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Language and Gender (And Sex)

Our thinking is shaped by the language in which we think. Many ancient Middle Eastern cultures identified 3, 4, 5, and in one case even 6 genders. And their languages had support for these concepts. Did that make their entire civilization wrong? Hardly.

Cis is from Latin and means “on the same side” whereas trans is also Latin and means “on the opposite side”. Many apparently ignorant people get bent out of shape about the word “cis”, thinking it was invented in the 1990s. It was not. Applying it to gender did happen in the 1990s but “cis” and “trans” are Latin and have been around thousands of years.

Our thought processes are shaped by the language in which they occur. If we are told there are 2 genders, we think that. We “believe” that. And we shape our thought processes around that bedrock assumption. But if someone from the ancient Middle East was teleported to the present, and if we could speak to them in their native tongue, they would perceive gender binary language as simplistic, crude, reductionist, and primitive.

What happened in the 1990s was a direct outgrowth of thinking shaped by language. English defined people as simply male and female. Then you have trans people who were identified at birth one way but who identify “on the opposite side” of their socially assigned gender. Cisgender researchers wanted a term to describe those who were not transgender, and cisgender made sense because it also uses a Latin prefix, just like transgender does, and then applies that meaning to the binary thinking that English encourages.

The only reason that cis and trans work is because of reductionist thinking, encouraged by the English language, that there are just two sexes and just two genders. In other cultures, this doesn’t even occur as a thought process, let alone as a name for a thing. Instead, there are distinct words (and often pronouns) for additional genders.

For example, in English we’ve been taught that “eunuch” was a man who had his testicles removed but was that how it was really used in the Ancient Greek language? No, it was an umbrella term. What we would call a “gay man” today was often referred to as a eunuch, as well as those people who removed their testicles to feminize themselves as much as possible (what we might call trans women today).

Many people seem to assume that every culture before us thought in the exact same way that we think now. That’s simply not true. Much of this is not new at all, but a return to the nuance and complexity that many ancient cultures already recognized and even supported within their languages, which gave them far different perspectives than we have in the Western World which is driven by its history of simplistic obsession with binary thinking (not just about genders either!) which derived from the prevalence of Abrahamic faiths in our society and our society’s longer term history.

The same is true of sex and sexual orientation. Ancient societies often viewed these things in more complex ways than simple binary reductionist thought. Could such thinking be useful to us? We ought to at least explore that, shouldn’t we?

I encourage everyone to stop and think about how language shapes your assumptions about sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity. This isn’t easy because our very thought processes occur in the language with which we are most familiar, but it can still be done. And once we realize that a perspective might not align with what we know scientifically to be true, because of how language has predisposed us to view that perspective, we can then begin to change that perspective, and maybe even the language used to describe the underlying reality in a more accurate manner.

And maybe, just maybe, helping language evolve to be more inclusive and considerate of anyone who does not fit the reductionist gender binary may also help people become more inclusive and considerate as well.