The Volokh Conspiracy

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Do English Speakers Have It Easier When It Comes to Transgender Pronoun Debates?


In English, at least, you can generally avoid taking a stand on a person's gender by using the person's name instead of a pronoun. It may sound awkward, and it's probably hard to do on the spur of the moment in speech, but it's possible, especially when you're writing and can edit things accordingly. And when you're talking to the person, "you" works regardless of sex.

But in Russian, you can't even do that: When you're talking about a person in the past tense, the verb is different for men and women. That's true in the third person, in the second, and in the first (though, thankfully, it's at least not true in the second person formal). So if I'm taking about Pat having worked, for a male Pat it would be "Pat rabotal," while for a female Pat it would be "Pat rabotala." If I'm talking to Pat using the informal second person, I'd say "ty rabotal" to male Pat and "ty rabotala" to female Pat.

Likewise, if I want to use adjectives to describe someone, the adjectives are also gender-marked. To say a male Pat is smart, I'd say "Pat umniy"; to say a female Pat is smart, I'd say "Pat umnaya." Can't dodge the question in Russian; you've got to commit to one gender or the other.