November 17, 2018

Can Hebrew Be Gender Neutral?

“On the first day of the semester, a fly on the wall might hear a college professor ask students to introduce themselves by sharing their names, intended majors and their own preferred gender pronoun identifiers, such as “ze,” “hir,” “hirs,” “they,” “them” and “theirs.” The practice of promoting gender inclusivity is becoming more commonplace on the American college campus, and it’s all part of the evolution of the English language.

But for Hebrew speakers, gender inclusivity is much more complicated. That’s because gender in Hebrew—as in Spanish, Hindi, French and other languages—is intimately woven into word construction. “Hebrew goes a lot further,” says Erez Levon, a professor of sociolinguistics at Queen Mary University of London who focuses on questions of gender and sexuality. He explains that the language is particularly restrictive because gender is conveyed through masculine or feminine verb, adjective and adverb endings and almost every other part of speech.

Take the noun “friend” in Hebrew. It translates to chaver for a male, chavera for a female, and chaverim and chaverot for a group of male and female friends, respectively. Levon says Hebrew can be “a challenge” for those who don’t fit into traditional gender categories or identify as nonbinary—those who don’t consider themselves male or female or don’t want to refer to gender at all.”

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