A Loss for Words

Do we have to change our language before we can change our ideas?

by Jane Argodale

Illustration by Kela Johnson

published February 16, 2018

Contemporary debates on free speech, political correctness, and identity politics have all taken up language as a site of contention. Figures like Canadian professor Jordan Peterson have propped themselves up as the targets of authoritarian witch hunts for their unwillingness to adhere to demands on their language. As laughable as Peterson is—who first gained attention for his refusal to use a student’s correct pronouns and now goes on media tours explaining that, just like lobster society, human society is hierarchical—he’s not alone in the practice of willfully using the wrong pronouns of trans and nonbinary people to make a point about his views on gender identity. The decision to use certain words or make changes to the language we speak has ideological significance. 


There’s an allure in the popular urban myth that there are 100 Eskimo words for snow. I’ve heard it repeated by relatives, friends, and teachers, all in the same wide-eyed tone of awe, as if the revelation were brand new and not something they had heard from ten other people. The simplicity of the idea—that a group of people living in an Arctic region spent so much time looking at and thinking about snow that it seeped into their language, and by extension their capacity to see and describe the world—also betrays its inadequacy. 

The languages of the Eskimo-Aleut family, not one but a group of related languages spoken throughout Arctic North America and eastern Siberia, have three word roots for snow. There’s snow on the ground, falling snow, and fallen snow. It’s more than English has for sure, but it’s not 100. The speakers of these languages may have a more robust vocabulary when it comes to snow, but it’s not such an overwhelmingly large part of what they speak of or think about.

In the field of linguistics, the idea that a speaker’s language influences their worldview, is known as ‘linguistic relativity,’ or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Another famous (and actually true) example backing this claim is the Australian aboriginal language Guugu Yimithirr, which makes exclusive use of cardinal directions rather than egocentric directions like left and right. If you were looking for something you’d dropped on the ground, for example, a speaker of Guugu Yimithirr might say “it’s just west of your foot.” Speakers of the language, as expected, keep better track of which way is north, south, east, and west, than people who are used to relying on egocentric directions. 

This definition of linguistic relativity is plausible. But the earliest proponents of linguistic relativity, like the linguist Benjamin Whorf, thought that the grammatical structure and lexicon of the language a person speaks actually limits their ability to have certain thoughts. There’s no real evidence that this is the case, and it’s not too difficult to imagine the danger of such a claim. Whorf’s work mostly centered around his anecdotal observations of indigenous American languages, and was the origin of the Eskimo myth. In the light of Whorf’s formulation of linguistic relativity, the myth reads not just as a sketchy bit of folklore, but something more perverse—the exotification of a group of people he considered beyond comprehension. Whorf is not only arguing that the contours of language may trace a particular culture, but also that these contours actively limit one’s capacity to think. 

Still, even if the language we speak doesn’t determine how we think outright, it does set the terms for how we articulate our thoughts. This is the basis of more recent studies on linguistic relativity. And anyone who speaks more than one language is familiar with the frustration of trying to express something in one language that just works so much better in another. What come to mind for me are the many ways prefixes can modify verbs in Czech. For example, the past participle šlo, went, can become přišlo, came; odešlo, left; našlo, found; and my personal favorite, došlo, which expresses the very moment you just reach your destination. Došlo is the very last step, your foot crossing the finish line, and your body breaking through the ribbon. To mi došlo, “it came to me,” expresses perfectly the feeling of just being able to realize something that had been slipping from your grasp, in a way that no translation can. 

In his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera contrasts the Latin root of the English word ‘compassion,’ meaning ‘with suffering,’ with the root in Czech and other Slavic and Germanic languages. The Czech word soucit literally means ‘with feeling.’ Kundera argues that the Latin root ‘with suffering’ connotes something more like pity and condescension, while “to have compassion (co-feeling) means not only to be able to live with the others’ misfortune but also to feel with him any emotion—joy, anxiety, happiness, pain. This kind of compassion… therefore signifies the maximal capacity of affective imagination, the art of emotional telepathy. In the hierarchy of sentiments, then, it is supreme.” Kundera suggests that even the way our words are constructed can affect how we interpret the ideas and feelings we express. 

This suggestion is echoed in the essay, “Learning the Grammar of Animacy,” by the Native American biologist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer. Kimmerer writes about the process of studying Potawotami, a language with an incredibly different grammatical structure and lexicon from English. While 30 percent of English words are verbs, 70 percent of Potawotami words are verbs. Kimmerer recounts her frustration upon learning a verb meaning “to be a bay,” until she realizes how it changes her conception of what would be a straightforward noun in English. Kimmerer writes, “When bay is a noun, it is defined by humans, trapped between its shores and contained by the word. But the verb wiikegama—to be a bay—releases the water from bondage and lets it live. ‘To be a bay’ holds the wonder that, for this moment, the living water has decided to shelter itself between these shores, conversing with cedar roots and a flock of baby mergansers.” It’s a moment that illuminates how differently languages can describe the same phenomena, as well as an important insight for Kimmerer into a cosmology, and its means of expression, that colonialism and genocide sought to extinguish. 

There is a reason, after all, that one of the foremost tactics used to oppress groups of people is to suppress their language. Prison-like boarding schools that operated well into the 20th century in the United States forebade Native American children from speaking their languages and gave them new ‘Christian’ names. Most indigenous American languages are now endangered, often with just a handful of older speakers remaining. Many are already long extinct. The intimate link between language and culture is undeniable, and the stakes of its recognition are high. 


