Posted in Inclusive Language, social justice

Writing and Talking About Non-Binary People in Latin

I was asked recently what to do about those who identify themselves to us as non-binary people as we work with them both speaking and writing in Latin. Whether it’s our aim or not, I find increasingly that students want to talk and write about themselves both in class and outside of class. I am delighted at how often students tell me that they text each other in Latin, routinely.  I’ve seen some conversations in various places about this aspect of inclusive language in Latin.  I don’t recall any sort of firm conclusion about what to do in a language where nouns and adjectives are all grammatically labelled “masculine, feminine, or neuter.”

I see some immediate considerations to ponder about the language and about what we do with all this in a classroom.

  1. Grammar. Most of us have learned our grammar, even our Latin grammar, in English, and the English meaning of things has warped our sense of it all. For example. What do we all think id means in Latin?  It, right? Except that’s the English equivalent we give to it, and in English, it is specifically an unknown thing and almost always a non-human thing. It seems insulting to reference a human being as “it.”  And it is.  But does id really mean exactly what it does? Id, like illud, hoc, and istud all reference a noun that is neither masculine nor feminine. A flumen is not an unknown thing but is neither masculine nor feminine by category. A human corpus and cor and cerebrum are all facets of being human, but none of them are masculine or feminine by category.
  2. Gender. Of words. We’ve probably all made some sort of statement (or heard it made which means we carry it around with us) that when we talk about the gender of a noun, we are not talking about human sexuality. It’s just a grammar category. And that’s true, when it is, but at times it is directly referencing human sexual identification. The issue of the gender of words in Latin is that it DOES reference human sexuality when those words are human identifiers and the rest of the time it most often does not reference human sexuality. There is nothing particularly manly about a flos or womanly about virtus but flower is by category masculine and courage by category is feminine. However, a mulier is feminine and references human sexuality as is vir masculine doing the same. There are many Latin words that reference human beings who are men and boys and those words are categorized as masculine and many more that reference women and girls which are categorized as feminine. Every once in a while a word referencing human beings comes along like infans and it is categorized as being either masculine or feminine because the world view of the people speaking this language included that babies could be either masculine or feminine. In addition to that cultural expectation are words (often adjectives) that are meant to describe all human beings or a group of human beings of different genders. The grammarians taught us that those are always masculine. That’s called patriarchy, and that’s another blog post.
  3. Neuter. This is really a wonderful word which often makes me wonder if the cultural experience of those speaking Latin historically didn’t somehow anticipate what human beings already knew about themselves on some level: that we are way more complex than any attempt to categorize us into just two options. Again, problematically, we reduce neuter to “neuter” in English which means no reference to sex–as in neutered, having sexual organs removed. But, that’s not what neuter means.  It means neither, as in neither masculine or feminine. That strikes me as a powerful idea to bring to the forefront if we want to talk about non-binary human beings.

I teach with Comprehensible Input as my framework, so I have absolutely no problem giving students English (or other L1) equivalents when I am introducing new words to them in Latin.  I do think, though, that we can do a better job of fleshing out the possibilities when we give them L1 equivalents. Take, for example, the word carmen. It’s easy to say that this word means song and move on with our story or reading. But, carmen is a much richer and more mysterious word than “song.” It can mean song.  And poem.  And incantation (yes, Hermione, as in a magical spell). And prayer. It’s worth the time, in my opinion, when we introduce a word so rich in meaning that we take some time to help our students sit with the possibilities.  How is it that the same word can mean song, poem, magical spell, and prayer? Are those things related?  Would they have been for Romans?  Could they be now? Then, a little more musing about what kinds of contexts might evoke any one of those meanings and then we can go back to our story or reading.

So, Sam is in your Latin class, and at some point early on, Sam let’s you know that they identify as non-binary. Sam let’s you know that their pronouns are they/them. Sam also wants to know how that works in Latin. I can imagine several responses which, for me, teaching in 2020, would be unacceptable.

