HDI hosts discussion of gender in language

The newly created Humanities Diversity Initiative (HDI) hosted their first event on Wednesday, Nov. 1. The event, “Qui Suis-Je? A Discussion of Gender in Language,” was an effort to spark conversation about grammatical gender in languages other than English and what changes can be made to make them more gender-inclusive.

The club has been meeting since third week, but was officially created on Monday, Oct. 31. Its board consists of fifth year Deep Tripurana, freshman Jack McGee, sophomore Miriam Thew-Forrester, sophomore Emily Beale and freshman Spencer Washington. The HDI, according to the board members, “is aimed to bring conversations surrounding the humanities and diversity within Lawrence so we achieve a decolonized education in the process.” Beale commented that the club hopes to be able to “initiate conversations between faculty and students, bring more diversity, and create a less Euro-centric culture on campus.”

The event Wednesday night discussed the difficulty of expressing gender identity in languages other than English. “Men are not always obviously male,” said Assistant Professor of German Alison Guenther-Pal who was in attendance. There is rarely a gender-neutral grammatical gender in language as there is in English.

Grammatical gender is when nouns are classified as feminine or masculine and form agreements with other aspects of the language such as adjectives, adverbs, pronouns or verbs. The problem arises when there is no gender-neutral term to use when referring to or describing non-binary individuals. For example, in English we often use “they” to refer to non-binary persons, but there are rarely equivalents in other languages.

In the presentation given, the HDI board members discussed the various ways in which languages are attempting to become more gender-inclusive in both the United States and worldwide. For example, there is an ever-widening use of the word “Latinx” in Spanish as a gender-neutral form of the word “Latina” or “Latino.” The problem that this word adaptation is facing, though, is that while it is becoming increasingly used in the US, it has not gained much ground in Spanish speaking countries like Mexico.

After their presentation on the importance of gender inclusivity in language, the attendees were split into groups and the board members facilitated conversation around the information given. Several questions that were considered were “How do you think language reinforces gender?,” “How do you wish gender was addressed in the classroom?” and “What are the difficulties posed by grammatical gender?”

A number of answers and solutions to the problem of gender inclusivity were proposed including a suggestion to give a “Pronouns 101” at the beginning of new language classes in order to consider the solutions to grammatical gender issues in the classroom and give students options for how they wish to be addressed.

The HDI has student meetings weekly on Mondays and biweekly student/faculty meetings on Wednesday afternoons at 4:30 p.m. The club is currently planning a listening session for Winter Term as their next event.