidity or if it’s because I’m obstinate and refuse to learn 23, or whatever, 21, different categories of things. It’s probably a little bit of both.”

Comparatively, Charlie said it shouldn’t be hard to take the gender binary out of English. “You are able to put yourself in another perspective just by switching one or two words. What’s holding us back as a culture? I see what’s holding back Russian speakers. But what about us? Our excuse is just that saying “‘they’ is uncomfortable or weird? That’s not a good enough excuse.”

Because of the gender difficulties in Russian, Charlie mostly avoids speaking the language, other than on rare occasions when on the phone with their mother. Charlie’s not alone in their choice to avoid languages that might force them to misgender themself.

A table of verb conjugations in Hebrew.
How to conjugate verbs in Hebrew. Image credit: Wiktionary

Nai, who is also gender non-binary, has a knack for languages unlike any I’ve ever personally encountered. They grew up attending a bilingual school, learning both Spanish and English, but speak multiple Romance languages, along with tongues as varied as Farsi, Russian, and Mandarin Chinese.

Nai has been doing translation work since age 13. When I mentioned that their skills seemed impressive, Nai brushed it off somewhat unconvincingly. “I know that people see it as being gifted, but for me they’re just patterns in my head. I have mental algorithms,” they said. “Actually, all the Romance languages I speak, they feel like one language to me. They feel more like dialects to me than languages.”

Nai explained that they can guess a word in one language based on its translation in another language, as with the word “voyage,” which becomes viaggio in Italian, viagem in Portuguese, viyaje in Spanish, and so on. “So my algorithms work 90 percent of the time, and then I memorize the last 10 percent rather than having to memorize the 100 percent.”

But as Nai became more comfortable with their genderqueer identity, they became much less comfortable with many of those languages. “Most of them use binary gender, which is super awkward for me. A lot of times I just “¦ I honestly don’t speak them as much as I used to,” they said. “Now I’m more conscious about feeling like I’m not fully expressing myself authentically when I pick a binary gender.”

Even though Nai might speak these languages less than before, they still can’t avoid thinking in them. “I flip around all my languages and it takes more effort for me to stay within one language, especially when I’m tired,” they said. Since they can’t help but move through different languages in their thoughts, they’ve come up with personal grammars to avoid misgendering themselves within their own head. In Spanish, for instance, instead of using “o” or “a,” which signify masculine and feminine gender, respectively, (as with the words Latino and Latina), Nai will use “e” (Latine).

Sometimes, though, Nai can’t avoid speaking more heavily gendered languages out loud. They’ve traveled to Russia, where they have roots, but where expressing any kind of queer identity can be dangerous. In Russia, Nai will still do what they can to assert their identity, even while remaining somewhat discrete.

“One thing I do–and I know that a lot of trans Russians do this–it’s kind of common in speech to swallow your endings,” they said. Taking away the ending of the word can take away the gender binary, because “that’s usually where gender is encoded.” Charlie has also noticed this about Russian. “It’s so great you just get to cheat!” they said. “It’s all spelled differently, but if you say it blurred enough, it all sounds exactly the same.”

I asked McCulloch if enough people were to start swallowing the ending of words in Russian, could those endings simply disappear. She said that there are multiple factors, but “there is a precedent of language undergoing change such that gender becomes less of a thing. Sometimes this is a result of forms being dropped or lost, particularly at the ends of words or at unimportant positions in a word. So if you put the stress on the first syllable of a word, then the later syllables, they become less important.” Sometimes the gendered ends of words will be lost entirely.

Whether or not the genderqueer community is able to make language innovations mainstream, they still can be affirming. McCulloch told me about how the Israeli genderqueer community was altering Hebrew, a language with heavily encoded gender, to broadcast their non-binary identity. In Hebrew, verbs are often gendered in the first and second person as well as the third person.

In order to get around this, genderqueer Hebrew speakers will switch back and forth. “If you have two gendered options in a given sentence, you use masculine for one and the feminine for the other, so you’re not committing to one or the other, you’re just kind of smoothly moving between,” said McCulloch. According to Ilana Masad, writing about gender and Hebrew for The Toast, non-binary Hebrew speakers play with other aspects of Hebrew grammar as well, including the gendered endings of words.

By essentially creating a new Hebrew grammar for themselves, the Israeli genderqueer community is also upping their visibility. As Masad writes:

“I came into this story believing that there was no plus side to the gendered nature of Hebrew pronouns, but one commentator, Jane Harris, who was kind enough to engage in this discussion with me, said this: “‘It’s funny how Hebrew is so empowering to genderqueers and other trans* people who are Out, and allows them to use their own grammatic [sic] gender, but so unconvinient [sic] to Closeted folks, who get a reminder every time [they] refer to themselves.'”

Other gendered languages are also changing to give genderqueer people more visibility. One of the most successful examples is the “x” in Spanish to stand in for gendered vowels. The term Latinx is increasingly common these days, especially if you frequent millennial-geared media sources like VICE, BuzzFeed, the Huffington Post, Mic, and Fusion.

But whether your language innovation is gaining mainstream attention, or is just a way for you to find some peace in your own mind, expanding the inclusivity of language is something that McCulloch, at least, advocates. “Language is what we collectively make it. It’s a lot more interesting of an endeavor for one person to try to make it something that can be more inclusive and more versatile, than a bunch of cranky 18th-century grammarians saying we need to make this like Latin.”

Even though Elias’s preferred pronouns are they/them/their, sometimes they imagine something better could come along.

“I do bounce back on a scale of masc-fem-neither-both, because that four-pointed scale exists, and I flow through all of them and sometimes through none of them “¦ [they/them/their] is more comfortable for me but it definitely is not representative of the gender that I encapsulate,” they told me. “It’s just a placeholder.”

Based on my conversations for this article, there’s plenty of linguistic territory here left to explore.


There are many more issues regarding non-binary language, in English and non-English, than I could fit in this article. Some other resources you should check out include:

The logo for How We Get To Next's Identity month–a piece of paper with a face made up of other faces.

How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Identity section, which looks at how new technologies influence how we understand ourselves. Click the logo to read more.