“No way—courage has to be masculine,” a freshman boy declares.
The girls at the table roll their eyes. This scene occurs every year when I introduce the concept of grammatical gender to my beginning Latin students. As I walk around the room, I always smile as I listen to their predictions about whether courage, food and rock will be masculine, feminine or neuter nouns in Latin.
“I bet courage is feminine,” another freshman girl counters, “and she included it on purpose to trick us.”
Gendered Nouns and World Perspectives
Students are often surprised to learn that Latin has three genders for nouns. When I explain this, I recognize that I’m introducing a new element to my students’ understanding of language. They see it as yet another thing to memorize, another moving piece to manipulate as they learn a new subject. But it’s more than that. When I introduce students to gendered nouns, I discuss the implications of gendering the world around us.
Make no mistake: The language we use shapes our understanding. Research shows that even seemingly minor details, such as the gender of a noun, affect the way we see things. Lera Boroditsky, a professor at Stanford University, found that native speakers describe an object differently based on how their language genders that object. When a bridge is masculine in a language, for example, it’s described with terms like sturdy. When a bridge is feminine in another, it’s elegant.
When we learn a new language with gendered nouns, we learn a new way to look at the world.
The explosion of sound in class is cacophonous when students learn that courage is feminine. Some students groan, “No way!” as others declare, “I knew it!” Still more say nothing because they are either too shocked or too delighted. It is telling of our own biases today that no other word in the activity elicits such a reaction as a feminine courage.
Once the hubbub subsides, I ask students to explain their reactions. At this point, several students usually look sheepish once they realize exactly why they reacted in a certain way. But they’re not alone. Even in English, we associate particular words with particular genders. According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, “Americans are much more likely to use [the word] ‘powerful’ in a positive way to describe men (67% positive) than women (92% negative).”
Starting with gendered nouns, we go wherever the conversation might lead us, whether that’s to stereotypes about women, to the ways male-dominated careers are often viewed as courageous or to the different ways that all people show their courage. The critical element, though, is to draw attention to our own biases through this study of language.
Engendering Names and Transgender and Nonbinary Students
In addition to encouraging students to think critically about gender and language, world language teachers are also in a unique position to model gender inclusivity for all students in their classrooms. In many language classrooms, for example, students already research and select new names in the language they’re learning. This practice can easily be tweaked to promote a gender-inclusive environment that is uniquely welcoming to transgender and nonbinary students.
When students select their names, why not have these students choose their pronouns at the same time? Unlike many other languages, Latin has three genders. Nonbinary and gender non-conforming students can choose a name that matches their identity, one that’s gendered neither masculine nor feminine. Often, language teachers let students choose nouns like lion or reed as their names. The world language class offers the chance for students to change the gender of the noun to reflect their own identification.
Can this result in a grammatically incorrect sentence? Sure it can. A student may want to be called Avis and use a neuter pronoun. It may not be not grammatically correct to say Avis celere (swift Bird). But even as a grammar enthusiast who understands concepts like split infinitives, hyphenating phrasal adjectives and parallel structure, I have to ask: So what?
After all, we aren’t talking about a roadrunner. We’re talking about Avis, a transgender student who loves running fast and who asked to be called by a different pronoun. You might be the only adult at school whom Avis can identify as supportive of LGBTQ students; the overwhelming majority of trans students cannot identify several supportive adults at school.
Your students will learn to modify nouns with their classmates’ correct gendered adjectives. And more importantly, you’ll have made it clear to all of your students, swift or otherwise, that your classroom is a safe place—and that you’re an adult who cares about keeping it that way.
Cunning is a Latin, English and ESL teacher. She currently teaches British and world literature through a virtual high school in Kansas.