As we are navigating an era of increasing gender-fluidity, the English language is shifting from the traditional, binary categorization of gender toward neutrality and inclusivity. Feminists have long advocated for the use of a neutral form for gendered words, for example, mailperson instead of mailman. A newer introduction to our lexicon which was deemed grammatically incorrect in the past is that people who identify as “genderqueer” – not entirely male or female – sometimes use the personal pronouns, “they/them/theirs.”
Of course, this is all situated within the specific grammatical structure of English. Gender neutrality can become a lot more complicated when you introduce a whole new set of rules. French, German, Spanish and Arabic are all different from English in that they are harder to speak neutrally because gender is more foundational to the grammatical structure of the languages.
In French, for example, the masculine supersedes the feminines; a group of ten women is considered “elles” (the feminine plural), but when one man is added to that group, it becomes “ils” (the masculine plural). There is also a recent movement in France to introduce a non-binary pronoun, “” among others, because the existing equivalent of “they” is only gendered as masculine or feminine.
This semester, lower-level French classes (101-204) introduced a statement on personal pronouns in their syllabi. More language courses should follow suit. Emma Monroy, a French Ph.D. student, and April Callis, the Assistant Director of the LGBTQ Center, led a forum in September on the use of personal pronouns in the foreign language classroom which was attended by colleagues who teach foreign languages from French to Russian to Hindi-Urdu.
Our discussion of gender neutrality is ongoing in English and in other world languages. Students should continue to challenge their perceptions of gender and hold their courses to the standards of inclusivity that UNC preaches.