The realization of social gender distinctions in the grammar and lexicon of different languages is described in the theory of morphological gender (Kramer, 2015), which defines languages whose grammars are structured in a particular way as “having gender,” and all others as being “genderless.” Because they do not fulfill each of the three criteria outlined in this theory, many languages like English, Vietnamese, and Tagalog are considered genderless linguistically even though they mark masculine and feminine gender in different ways, including morphologically. This paper presents a typological analysis of the aforementioned languages and details the multivariate features of gender they exhibit in order to problematize the notion that they are “genderless.”
While English is a famously “genderless” language, it features pronominal, lexical, and even traces of morphological gender. Queer speakers have innovated neutral and/or specifically nonbinary personal pronouns; the extant gender-neutral pronoun they has gained widespread popularity and numerous series of neopronouns (third-person singular pronouns other than he, she, or they), including ze/hir and xe/xem (Bertulfo, 2021) have been attested to provide more expansive ways to self-identify. Many English words exist as gender-paired lexical items by way of semantics, and many of these pairs lack neutral alternatives (e.g. nephew, niece). Lastly, English features feminizing suffixes (-ette, -ess, -ix) that gender-mark words in a manifestly morphological way (e.g. bachelorette, actress; Baron, 1986).
Vietnamese is similarly considered a genderless language, yet it forms gendered distinctions in novel ways, including via processes of compounding involving normatively gendered adjectives (e.g. trai ‘boy’, gái ‘girl’) and otherwise gender-neutral nouns (e.g. con ‘child/dear one’), which compound in ways that disallow neutral alternatives prescriptively (e.g. con trai ‘son’, con gái ‘daughter’; Ngo, 2020). These adjectives double gender-mark certain gender marked roots (e.g. ông nội ‘paternal grandfather’, bà nội ‘paternal grandmother’).
Finally, Tagalog presents the most egregious example. As a result of Spanish colonialism, hundreds of loanwords (nouns and adjectives) bear masculine-feminine morphological gender that parallels Spanish; the loanword’s gender aligns with the referent’s gender and is inflected using canonical Spanish gender morphology (e.g. abenturero/abenturera ‘adventurer’, santo/santa ‘holy’), even when paired with native nouns (OEI, 1972). Queer speakers have improved on some of these items using gender-inclusive Spanish strategies (e.g. pilipinx), further proving their similarities (FIERCE, 2018). The discovery of a morphological gender system in a subset of the grammar and lexicon challenges the ability of the prevailing theory of morphological gender to identify all gender morphology cross-linguistically.
The information we lose in enforcing the label “genderless” is many-fold: it trivializes the diverse features of gender-marking present in English, Vietnamese, Tagalog, and other languages, and disregards important historical changes to gender systems brought about by language contact as well as contemporaneous innovations in language occurring in queer communities. We argue the necessity of a more expansive definition of gender in language which unifies features that are disjointed in the current theory, in turn positioning the focus of the study of gender in language on social gender.