I’ve been sitting on this post for a while, because I’ve got a question that’s very important to me but a bit of a sinking feeling that it won’t have the answer I’d like it to have. See I’m agender (as in not male and also not female). As you might imagine, this is a bit of a hassle when it comes to speaking in gendered languages.
My question is whether Welsh has any standard (or non-standard) gender-neutral pronouns or conventions. In Welsh could you, like in English, adopt “nhw” as a non-gendered singular pronoun? Has anyone ever proposed any new ones, either for gender diversity or gender neutrality (and how on earth would the mutations work)? Is there any way to find a middle ground of any kind between, for example, “athro” and “athrawes”?
If I’m going to really interact with people in Welsh rather than just enjoy it as my own private hobby, I think this is an issue I’ll have to grapple with and resolve in one way or another so I can stop just dwelling on it and getting bogged down. I understand for a language with a relatively small number of speakers this might not register on too many people’s radars, but if I’m going to find any answers at all, I’d say this forum would be my best bet. If the only answers I get are “no idea, sorry”, then that’s an answer in itself, which is more than I had before and therefore a good thing.
So thanks for reading, and thanks everyone for making this a forum where even though I don’t really use it, I’m happy and comfortable to post a question like this here. I really do love this website.
What an interesting question. And I’m absolutely delighted that you felt comfortable about asking it here…
You say that ‘they’ is used in English as a non-gendered singular pronoun - I’ve never heard that usage, but it seems to me that if it works in English, there’s no reason why you couldn’t do the same in Welsh - but I guess it’s mostly about getting people accustomed to the meaning - and on that front, this isn’t a discussion I’ve heard in the context of Welsh previously.
When is it most important to you? Is it when other people are referring to you in the third person?
It’s actually fairly common, but has mostly been used in an ‘ungrammatical, sloppy English’ kind of way in the past. It’s only fairly recently that people have been using it as a deliberate gender-neutral or non-gendered singular pronoun. Unfortunately, due to its previous use being regarded as ‘wrong’, it still grates on many ears being used in this way. But since it’s all we’ve got, people are just going to have to get used to it (and we know how quickly language can change with the force of popular usage behind it).
To get back to the original question, I remember asking when I first encountered the athro/athrawes thing if there were any moves amongst Welsh speakers to make the language less awkward when it came to gender issues and my tutor of the time said that he wasn’t aware of any. But that doesn’t mean (as Aran indicates) that we can’t make those moves ourselves.
This is such an interesting question, Alex - thank you for asking it. I have someone close to me who also prefers us to use gender-neutral pronouns for them, and I find the grammatical side of things he hardest thing to deal with! (I’m an editor by profession, so grammar is sort of ‘my thing’; I don’t have any other problem with their being agender.) I’m very comfortable with the singular ‘they’ (as are a number of eminent linguists; it’s an ongoing discussion in editorial circles and more and more people are coming round to it).
I don’t know what I would do in a Welsh situation - I probably don’t yet have enough of a natural feel for the language. I’ll talk to my (first-language Welsh) partner about it tonight, to see what she thinks. It’s interesting that Aran hasn’t heard it discussed in the context of Welsh. You could be a pioneer here!
Another thought, perhaps to ask Aran or others with a really good knowledge of Welsh: do people always use the gendered form of noun for occupations, etc? I’m thinking of the situation in English where most people who act are comfortable to be called ‘actors’, and some actively dislike the feminine ‘actress’. If I were to describe myself as an ‘athro’ (I’m not!) would that be considered a grammar mistake? My own occupation doesn’t have a gendered form, I think - ‘golygydd’ appears to be gender neutral, from what I can tell.
This is exactly the case I was referring to above. In my experience, it’s most likely that people will use the gender-specific term. Much more likely than in English, where the likes of ‘actress’ are becoming words used only by the wilfully old-fashioned (a few tabloid newspaper columnists spring to mind). But we can take ownership of this, if we want.
BTW, I’m not 100% convinced that golygydd is gender neutral. The existence of the word golygyddes suggests that it isn’t.
The -ydd ending feels neutral compared to the -wr or -es ending - I certainly know lots of people who have an -ydd ending for their role who’d never dream of adding -es to it… and I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone use ‘golygyddes’, if I ever have…
In the same way, no, using ‘athro’ wouldn’t be a grammar mistake - but that’s certainly an example where most people would automatically presume you were making a learner mistake - I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone using athro to refer to a female teacher.
It’s certainly less clumsy than “he or she”, or “his or hers”, and I’ve been using it for years for that very reason. However, I had a worrying feeling that this wasn’t quite approved of by the experts, so I am glad that people are coming round to it.
Yeah, the majority of issues with grammatical gender come up in third person (in English, at least, and I imagine in Welsh too). A gender-neutral third person singular is probably the most pressing issue, because of how often it’s used. Things like gendered nouns are annoying too, but as a secondary priority. Like, the only translation I could find for “sibling” in Welsh was literally “brawd neu chwaer”, which, since I am a sibling and I also have a sibling who is neither brawd nor chwaer, isn’t the most convenient situation. But yeah, pronouns come up a lot more often.
And just on “they”, it seems to be the case that most people find it perfectly natural when the gender of a person is unknown because of circumstance (“Someone’s at the door for you, Alex” “Ugh, what do they want?”) but not when it’s used in a more deliberate way when one would think a gender should be known (“This is my friend Alex. They speak Welsh”). But as people are saying on here, decent progress is being made in that respect.
Well the concept of a grammatical plural being used with singular meaning is not unprecedented, of course. Both Cymraeg (chi) and Francais (vous) use second person grammatically plural forms for second person singular polite.
So logically, the same extension principle could be adapted to the third person.
Yes, that sounds slightly forced - there are often other ways to deal with this, by avoiding the personal pronoun (and possibly the issue ), e.g. This is my friend Alex, who speaks Welsh - Dyma fy ffrind Alex sy’n siarad Cymraeg or: This is my friend Alex. Alex speaks Welsh. Dyma fy ffrind Alex. Siaradwr Cymraeg ydy Alex.
Language is a wonderful thing.
A propos agender, in Australia, in fact a few blocks from where I live, someone created legal history by having agender legally recognised as well as male and female. Is it the same in the UK?
Chaucer is known to have used singular ‘they’ in English hundreds of years ago (there is more about this on the Sentence First blog), so it is hardly a new thing. 700 years is plenty of time for a grammatical phenomenon to become established!
Tricks to avoid pronouns are neat and I’ve been known to use them in a pinch, but believe me when I tell you they’re not a sustainable solution for a whole conversation, let alone a whole lifetime.
I wouldn’t know about legal gender designation in the UK, being Australian myself. For a while I was very happy about the proposal down here for having passports with X for the gender, but now I’m pretty much over just about every form of gendered bureaucracy. For me, gender disclosure should never be required in the first place for anything, X, F, M or otherwise - so the “non-specific” terminology quite takes my fancy, and if that could be the default for everybody instead of having to be fought for individually, I’d love it. But this isn’t really the place for that conversation and I don’t know that I should get into it much further on here.
And Bob, I’d never registered that similarity between “chi” & “vous” and “they” in English, thanks for that! Opened up a little doorway in my mind