Sisterhood Blog

Hebrew Needs 'You' To Be Gender-Neutral

By Elana Sztokman

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Ido Plazental, a history and civics teacher at Ziv High School in Jerusalem, has an innovative way of raising gender awareness among his students: He addresses them all as female.

Native English speakers who are not familiar with Hebrew may miss the inventiveness of this form of speech. In Hebrew, as in many European languages, there is no such thing as a gender-neutral way of speaking. In Hebrew, you can’t say, “I’m playing with my friend” without revealing whether your friend is male (haver) or female (havera). All objects, people, pronouns and verbs must be in either male or female. This means that in order to address a group of people, “you” has to be either the male “atem,” or the female “aten,” which generally leaves one part of the group excluded.

Although some people play with the generally awkward he/she combinations, the predominant custom among most Hebrew speakers is to use the male form to address mixed groups. And while we may like to believe that when Israelis use the all-male form, they really mean to address men and women, in practice that is not always the case.

Many radio announcements will use female verbs to let you know that they are specifically addressing women. This is especially pronounced in the road safety advertisements. The Transport Ministry actually has different texts aimed at getting women’s attention versus getting men’s attention. I would like to offer some kind of intelligent analysis of the two versions, but I am so irritated by the fact that the only time people remember the women is when they want to suggest that we are are bad drivers, that I can barely even listen to the spot.

Claims that the male is by default just gender-neutral are dubious at best. This is just another example of women made invisible to make life more convenient for men.

Language has a strong role in creating social realities. As Israeli linguist Guy Deustcher wrote in The New York Times in 2010, “Languages that treat an inanimate object as a he or a she force their speakers to talk about such an object as if it were a man or a woman. And as anyone whose mother tongue has a gender system will tell you, once the habit has taken hold, it is all but impossible to shake off. When I speak English, I may say about a bed that ‘it’ is too soft, but as a native Hebrew speaker, I actually feel ‘she’ is too soft. ‘She’ stays feminine all the way from the lungs up to the glottis and is neutered only when she reaches the tip of the tongue.”

Plazental, who spoke last week at the Jerusalem educators’ conference, said: “I decided that I want to lead a change, in which my students will open their minds and better understand the society in which they live. This way, I hope that the society that they are helping to build will be less chauvinistic and more egalitarian.” Amen to that.

I have a teacher who, like Plazental, addresses us in the feminine. Of course, usually there is not more than one or two men in the class, so it could be that he is ignoring them. Or it could be that he makes the logical decision to go by whoever is the majority in the group. All I know is, whenever I hear him address us in the feminine, it always makes me happy. It lets me breathe, knowing that I am a woman, and I actually exist in this room.

I think that the next stage of the feminist revolution in Israel should include creating a gender-neutral language. Yes, I think we should invent some new words — starting with “you” that doesn’t mean male or female, but just anyone, like “on” in French. Of course purposely changing language and getting people to use it is probably very hard work. But I would like to see it happen, because I fully agree that language does, in fact, go a long way in creating reality.

Elana Sztokman blogs at jewfem.com.


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