A way for nonbinary people to speak Hebrew in the first person
A way for nonbinary people to speak Hebrew in the first person.
Gross, a student at the University of Colorado Boulder, identifies as nonbinary — neither male nor female — and uses the pronouns “they” and “them" [in English]. That means Hebrew presents a challenge: Many verbs, and all nouns and adjectives, are either grammatically male or female. Talmid, for example, means a male student, while talmida is the female form.
For nonbinary Jews, including some transgender people, speaking Hebrew — or praying or participating in services — can be fraught. It can mean being forced to identify with one of the genders they have eschewed.
“I was really feeling out of place in terms of, I go to synagogue every week and I go to minyan twice a week, how do I get called up for an aliyah?” Gross said, referring to being called up to bless the Torah during weekday prayers. “How do I talk about myself in conversation? If I go to Israel, how do I engage there while respecting myself?”
So instead of misrepresenting their gender, Gross decided to change Hebrew. Along with Eyal Rivlin, a Hebrew professor at C.U. Boulder, Gross created what is essentially a third gender in Hebrew grammar — a way for nonbinary Jews to speak the language without compromising their identity.
“In Hebrew, the verbs, adjectives, pronouns — before this, you’d have to choose masculine or feminine, and it didn’t feel authentic,” Rivlin said. “We tried to really hone to existing Hebrew grammatical rules so it doesn’t feel foreign, so it fits in the system.”
The core rule of the system is simple: Instead of leaving the ends of most words bare, which by default would signify a masculine word, or adding the feminine “ah,” “ut” or “et”sounds, most of Gross and Rivlin’s forms take the ending “eh.”
So a student would be a “talmideh.” And if they were a student studying, for example, they would be a “talmideh lomdeh” — as opposed to a “talmidah lomedet” (female) or a “talmid lomed” (male). Plurals combine the traditional masculine and feminine suffixes. So students would be “talmidimot.”
Hebrew is based on root words — three-letter combinations that are conjugated in a range of ways — so it’s relatively straightforward for Hebrew speakers to apply the nonbinary system to a range of verb forms. And irregular conjugations in Hebrew have corollaries in Gross and Rivlin’s system. “Moreh” is the masculine form of teacher, for example, and “morah” is feminine. So in nonbinary Hebrew, the word is “more’ah.”
It's so encouraging to see ever more languages embracing realities beyond provincial, stereotypical heteronormativity!
Big hugs to you, Usagiboy7 for sharing this and kudos to Lior Gross for their positive contribution. :0)
I know there is heteronormativity and cisnormativity and even hetero-cisnormativity. But, there is also a situation in which people acknowledge and validate the existence of transgender people, but only if they are binary trans. Is there a word for the assumption that trans people can only be men or women?
Update! While researching whether that phenomenon had been coined, I learned that, yes! It has been coined (transnormativity). As a bonus, I also learned that there is the concept of homonormativity. Source. Thank you for inspiring my internet search for the word, Regney!
Gosh - this is a great solution that has been found in Hebrew to allow for inclusion in language to encompass the reality that is experienced by people.
Thank you for sharing this Usagi.
To the negative posters in this thread:
If you were to invest half the amount of time you spend condemning gender identity into learning about gender identity, you could probably contribute positively to the world instead of perpetuating your unfounded fear of things you don't understand.
Usagiboy7 - Don't let the bar-stewards discourage you from future posts like this one.
Thank you for your encouraging words. In the 5 years I've been here, I haven't let folks discourage me. Though, I've certainly had some warmer welcomes to non-binary and trans language topics; it doesn't take many people to make things look more hostile than they actually are around here though.
Regardless of warm/cold receptions, I find studying sociolinguistics and the sociology of language deeply satisfying. I'll take the opportunity of this oasis provided by Duolingo and keep posting interesting things as I find them.
I've appreciated the genuine, language-related engagements my previous posts have attracted. People's questions and challenges inspired me to start writing a book back in 2015. The sections I've already drafted have proven valuable for various projects I've been on, including workshops, discussions, policy drafting, and the like. So, I definitely don't mind disagreement to the linguistic aspects of things I post.
When people use such posts as a veiled excuse to attack members of the community with hateful rhetoric, Duolingo boots them. Duolingo is clear about not providing a platform for hate, and has been even before the synagogue in the CEO's neighborhood was attacked by someone who got fired up in internet forums. So, yup, I'm sticking around and will make more posts in the future. :)
I have to say, I'm curious about the alternative language strategies non-binary, native-Hebrew speakers are using. Apparently, there are more options than just the one Lior Gross and Dr. Eyal Rivlin have come up with.