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If you watched this year’s Eurovision Song Contest or at least glanced at the news about the winner, you might have noticed something interesting in the language used by the commentators of the show or your local media. The winning participating country was Switzerland with the song “The Code” performed by Nemo – apart from the song’s uniqueness, this victory will be remembered as the first time the winner of the contest was a non-binary person.

Many people and even professional journalists find themselves in a pickle when it comes to talking about non-binary or genderqueer individuals. Although these identities have existed for as long as humanity itself, they have in recent years or decades become more visible and represented, prompting broader discussions on how to approach them in written and spoken communication.

Many non-binary people prefer to be addressed with neutral or non-gendered terms – these include pronouns, honorifics, and other words that may traditionally be gendered (e.g. names of certain professions). How well a language can adapt to using gender neutral terms largely depends on the characteristics of the language, notably how frequently it expresses grammatical gender. For example, the English word table has no grammatical gender, whereas its Italian equivalent tavola or the Slovene miza both express the feminine gender and require suitable pronouns and grammatical endings to be applied to verbs and adjectives. Such requirements make languages with more pronounced expression of gender much trickier to neutralise. Nonetheless, several solutions to achieving gender neutrality exist in English and several other European languages. Let us explore some of them.

Use of pronouns

As mentioned above, English is fairly easy to work with when it comes to gender neutrality. As far as pronouns go, the 3rd person plural pronoun they has for centuries also been used as a singular pronoun, referring to any person. Its uses as a singular pronoun are well documented in texts going as back as the 15th century and can be found in many early translations of the Bible and works by Shakespeare.[1] It has therefore been well-established even before many non-binary people adopted it as their preferred pronoun. Here are two examples:

1) Someone parked their car in front of the building’s entrance. Could you find out who they are and ask them to move the car, please? This example uses different forms of the singular they pronoun to refer to an unknown person of any gender.

2) Swiss singer Nemo has won the Eurovision Song Contest with their song ‘The Code’.  Here, the pronoun is used to refer to a non-binary person.

Although the singular they pronoun is nowadays regarded as the most widely adopted way to refer to non-binary people, favoured by most major media outlets, such as the Guardian[2] and the BBC[3], we should nonetheless mention that there exist other, less known solutions. One of them is so-called neopronouns, which are invented alternatives to traditional English third person pronouns. They include xe, ze, sie, fae, and ey, to name just a few.

Many languages with a similar structure as English, where grammatical gender is not overtly expressed, have also opted to use either the existing 3rd person plural form or invented a new gender-neutral pronoun. In Swedish, the traditional male and female personal pronouns are han and hun, respectively. To create a gender-neutral version, they simply swapped the vowel and got hen. The pronoun has been added to the Official Swedish dictionary in 2015 and nowadays does not raise too many eyebrows any more. Norwegian and Finnish follow a similar logic with hen and hän respectively.

Linguists in other languages took a slightly different route and created a new pronoun by blending the traditional male and female pronouns. In French, they use iel or ille (a blend of il and elle), elle in Spanish (from él and ella) and xier in German (from er and sie). It has to be stressed that these neopronouns have not yet been standardised in most languages and are not yet widely adopted by most mainstream publications.

Use of gender-neutral suffixes

In most cases, English does not express grammatical gender, so it can form neutral sentences just by using the they pronoun. This is not the case in numerous other European languages, where many word endings will depend on the gender of the subject of the sentence. This presents a particular challenge when trying to address non-binary people, as established non-gendered suffixes do not even exist. Several languages are now finding clever solutions to circumvent that problem.

The most popular method is the use of both the male and female suffix, separated by a punctuation mark, eg. the underscore, middle dot, hyphen and asterisk. Here are a few examples of the word friend.

German: freund*in / freund_in
French: ami·e / ami-e
Slovene: prijatelj_ica

In contrast, some languages aim to replace the suffix altogether with a gender-neutral symbol or letter. In Spanish and Italian, the typical feminine and masculine endings are –a and –o, respectively. In writing at least, some linguists propose replacing them with alternative letters or symbols, for example @ or –e in Spanish and –u or ə in Italian:

Spanish: amig@ / amige
Italian: amicu / amicə

Use of neutral terms

Whenever possible, it is also advised to avoid gendered words altogether. Even though most terms are not gendered in modern English, there do exist several traditionally gendered professions, societal roles or honorifics, which are nowadays increasingly being replaced with neutral equivalents, for example:

housewife homemaker
policeman / policewoman  
police officer
postman / postwoman  
postal worker
chairman / chairwoman  
chair / chairperson
fireman / firewoman  
businessman / businesswoman
steward / stewardess  
flight attendant
ladies and gentlemen
distinguished guests / audience / colleagues (etc.)
guys   folks
man and woman
person (pl. people)
girlfriend / boyfriend  
wife / husband
sister / brother  
Mr / Mrs  

Similar trends exist in other languages. When you speak, write or even translate, think about the terms you could use and consult a dictionary or thesaurus to help you find gender-neutral synonyms in your language.

When in doubt, ask!

The best way to ensure you will use appropriate language when talking to or about someone is to simply ask them for their preferred pronouns. It is then important that you respect the person’s wishes by making an effort and consistently using the language they feel most comfortable with. Should you inadvertently make a mistake, be sure to apologise and do your best not to repeat it. If you cannot ask the person directly, research if they have ever publicly discussed their preferences (if writing about a public person) or stick to the most generally accepted standards for gender neutrality in your language.

We understand that some may find it difficult to embrace these novelties and could perceive them as awkward and uncomfortable to read or use. However, language is alive and its speakers have the power to introduce changes – over time and with frequent exposure, they are bound to be adopted by most people. This is why it is important to be mindful about how we can use inclusive language when we speak or write. Dare to be at the forefront of change and, as Nemo sings, “break the code.”