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Hebrew is a sex maniac

Updated: May 25

About pronouns and sex English leaves its options open

in practice each I

has all the options

you is he or she

I is sexless

there’s no difference

and all things are it – not man not woman

no need to think before relating to sex

Hebrew is a sex maniac

Hebrew discriminates for and against

is forgiving, gives privileges

with a big gripe from the exile

in plural men have the right of way

it’s a thin line it’s a big secret

in the singular chances are equal

who says it’s a lost case

Hebrew is a sex maniac

1985, Yona Wallach, Translation: 1997, Lisa Katz.


Language, society, and how we think

Language plays a crucial role in our socialization due to the societal norms and values embedded within it. A language develops alongside the society in which it is used, changing with it. Hence, the patterns of the language are linked to the patterns of its society, and become symbols of the culture they represent. Language also has a significant influence on our way of thinking and on our understanding of reality: the options available to us in our language direct us to which knowledge we should pay attention to (in regard to time, gender, intent, spatial boundaries), thus influencing our thought.


Gender, Language and Social Reality

The Feminist movement of the 60’s and 70’s recognized the interlinked relationship between language and social reality; hence language became an important arena in the fight for gender equality. In the eyes of many feminist thinkers and activists, gender inequality in language mirrors patriarchal reality, and language activism can be an important tool for change. Most languages are based on sexist structures: those with grammatical gender usually use the male form as the default, and others still have sexist vocabulary features. These linguistic structures strengthen the societal tendency to treat male experiences as representative of all of humanity. Thus, language contributes to a social reality of differentiation and hierarchy between genders.


“Hebrew is a sex-maniac”

Hebrew is a heavily gendered language: the use of nouns, pronouns and verbs has to be assigned as male or female and there is no gender neutral pronoun or form (like “you”, “they” or “it”). According to the rules of the academy of Hebrew language: “the male form in Hebrew is not used for males only. It is also the form we use when there is no need to distinguish between the sexes”. This creates a de facto marginalization of women and girls in language and in society. It forces women to evaluate every ‘generic’ address in the male form - was this meant for me as well? It delivers a message that the world in which they live belongs to men, while they are a mere addendum. The binary structure of the language is also restrictive for for non-binary individuals. For people on the gender spectrum, to be addressed solely by male or female grammar can be experienced as marginalizing, constraining and erasing parts of their identity.


Consequences of linguistic marginalization

Researchers have found that sexist forms of address influences our lives, creating and reinforcing gender differences in behavior, self perception and achievements. For example, researchers found that when addressing the class in female form, the grades of women increased by over 33%. Another study found that when organizations used female forms of address for their goals and job descriptions there was an immediate positive impact on the interest women expressed in working for said organizations. Research on other gendered languages has brought similar findings: using the masculine form of address isn’t experienced as neutral. In practice, it harms women’s achievements, motivation and self-perception.


Feminist Linguistic Activism in Hebrew

The time has come to expand the Hebrew language and include more diverse forms, which address all genders equally. There are several initiatives tackling the issues today, offering practical solutions.

  • Talk To Us (דברו אלינו): raises awareness to the gender problems of the Hebrew language.

  • Multi-Gendered Hebrew Font: a new set of Hebrew letters which enable multi-gendered writing.

  • The Use of the Female Form as the Default: being done mostly by feminists, in writing and speech.

  • Talking in ‘mixed’ Hebrew: being done by the queer community and radical feminists.

  • Non-Binary Hebrew: a project which offers a new grammatical system which includes a gender neutral form.


How can we write to address all genders?

There are several options for gender-equal Hebrew:

  • Alternating between male and female pronouns throughout the text. You can switch pronouns on every sentence, every paragraph or without any specific pattern.

  • The / slash: the most common solution, it developed organically as an effective way to address all genders at once. This solution is not recognized by the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Nevermind, Most changes popularized in Hebrew were not approved by them initially, some are still not recognized till this day, and this does not prevent them from being a part of everyday language. Example: אנחנו הולכות/ים לדבר היום על פמיניזם .

  • The . dot: similar to the slash, this form enables us to address all the genders. It is also often used by non-binary people. Example: מחר חבר.ה ואני הולכות.ים להפגנה.

  • Double suffix: you can ‘smash’ suffixes together without any additional characters, maintaining the flow of the text. You can use this pattern in speech as well. Example: אנחנו רוצותים שוויון מלא ולא פחות.

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