The Chinese character for good is 好 (hao). As you probably all know, Chinese characters started out as simple pictograms that later graduated to ideograms and so on and so forth. The two pictograms that are incorporated in the ideogram for “good” are 女 (nü) and 子 (zi), meaning woman and son, respectively. So whoever came up with the character for good way back in the day thought to himself, “What is goodness?” and the answer that he came up with was that goodness is a woman and a son.
In a way, this is sweet–the importance of family is inscribed in the word for good–but it’s also loaded. If goodness is a woman and a son, what does that mean for gay people or daughters or people who don’t want families?
Gender is also inscribed in Romance languages, Arabic, Korean, and other languages that have gendered nouns, verbs, or required modes of addressing people of different statuses/family relations. Other than the heshehimher pronoun problem, English is actually one of the least gendered languages on the planet, which makes it particularly suited to dismantling and discussing issues of gender and sexuality in inclusive ways.
But what to do when every word you say enforces a gender binary? What do you do when your language doesn’t have a non-derogatory word for gay? How do you identify as something that there is no word for?
I don’t have answers…this is after all, a brief meditation on gender and language. But as our conceptions of gender and sexuality continue to change and evolve, these are questions we will have to answer.
Your assignment for the week: Come up with a good unisex pronoun. My idea? Ta, which in spoken Chinese is the same for men and women. It’s only when it’s written that it becomes gendered–他 for men, 她 for women.