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Limitless Latin: Beyond the Gender Binary

Updated: Sep 28, 2020

by Mercer Weaver

Hello, my name is Mercer; I am non-binary; and my pronouns are they/them/theirs.

I have practiced that phrase every day since I figured out who I was, since I learned how best to use the English language to adequately describe myself. I am comfortable in my own skin, comfortable navigating pronouns and terminology. In English, I can describe myself in a thousand ways and still have words left over to explain my experiences. I know when I am being referred to and how to correct, when my name is called and how to answer. Latin, however, is a different story.

I have always known that Latin is limited. I know it every time I enter a spoken Latin space, where any pronoun or gendered ending used to describe me feels awkward. For me, feminine endings make me physically nauseous, neuter endings feel on the same level as calling me “it” in English, and the knowledge that my subsequent use of masculine endings as the “default” upholds the patriarchal views causes exponential frustration in me every single time.

I know Latin is limited. I have felt it burrow into my soul like barbed wire and sink deeper each time I even think of how I’m supposed to handle a composition assignment with the simplest sentence of three words to describe myself: Ego sum… ego sum… ego sum…. What am I in Latin except non existent? I can be beautiful, or great, or friend, but what good do those words do if they aren’t actually describing me?

were then thought of as women
Cybele, whose followers castrated themselves, and were later thought of as women

While these feelings may sound extreme, this isn’t to say that I don’t absolutely love the Latin language and learning about Roman culture. I'm majoring in Classics for my undergraduate degree, and while I do not know quite yet where my career is headed, I do know that I want to continue being a part of the Classical field in one aspect or another. Latin will always be a passion of mine, and I truly believe I have found a community of welcoming, like-minded individuals which I can’t fathom myself willingly leaving.

However, that does not mean that I must simply ignore these points of contention between my own identity and the language that I love. For as much as I love studying how the Romans thought of fluidity and gender, I know that their society, and thus their language, did not account for people whose genders didn’t conform to a simple binary. Latin stopped evolving centuries before the coinage of the terms “genderqueer” or “non-binary.” Unlike modern languages, where the language around gender and sexuality continues to evolve both naturally and forcefully, the only way for Latin to change is to collectively make a decision to actively include those to whom time has not been kind.

Because of these reasons, I was beyond ecstatic when I was asked to be a member of the gender style guide committee. Too often have I heard nothing but talk when it comes to gender inclusivity. Too often will organizations declare themselves as inclusive, a space for all underrepresented genders, only for the language they use to be anything but, for pronouns to be forgotten and only cisgender women to be considered. This committee changes everything, as, over the course of several months, we have created a style guide for collective and individual inclusive language.

Due to the magnitude of this task, each option was explored thoroughly over the course of our meetings. We discussed suggestions of using neuter endings, and how the abundance of inanimate nouns with neuter endings signifies a non-human gender. We also discussed the usage of the letter “x” in place of an adjective’s vowel, such as “amic-x-s.” While this was a favored option for a time, we came to the conclusion that any option which utilizes the “x” is merely performative due to the impracticality of pronunciation in a spoken Latin setting. Ultimately, we settled on using a combination of 3rd and 5th declension endings as a baseline for a gender inclusive set of endings for words that are inherently gendered, which I feel to be a fair compromise as we endeavour to create language for all.

I and the rest of the gender style guide committee recognize that not every individual will want to use these new endings and pronouns for personal use, and that’s completely valid. However, as someone who has constantly struggled with the limitations that Latin lovingly presents to me every time I try to speak, this guide means the world to me. Not only does it provide easy solutions for gender inclusive language when speaking to a larger group, it has equipped me with an option that doesn’t feel so uncomfortable to utilize. And with this guide, I take great joy in knowing that I now have a new phrase to practice:

Salve, mihi nomen est Mercer; ego sum imbinaries; et mea pronomina sunt es/eem/eius.

Lupercal's gender style guide will be released in the next month!

Mercer Weaver (they/ them) is an editor for the Lupercal blog. They are currently double majoring in Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Women’s Studies at Penn State University. In addition to Latin and the ancient world, their interests include reading and crafting.

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2 kommentarer

This is an issue I've struggled to help my non-binary students with. I'm so glad there is a guide coming out! Where can I get it when it becomes available?

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Great to see someone address this problem! I'm nonbinary Classics student from University of Wroclaw in Poland. I started a community that collect ways that nonbinary people refer to themselves in Polish and is building new words in neuter or neogrammar for us to use(that is far more gendered than English or even Latin I suppose). But thinking about Latin or Ancient Greek I was like "well, I will either use neuter as in Polish or stick to binary". Great to see there will be some guide to it!

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