Possible Responses:

  1. Sorry. Latin just doesn’t have any pronouns that will work like that.  I mean, there are words used for “they” but they require a plural verb and you would just be confusing people all the time.
  2. I see on my roster that your given name is Samantha (or Samuel), and so we will just use feminine (or masculine) pronouns for you in Latin.
  3. Most of the time in class when I’m speaking Latin, I refer to you all as a group of discipuli and that’s always going to be masculine, so no worries.

The problem with these responses is that while they feature something that grammars support, they are the kinds of responses that place grammar rules over people. That’s always a problem, as I see it, since grammar rules are meant to aid in communication and understanding of language. These sorts of responses turn what are nothing more than observations about patterns of language into restrictions about how human beings can communicate or need to communicate in order to be well heard, well understood and well received.

What can we come up with?

I will share here my thoughts about how we might respond to Sam and what patterns of language we might use when speaking or writing about non-binary human beings. I am not setting up rules but rather sharing an idea about how to respond to real people who do show up in my (and our) Latin classes. Because of a modern culture that is becoming increasingly more accepting of the complexity and variety of human genders and gender identities, students are also going to be more likely to tell us these things about themselves. They have always been in our classrooms, but they have not always been free to think aloud about themselves, much less willing or able to share such information with their teachers and classmates.  We are there now, and Sam wants to know how to refer to themself in Latin.

I am looking to the idea of nouns and adjectives being neither masculine or feminine, i.e. neuter as a way of expression in Latin. Here is how I imagine doing it whether I am having a conversation in class (one ONLY in which Sam has been very open with not only me but the class about identifying as non-binary) or with a character in a story that I create as a representation of someone who identifies as non-binary. Turning to the categorization of neuter beautifully comes with the idea of neither this nor that–in other words, neuter exists to defy binary categories. Immediately, in Latin, that means that we might use adjectives in the neuter, neuter pronouns and neuter participles in place of first and second declension nouns where that makes sense. Consider something like this:

Comites, apud nos est Sam, et Sam iam nobis dixit id nec masculinum nec femininum esse, certe? Sam est discens bonum et vult Latine de se dicere. Lingua Latina, vocabula habemus vocata feminina, masculina et neutra. Possumus Sam describere vocabulis neutris.  Exempli gratia Sam est altum statura. Sam est intelligens. Sam picturas pulchras pingit (I chose to write this rather than Sam est pictor/artifex qui . . . ). 

In any language where we are trying to recognize what people tell us about their experience of themselves as people who are non-binary, we have to practice making choices about the language we use. Using neuter adjectives, participles and pronouns in Latin for such people is not standard Latin practice. I know that. It is also an idea that I am beginning to think about and experiment with. I am sure that there are road blocks I have not encountered that my offering here will not solve.  For example, I often use the word discipuli when referring to the class. I want to do better in general terms of not always referring to a mixed group with masculine terms, and it allows me to introduce them to comites which is common gendered and evokes the lovely idea of  travelling companions in the classroom. How, though, do I refer to one student who has made in known that they are non-binary? That’s when it occurred to me to use a present participle: discens, a learner. Smith and Hall’s lexicon acknowledges it as an alternative for discipulus, though it also acknowledges that it is not found in the nominative singular. That’s a line I am willing to cross since discens is a form that anyone reading Latin would recognize at the very least as “learning, one who learns.” I do think that it is a practice of taking advantage of neuter adjectives, pronouns and participles accomplishes two things at once:

  1. It tips its hat toward long standing features of the language (that there are words categorized as NEITHER masculine nor feminine)
  2. It is a way of honoring what students and colleagues who speak and write Latin tell us about themselves.

If you have come up with ways in Latin to represent people who are non-binary, I’d love to hear about them. You can post a comment to this blog (which only I will see), and if it generates enough discussion, I’ll write a follow up.

Bob Patrick

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