I’m sitting with a group of fellow Czech students around a table at a bar, talking over our frustrations at how gendered the Czech language is. Every title has a masculine and feminine version to choose between—doktor or doktorka, profesor or profesorka, student or studentka. Adjectives are modified based on the gender of the noun they describe, and the past tense is formed with a past participle that is gender-inflected. A man says šel jsem, a woman says šla jsem, but in English both simply mean ‘I went.’ Though some headway has been made towards more neutral grammar in other gendered languages such as Swedish, doing so in Czech is especially tricky because there is already a third grammatical gender, neuter. However, the neuter gender is only used for inanimate objects, animals, and children. It’s the equivalent of the English ‘it.’ To use it for an adult human would be literally dehumanizing. 

At some point, as I’m expressing frustration about this feature of Czech, I say to my American friend, “I feel like having to announce my gender in every single sentence I speak makes me feel less comfortable about calling myself a woman.”

She frowns for a moment and replies, “Oh. That’s interesting. I didn’t really think about it that way.” 


My Czech friend refers to my friend Asel, who is about five feet tall, as ta malinka, an acceptable, even endearing term in Czech. But when he uses the rough English equivalent, “that cute little girl,” to refer to them, I wince but say nothing. I don’t really know how to explain how weird it sounds in English in a way that wouldn’t also make it sound like it was inappropriate in Czech. Why should someone’s perceived gender be one of the first things that comes to mind when you describe them? It seems so unimportant, but in Czech it’s a necessary step to talk about anyone, even if you’re not literally addressing someone as a girl or boy, man or woman. 

In one of my first Czech classes at Brown, another student and I repeatedly asked our professor, what about people who aren’t men or women? Is there any other way to talk about them? She paused briefly to think about it, then said, “I think in Czech you just have to pick one.”

For nonbinary, genderqueer, and genderfluid Czech people that choice can feel limiting. In a blog post for the Prague-based trans advocacy group Trans*parent, Rad Bandit, a genderfluid trans activist, recounts the decision to change their first and last names to ones that weren't markedly feminine. (Women’s last names take a feminine ending in Czech.) In no uncertain terms, Bandit writes, “Language forms reality. And your name forms everyday life.” Bandit describes the name change as “a parting from the Czech language, whose rigidity creates an absurdly polarized world.” The desire to depart from the very language within which one is working speaks to how much of an obstacle language can be, even when it’s necessary. 


In English, there exists an easy out from the choice between masculine and feminine pronouns: the singular ‘they,’ which has been in use for centuries. Singular ‘they’ has come under new scrutiny in recent years, however, in reaction to a growing movement in the Western world to recognize the range of gender identities outside of binary him/her, as a part of the larger LGBTQ rights movement that began in the last century. Unimaginative grammar prescriptivists and those bent on enforcing a gender binary to uphold their vision of society have often ended up on the same side of this controversy by different routes. 

In the first few weeks of high school, my English teacher handed out a sheet with a list of common errors in written English, and ways to fix them. Singular ‘they’ was listed alongside comma splices and run-on sentences, and the solution was to replace it with ‘he or she.’ Teacher’s pet that I was at the time, I obeyed this rule through all of freshman year.

The New Yorker’s ‘Comma Queen,’ copy editor Mary Norris, has said that it is wrong to use singular ‘they’ in place of ‘he or she’ in sentences where the subject is unknown, while also saying that the use of ‘they’ as a singular personal pronoun when the subject is known and wants to use that pronoun is acceptable. Norris’s willingness to cede on the latter but not the former betrays a hesitance to fully recognize the possibility that exists beyond ‘he’ and ‘she.’ The gender binary is still the default, and anything outside of it becomes a glitch in the system. It’s not quite in line with the “there are only two genders” mantra of Internet edgelords, but it still suggests that anything else is a sort of mistake.


In a viral Facebook post, the writer and University of Chicago PhD student Alex Shams posted a screenshot of a series of sentences translated from Turkish to English in Google Translate. There is only one gender-neutral third person singular pronoun in Turkish, o. But because of Google’s algorithm, the English translations become gendered based on frequency of usage in its database: She is a cook. He is an engineer. He is a doctor. She is a nurse. Out of more than 20 sentences, there is only one Google can’t choose a gender for: He-she is a police. As the list continues, the sentences move from professions to characteristics. He is a friend. She is a lover. He’s happy. She’s unhappy. He is hard working. She is lazy. The world becomes delineated into two types of people. 

Of course, it is still possible to do this in other ways in a gender neutral language like Turkish, but at least it’s avoidable on the grammatical level. Any assumptions about the subject’s gender fall on the listener, not on the language itself. And simply flipping the gender of the sentences in an effort to scrub out the misogyny doesn’t change the most basic problem with the translation. It adds information that was never available in the original sentence. This is exactly the sort of problem a generic singular ‘they’ solves in English. Since language can never change what’s already in our heads, it only solves the simplest of problems—the words themselves. But the change at least marks a desire to part with unwanted ideas and unnecessary dichotomies.


The process of coming to terms with my own nonbinary identity has also been a process of realizing how unrecognized I often feel by the language I hear in my everyday life. It’s strange to think that Czech, a language my ancestors have spoken for hundreds of years, doesn’t really have a good way to describe me. That English occasionally does doesn’t really redeem its own shortcomings. And of course, there’s no easy change of words or linguistic trick that’s going to make someone take me seriously when they don't want to. But there’s a reason that language is the site of so many ongoing public debates around gender identity. We hold language dear. The words we use ultimately do betray our inner views and the ideals we espouse. We can and should be working towards new ways of saying what we really mean.

JANE ARGODALE B’18 thinks the Comma Queen should abdicate.