The Nonbinary Hebrew Project and Nonbinary Israeli Hebrew

I just encountered the Nonbinary Hebrew Project, and I have mixed feelings about it.

It’s a project by US Jews to add a third grammatical gender to Hebrew – and I think it’s pretty good at that! It fits the morphology pretty well and doesn’t sound too off.

But it also seems to ignore the fact that there is actually already a very lively Hebrew-speaking nonbinary community in, you know, Israel, that country where Hebrew is the dominant language? And that Israeli nonbinary folx have not, as a whole, tried to add a third gender to our native language’s very binary system, and have instead developed what I would argue is possibly an even more radical linguistic praxis: using mixed grammatical gender as a third option. Like adding a third gender, it takes some getting used to. But unlike adding a third gender, it makes use exclusively of existing words (unless you include the multi-gender plurals -imot/-otim, which also just use existing morphemes in a new way.)

This is arguably more radical because it doesn’t require learning any new info, making it more accessible, and also paves the way for more inclusive ungendered language in Hebrew, a famously “gender-maniacal” language. I.e. the mixed forms (talmidim tovot) serve simultaneously as a third grammatical gender for nonbinary folx and a neutral form for addressing mixed, Queer, or unspecified groups.

As Tzor points out, Hebrew is also different from European languages in that speaking in the first person requires gendering oneself, so adding a third grammatical gender means one might have to misgender oneself in certain spaces to stay under the radar – a problem English-speaking NBs are less likely to face. Israeli NB “mixed speech” avoids this problem, and I feel it generally loosens up the very binary gender feelings Hebrew grammar always gave me.

Still, as a Hebrew-native NB person trained in linguistics I can’t help but admire the Nonbinary Hebrew project – it’s delightful! I even hope it sees wider adoption and makes inroads in Israel – there’s always room for more forms of gender expression. I just feel uncomfortable with the way a diasporic community, in some ways privileged over Israeli nonbinary folx, has seen fit to re-engineer our native language to fit the (linguistically) European approach to nonbinary language of adding new pronouns while ignoring the existing, Hebrew-native NB community and the brilliant solution it has already been putting into daily practice for years.

(P.S. Tzor also noted that really, the NB Hebrew project’s -eh endings sound very diasporic and Yiddic, and don’t fit quite naturally with Israeli Hebrew. Moreover, many Israeli native speakers, possibly Mizrachim in particular, have a less rigid approach to vowels than natives of European languages would, and -eh and -ah often flow into one another rather than being entirely distinct phonemes.)

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