Gender in Language: A Look at Gender Neutrality and Inclusivity Around the World

Kelsey Wetherbee Published on June 30, 2023

Have you heard of the word “ze,” “hir,” or “xey”?  Or perhaps the word “elle” if you speak Spanish? It’s possible that you haven’t since they’re not included in any standard dictionary. But for some people, they are some of the most important words. They use them to identify themselves in a manner that fits their gender identity.

Gender-neutral language and gender-inclusive language have been receiving more and more attention lately because they promote gender neutrality or fluidity, even in languages that are typically very rigid in their male/female designations. While English is a fairly neutral language compared to others, we can still see examples of when a person must be referred to as a specific gender in order to get the meaning across. While this may seem trivial to some, it’s incredibly important for others. 

What is Gender-Neutral Language?

The guidelines for the use of gender-neutral language in the European Parliament define it very well: “Gender-neutral language is a generic term covering the use of non-sexist language, inclusive language or gender-fair language. The purpose of gender-neutral language is to avoid word choices which may be interpreted as biased, discriminatory or demeaning by implying that one sex or social gender is the norm. Using gender-fair and inclusive language also helps reduce gender stereotyping, promotes social change and contributes to achieving gender equality.”

Gender-neutral language is much more than just a way to avoid the specific male/female distinction, but rather, it combats discrimination and promotes equality by simply changing a few words or phrases. There are many concerning statistics related to gender inequality, such as the stagnating wage gap between males and females or the increase in anti-LGBTQ+ violence. But can using more gender-neutral language really help improve them?

Classifying Languages by Their Use of Gender

To explore, we first took a look at how languages around the world approach gender. All languages have some distinction between gender, but the degree to which it’s a necessary part of the language varies. There are three broad categories: genderless, gendered, and natural language.

Gendered languages are distinguished by the fact that nouns are always assigned a masculine or feminine gender (and sometimes more in other languages, like the neuter gender in German). Therefore, adjectives and pronouns must take the same gender as the noun they describe.

A few languages, such as English, are considered natural languages because not all nouns have a specific gender, but there are some nouns and pronouns that do in fact denote gender.

Finally, genderless languages don’t have differences in grammatical gender in the noun system. Some examples of genderless languages are Turkish, Persian, and Mandarin Chinese. 

The infographic below shows how the 20 most spoken languages are divided among these groups.

Deciphering Gender in Genderless Languages

The discussion of gender-neutral language is popping up across the globe. And although it’s currently a hotbed of debate, it isn’t necessarily a new concept. In fact, as you saw in the visualization above, there are many widely-spoken languages that don’t always use gender.

So how do these languages approach gender? Let’s take a look.

Mandarin Chinese

Mandarin Chinese is considered a genderless language. Nouns, in general, have no inherent gender. They can be compounded with a male or female morpheme to specify one, although this isn’t always necessary.

Third-person pronouns are also unspecified when speaking. The pronoun 他 (“he”) and 她 (“she”), while written differently, are pronounced the same way when speaking. Rather than having to explicitly state if someone is male or female when speaking, people gauge the gender of the person based on context. Interestingly, the written form of 她 (“she”), wasn’t introduced until the early 1900s, most likely due to Western influence. Previously, 他 (“he”) was used to mean “person” and encompassed all genders.


Swahili is a Bantu language that has almost no distinction between genders in nouns. There are some specific words that refer to family relationships, for example, mama (“mother”) and baba (“father”). Most other nouns, such as professions, tend to use the same word regardless of gender though. For example, mwigizaji refers to both an actor and an actress.

Similar to Mandarin Chinese, Swahili has gender-neutral pronouns. They use mimi for “me,” wewe for “you,” and yeye means both “he/him” and “she/her” but there’s no distinction between the masculine and feminine. There’s also no distinction of gender in grammar, so the sentence Amefurahi can mean “He is happy” and “She is happy.”


