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  • Writer's pictureAriel Tovlev

Gender Neutral English and Hebrew

Updated: Dec 12, 2023

Language that we use holds meaning and weight. We categorize things based on the words that we use for them. Without each of their meanings and significances, words in our language wouldn't add anything to our ability to communicate. Because of that, when certain words are being used for purposes that don't match their meanings, it can be really confusing or misleading. But what happens when we don't have the words to communicate the meanings we wish to evoke? Well, the great thing about language is, it's all made up. Regardless of what the word is, it came from somewhere, and from someone. As much as we might feel like language is a God-given entity that already exists in its entirety, and does not need editing, language is the most human creation, and it is constantly evolving.

In English, we have seen a great shift in language throughout the centuries. As many of us realized when we had to read Beowulf in school, Old English can scarcely be categorized as the same language we speak today. Language has evolved so much, dependent on the time period and culture of the people who speak it.

One adaptation to the English language has been the reemergence of the singular "they" pronoun. The singular they pronoun has actually been around for centuries, used by writers such as Shakespeare, so it is no way a new adaption. If there were a situation in which you wanted to speak about an individual without gendering them, you would use the singular they pronoun. For example, Shakespeare wrote, "Now leaden slumber with life's strength doth fight; / And every one to rest themselves betake, / Save thieves, and cares, and troubled minds, that wake." Shakespeare was so fond of the singular they pronoun, that he even used it when the gender of a person was known: "There's not a man I meet but doth salute me / As if I were their well-acquainted friend." By the way, at the time of Shakespeare, "you," or "ye," was still considered to only be plural, with the proper singular form being "thou." So the singular "they" is actually older than the singular "you," and yet we don't bat an eye when switching between singular and plural uses of "you." This shows how language evolves.

"He" unfortunately came back into fashion as a gender-neutral singular pronoun after Shakespeare. With femininism rightfully calling out the gendered nature of "he" pronouns, this has been edited in many instances to "he/she" or "his/her." "They" or "their" is not only easier to say/write than "he/she" or "his/her," but as we know now, it is also more inclusive.

There are people who are neither male nor female. For some of these people, it was obvious as soon as they were born. Intersex people are unable to be categorized into a binary sex. Many of these people receive "corrective" surgeries to "make" them one gender or the other. There are also nonbinary people, people who don't identify within a gender binary. We have these people in our Jewish tradition. With the six genders in Judaism, four of them are seen as "outside of male and female," and two of those four are unable to even be classified as "masculine" or "feminine." For people who don't fit into the rigid categories of "male" or "female," the singular they pronoun can help them feel respected, seen, and validated in who they are.

It can be harder with Hebrew. The way our Jewish texts dealt with the binary aspect of the language, when dealing with nonbinary individuals, the text reverted to "he/him" equivalent pronouns, and at times would use female language in conjunction with male language. For example, it was written, "An androginos (one of the nonbinary genders): he is a being unique unto herself." They found no other way to describe these nonbinary individuals, so they used both feminine and masculine language.

Luckily in English, we already have a foundation for gender neutral pronouns, and we all already use the singular they pronoun, whether we realize it or not ( "Who was the last person in the bathroom? They left the light on." "Did someone leave their jacket at my house?" "Someone is at the door, can you let them in?" Because of this, although other gender-neutral pronouns exist, the singular they pronoun is the most commonly used pronoun among people who use gender-neutral pronouns.

My partner is one of those people. With love and support from myself, family, and friends, my partner has come out as nonbinary, and now uses they/them pronouns.

While we have the language to express these meanings in English, this becomes more complicated in Hebrew. As we saw with our text on the androginos, the way the rabbis dealt with this was to mix feminine and masculine language. While this is possible and is something that is still being done, people wanted a more uniform way to refer to people in a gender-neutral way in Hebrew. And because language is entirely constructed anyway (especially with modern Hebrew, which arguably was created by Ben Yehuda in 1881 - which makes it significantly younger than the singular they pronoun), a young nonbinary college student studying Hebrew decided to do something about their lack of options to refer to themself in the Hebrew language. Along with their Hebrew professor, they came up with a grammatical system to conjugate verbs, nouns, and adjectives in a gender-neutral way.

This became known as the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, and it has received international attention. Nonbinary people in Israel have been discussing this possibility for years: they had the identity terminology to refer to themselves (אי-בינארי, which means nonbinary in Hebrew) but not the formula to change the meanings of the everyday words we use. Words like "walk" and "tall" and "teacher." With the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, that is now possible.

My partner and I celebrated our one year anniversary in February. As someone who prays regularly, I realized months ago that it didn't make sense for me to thank God for love without thanking God for my partner, who makes me feel so loved on a daily basis. So I wrote a prayer thanking God for them. With the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, I have been able to write this prayer in Hebrew, without using words whose meanings (binary gender) don't match my partner (nonbinary gender).

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה אֶת יְדִידֶת נַפְשִׁי

Blessed are you, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who created my soulmate.

We use language to communicate with each other. In using particular language, we can manipulate what exactly we are communicating, and how we relate to those we are communicating with. By using this language for my partner, I am able to both express myself, and validate their identity. As a congregant succinctly said to me at my last visit: it's not political correctness, it's respect.

The Nonbinary Hebrew Project can be found at You can familiarize yourself with / practice using the singular they pronoun here:

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