Finding the Right Words

When I was a kid, learning the rules of English grammar, it was drilled into me that when writing about a generic person one should always use the phrase “he or she” even though no one actually talks that way. In speech, if I was scolding a mixed gendered class, I would say “Whoever left gum under the desk is in big trouble. They need to see me after class.” Rarely did anyone use the clunky “he or she” in conversation, but you would have lost points for substitution “they” in a paper you turned in to your teacher.

Languages, however, evolve and two factors have led to the introduction of what is known as the “singular they”. We are a more informal culture and writing “he or she”, let alone saying it, sounds too stuffy. In addition, the search for gender inclusive language has made “they” a more attractive option. “He or she” is somewhat inclusive, but it assumes there are only two genders, while “they” is neutral enough to comprise anyone, including those who identify as non-binary.

This grammatical change has gained ground and was codified two years ago by the style guide of the American Psychological Association for scholarly publications. In an age when preferred pronouns accompany email signatures, Twitter bios and conference name tags, it makes sense to make academic language as inclusive as possible.

English has the benefit of neutral words like “they” and “it”. Other languages are not so lucky. In Hebrew, every word is either masculine or feminine. This makes learning the language for English speakers particularly challenging because the gender of verbs and adjectives must match the gender of nouns. For Israelis the difficulty comes not from having to remember if a window is masculine or feminine, but from the fact that the language erases women and non-binary people.

As many Hebrew school graduates might now, a room full of 100 women would be addressed as nashim (women) whereas if only one man joined the group it would suddenly be addressed as anashim (men). Hebrew reinforces the idea that the male gender is dominant and that it alone carries the power to make change. Women are relegated to their own corner, and there is no room whatsoever for those who don’t fit into either category.

In Israel, the response to this dilemma is often to use the equivalent of the “he or she” approach. People will use the slash mark in writing or give both genders in speech (for example, saying “mishehoo oh mishehee”, both of which mean “someone”). Sometimes this can be a beautiful way to draw attention to difference. Lyrics can be changed to be more inclusive, such as the song Kanfei Ruach, where words like ben adam (human, m.) can be changed to bat adam (human, f.).

Now comes a new approach by a graphic artist who has created 12 new Hebrew letters designed to make Hebrew a multi-gendered language. She ingeniously combines pairs of familiar letters so that they can be read either masculine, feminine, or neutral. For example, one of her new letters combines the nun and the taf so that the word for human can be written in a way that is gender inclusive. It’s hard to represent the result in English so you should check out her website to see how it is done.

There are limits to this multi-gendered Hebrew. It is a purely written form of the language. The artist did not create new pronunciations to go with her new letters. Its best use is in signage, which can now be both inclusive and elegant. This, in fact, is how it has been used by a number of intuitions that have downloaded the font, which has generated a strong negative reaction from conservatives.

As a new Jewish year dawns, we continue the challenge of reviving the Hebrew language. Just like the people who speak it, Hebrew will continue to evolve to meet the needs of a modern, diverse, culture. Whether he, she or they, ben adam, bat adam, or something yet to be, we are all just looking for a way to best express our inner being.

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