Gender and the English language

English can sometimes be a really good language to be nonbinary in; and sometimes it can be awful. This is mostly because of the unmarked default, and sometimes it is because of words that have been badly imported from elsewhere.

However, I want to reiterate what I’ve stated elsewhere: people’s needs and lived experience are more important than grammar or linguistics. Uncontroversial case in point: the word Wicca meant a male witch in Old English; now it means a whole tradition.

The unmarked default

In modern English, the unmarked default (meaning an unmodified root word) is masculine. Examples include actor, director, and pretty much any word ending in -or. That’s because these words were imported from Latin, where -or is a masculine suffix, and the corresponding feminine suffix is –rix.

In Old English (presumably an amalgam of several different Germanic dialects with an occasional Welsh-derived word such as combe), the unmarked default was gender-neutral, and gender was added to it by adding a prefix or suffix — at least, in two examples that I’m aware of. The word god was originally gender-neutral. And the word man was originally gender neutral. So a male human was a weap-man (a man who carries weapons) and a female human was a weave-man (a man who weaves).

In some Middle English words which survive as surnames, the feminine form was created by adding -st- in the middle of the word, so a male weaver was a webber, and a female weaver was a webster; a male spinner was a spinner, and a female one was a spinster; a male brewer was a brewer, and female one was a brewster.

The word priest was imported from Latin sometime in the Middle Ages. It is derived from Greek presbyter (the feminine form of which is presbyterissa). By this time the masculine form of a word tended to be the unmarked default; the root word had to be modified to produce the feminine form.

So the logical thing would be to make the male form of priest “priester”, the female form “priestess”, and priest ought to be the gender neutral form of the word. Unfortunately, because of the point at which the word priest entered the English language, we find ourselves having to add a suffix to the word to make it gender neutral.

The word priestess entered the English language in around 1600, when antiquarians started writing about female Pagan religious functionaries in antiquity. So the word has always been used to refer to Pagan officiants, whereas priest has been used to refer to Christian officiants. That’s why I choose the word priestess to refer to myself, even though I am nonbinary.

I have absolutely no objection to other people referring to themselves as a priestex or a priestix and will of course refer to them as their chosen title, and 100% support them using the word. (Though I note that —ix is usually a feminine suffix.) This is because, as I mentioned at the start, people’s feelings and lived experience are more important than grammar. We absolutely need a gender neutral version of the word, and I doubt that we would get enough traction to make priester the male form (or perhaps prester, as in Prester John) and priest the gender neutral form (although the Anglican Church refers to all genders as priests, for what it’s worth).

And to whomsoever misquoted me on this topic, here’s the TLDR (too long, didn’t read) version:

  1. I do not choose to call myself a priestex, but 100% support other people doing so;
  2. people’s feelings and lived experience are more important than grammar.

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7 thoughts on “Gender and the English language

  1. An observation which may or may not be of interest, but I think you might like Zulu grammar. I do. It’s equivalent of “gender” has nothing to do with sex — so much so that (foreign) grammarians did not call it “gender” but “class”. Class 1 nouns, for example, are personal, it has to do with persons. The root word is prefixed by u- or umu- in the singular, and o- or aba- in the plural, So umuntu means a man (in the old gender-neutral sense), a human person. The plural is abantu. And the pronoun is a concord prefixed to the verb – umuntu ukhuluma (the person speaks), abantu bakhuluma (the people speak) My brother is umfowami, his, her or their brother is umfowethu, and “the brother speaks is “umfowethu ukhuluma. The sister speaks is udadewethu ukhuluma. The “u” in front of “kuluma” means he,she, or it speaks. The ba in front of khuluma means “they speak”. Because u is the personal pronoun of the personal gender.

    In spite of having non-sexist language, however, Zulu society could be pretty sexist at times, which just goes to show that sexist language is not necessarily what causes a sexist (or genderist) society.

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