Indonesian is another language where gender can be somewhat amiguous. In Indonesian, the third-person singular pronoun dia is used to refer to one person regardless of gender. For example, “Dia sedang pergi menemani ibunya berbelanja di pasar” means “He/She is going shopping at the market with his/her mom.”

When speaking about two or more people, Indonesian speakers use the third-person plural pronoun mereka. Like dia, mereka does not distinguish if the group of people is male, female, or mixed. For example, “Mereka bermain sepakbola di halaman belakang rumah” means “They (regardless of gender) are playing soccer in the backyard.”

A Push for Gender-Neutrality in Gendered Languages

In some languages, such as the Romance languages like Spanish, French, and Portuguese, every noun has a gender and any corresponding adjectives or adverbs must take this gender. In Spanish, for example, la mesa (“the table”) is a feminine noun while el escritorio (“the desk”) is masculine. It’s an essential part of the language and something that many language learners struggle with. 

And while proponents of gender-neutral language aren’t necessarily trying to combat the gendering of inanimate objects, the same grammar concept applies to people: everyone must have an assigned gender in order to use the relevant nouns, adjectives, and adverbs. 

However, despite strict grammar rules, there are ways in which societies are slowly changing gendered language when referring to people. Here are some examples of how specific languages are adapting to become more neutral.


In Spanish, typically, the ending “-o” refers to something masculine, and the ending “-a” refers to something feminine. These are beginning to be replaced with the suffix “-e,” which has no assigned gender. For example, instead of saying el or ella (“he” or “she”), you can use the neopronoun elle. Or instead of todos/todas (“everyone”), you can use todes

There are other examples, usually used when writing. Some people prefer to use an “-x” when finishing a word, most commonly seen in the word Latinx. But it’s also common to see the “@” character on social media because it visually combines the “-o” and “-a.” For example, the word amig@s and chic@s includes both genders.


The Swedish language uses the male pronoun han and the female pronoun hon. Recently, they introduced the neutral pronoun hen. It can be used when the gender is unknown, it’s not important, or if the person chooses to identify with it. The word was even added to Sweden’s official dictionary in 2015. Sven-Goran Malmgren, one of the dictionary’s editors said, “It is a word which is in use and without a doubt fills a function.”


The Arabic language adds another level of difficulty because, in addition to every noun and adjective, verbs are also assigned male or female cases. Similar to French or Spanish, the male form is used for plurals, including all-male groups and mixed genders. The female plural is only used to refer to an all-female group. The issue of adopting a standardized gender-neutral Arabic becomes difficult because of the variety of dialects that exist.

Modern Standard Arabic, which is mostly a written dialect and not spoken, has a dual of huma هما (“they”) and intuma انتما (“you”) which are gender-neutral. But this isn’t used in many other Arabic dialects and can be seen as archaic. One way some people are making the language more inclusive is by alternating masculine and feminine verbs, pronouns, and adjectives in the same sentence. Another way is to address everyone with the female form, whereas the male form is usually the default.

According to Nassawiyat, a Moroccan-based LGBTQI+ human rights organization, in Northern Morocco the pronoun ntina نتینا is used for non-binary individuals, and in Lebanon, people use the gender-neutral pronoun ent instead of the masculine pronoun enta or the feminine pronoun ente. Despite these examples, Nassawiyat also went on to say, “The normalization of using dual and plural pronouns for nonbinary individuals has not been achieved yet in Arabic-speaking countries.”


Amongst language learners, German has notoriously difficult rules surrounding the three grammatical genders: male, female, and neuter. The neuter form is rarely used when referring to people, so it’s almost always necessary to assign a gender. In addition to using neopronouns like xier to overcome this, Germans are finding an interesting way to tackle the gendering of nouns. 

One such way is to add a capital “I” in the middle of the word. For example, the word “reader” in German, leser (male) and leserin (female) would be leserln. Another way is to use the Gendersternchen (gender star), which we’ll look at for the word “student.” Student (male)/Studentin (female) can be written as student*in or student_in. But in these cases, it’s more common to use the gender-neutral form studierende, which means “those that study.”

