Grammatical Gender and Transgender Identity

Justin E. H. Smith in his own blog:

ScreenHunter_2076 Jul. 05 20.40Some English-speakers have been hailing the recent mainstream campaign to eliminate gender-specific pronouns in Swedish. A few Anglophones, though far from the mainstream, have also been seeking for some years now to implement neologistic gender-neutral replacements for ‘he’ and ‘she’. The Swedish case in particular has been held to be a reflection of that society’s relative progressiveness in the politics of gender. What is missed here, out of ignorance or wilful avoidance, is that there are many languages in which gendered pronouns have either gone extinct or were never used in the first place, and which are spoken in societies that are hardly known for their gender egalitarianism: for example, Persian or Turkmen. Somehow, even without access to ‘she’ or ‘her’, but only an all-purpose ‘he/she/it’, Iranian courts manage to sentence women to death by stoning for ‘adultery’. We might just as well predict that Swedish society would take up lapidation and anti-adultery laws as a result of the elimination of gendered pronouns, as that it would thereby draw closer to full gender equality.

Both predictions are absurd. And yet, this interest in gendered personal pronouns does at least remind us of a way of thinking about grammatical gender that is generally underemphasised by linguists and language instructors: that the masculine and feminine genders of pronouns, and more interestingly of nouns, reflects a division of the cosmos into categories that radiate out from the sexual dimorphism of human bodies. In English there is only vestigial gender for substantive terms for non-biological entities: ships, sometimes countries, sometimes sportscars, are ‘she’. In French, every noun is masculine or feminine, sometimes in ways that seem arbitrary. What is it, for example, about abstractions, such as those words ending in -ité or -tion, that is inherently feminine?

More here.