Latin offers nouns in three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. As you may know, adjectives change their gender endings in order to agree with the noun they’re modifying: bonus puer (good boy), bona puella (good girl), and bonum consilium (good plan). Nouns have gender without regard to their meaning. The words for forest (silva) and tree (arbor) are feminine, while the word for leaf (folium) is neuter, and trunk (truncus) is masculine. These somewhat arbitrary genders must be memorized, but as Latin teachers for generations have been saying, once you’ve learned the genders of Latin words, you’ve also learned them for their French and Spanish derivatives.
In years past, I sometimes made sly comments about gender in my Latin classes. Nouns are stuck in a particular gender, I would say, but adjectives can go either way! A word that’s neuter, meaning “neither one,” can’t name a person, because people all have a defined gender, right? No neuter people, right? Hardy-har-har.
In one class quite a while back a student in her forties began stopping at my desk after class to chat. She shared with me that her adult transgender daughter had a female partner and that they had adopted a child. She told me that the adjustment to their daughter’s “new” gender in her adolescence had been difficult, especially for her husband, but that things were going well among all of them now. She seemed resolute in wanting to talk to me about these matters.
It came to me, belatedly, that this kind woman might be trying to raise my consciousness. From the beginning, I accepted her experience without any prejudice; I was open and encouraging about hearing about her family. But I had never questioned my little gender jokes, which had been going on for decades. Until gradually I did begin to question them. Gradually, I began listening to myself, and, gradually, I cut the comments out.
This all came to mind after reading “The Power of the Latin Neuter” by Margaret Somerville in the April issue of The Christian Century, sent to me by my friend Tricia. Somerville posits that creaky old Latin might actually have something to offer in the current debates about gender. Neuter actually means “not either,” the very definition of non-binary. She offers her students the option of calling themselves discipulum, a neuter ending on the word for student, if they want to identify as “not either.”
Similarly, she uses a poetic device called merism (from the Greek word for “divided”) to support her LGBTQ students and to broaden everyone’s perspectives. When we search near and far for an item, for example, we’re not looking near and then looking far. We’re looking everywhere in between. Merism is the device that implies everywhere-all-at-once by naming the extremes. In the elegant phraseology of linguist John Lyons, it’s “a dichotomized pair that conveys the concept of a whole.”
Somerville alludes to the Roman poet Vergil describing Rumor, personified as a “she,” wandering day and night, up to the sky and back down to earth, by which he means that Rumor travels everywhere all at once. Similarly, in Scripture, Somerville says, “God names darkness and light, day and night, heavens and earth, male and female. Surely, these powerful examples of merism were already opening the world to the totality of human expression.”
If anything is retro, one would think Latin would fit the bill. But here it is in 2023, relevant once again.