In cases where there is no gender-neutral form of the noun, the Goethe Institue recommends getting creative and changing words like teilnehmer (male)/teilnehmerin (female) (“participant”) into die teilnehmende Person (“the participating person”).

Popular Opinion and Official Acceptance

Since gender-neutral language is a recent social movement, there’s not much official data that exists as far as public support or rejection is concerned. What is clear is that it’s a very controversial topic that’s supported by some and rejected by others. Here are some examples from official entities of how society is accepting and/or rejecting gender-neutral language

Support and Rejection from Language Regulators

In 2019, the Merriam-Webster dictionary added the singular use of the pronoun “they” to the dictionary. They affirmed that it met their three criteria for inclusion: meaningful use, sustained use, and widespread use. They stated that “Nonbinary they has a clear meaning; it’s found in published text, in transcripts, and in general discourse; and its use has been steadily growing over the past decades.” The dictionary also named the word “they” as their word of the year in 2019 because searches for this term grew by 313% over the previous year.

In 2017, the Académie Française, the prestigious authority on the French language, gave a definite no to using inclusive language in writing. Proponents tried to include the use of a median point in words such as “friends.” Instead of defaulting to the male plural amis (versus the female plural, amies) it would now be written as ami•e•s. Despite their efforts, the Académie Française was clear with their rejection, saying, “Faced with the aberration of ‘inclusive writing’, the French language finds itself in mortal danger,” leaving no room for doubt that inclusive language will not be adopted by the Academy any time soon.

Similarly, the Spanish Royal Academy has also taken a strong stance against gender-inclusive language in Spanish. It has rejected all forms of inclusion, including the use of -e, -x, and -@. The Academy stated that this kind of language is “artificial and unnecessary,” arguing that the default masculine plural is encompassing of all genders. 

Acceptance on a Smaller Scale

Even though the use of inclusive language is receiving pushback from some linguistic governance bodies, many individuals and independent organizations are moving toward its use. The American Psychological Association has officially adopted the use of the singular “they,” meaning that it’s now best practice to use this term in any writing that follows the APA style guidelines.

In 2019, Hanover became the first city in Germany to make gender-neutral terms mandatory in all official communications. For example, instead of referring to a male voter as wähler and a female voter as wählerin, the correct term is wählende (“voting person”). But even before that, other German institutions such as the Federal Justice Ministry had already mandated the use of gender-neutral constructs in their official paperwork.

Why Gender-Neutral Language is Important

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

Anyone who was bullied on the playground as a child knows that this statement is simply false. Words carry a lot of power behind them and subtle differences can affect the overall meaning and tone of a message.

Language is an important factor that shapes how we perceive situations. The use of gender-neutral language is an attempt to get rid of some of the inherent biases that language might cause and strive for equality. By not referring to any specific gender, everyone is on equal ground.

Another reason why it’s important is because it’s inclusive towards people that don’t identify as male or female. As gender becomes more fluid, language is adapting to fit the situation.

By using a person’s preferred pronouns, you are showing an understanding and a willingness to accept how they view themselves. Even if you don’t necessarily understand why someone would want to refer to themselves as something other than “he” or “she,” in the end, a minimal effort to be conscious of their preferences shows basic respect and decency. 

As more societies and cultures push for the adoption of gender-neutral language, now’s the perfect time to reflect on how our use of certain words affects the meaning we convey. It’s important to note that gender-neutral language is still a very new concept and has not been widely adopted in any language or culture. But its use continues to grow with time and we’ll continue to see its use as more awareness is brought to the issue.

Kelsey Wetherbee

Kelsey is the Content Manager and Editor of Langoly. She is a TEFL-certified English teacher with more than eight years of classroom experience in three different countries. She’s an avid language learner with an advanced level of Spanish and is currently studying French. Whenever possible, she loves to travel and enjoys meeting people from all over the world. Connect with Kelsey on LinkedIn.

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