I no longer have a language

I love languages.

I’ve always been fascinated by surprising connections from one language to another, and finding new ways to communicate is just something that gives me life. I can’t call myself a polyglot — someone who is fluent in multiple languages — but I am native in English, nearly fluent in German, conversational in Spanish, familiar with Esperanto, capable of reading Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek, and I know about 40 words in French. So maybe I shouldn’t say “I love languages.” In fact, I love learning languages.

But lately, I want to break up.

Let me try to explain. This past October, two of my best friends (who live in Germany and Switzerland) visited me and Ian on the West Coast of the United States. Tobias, Moritz, Ian, and I stayed in San Francisco and Sedona, and enjoyed a simply wonderful two-week vacation.

Naturally, a few months before they visited, I held off on learning Spanish to polish my German (pun intended). And that’s when I remembered, since I identify as queer and my pronouns are they/them/theirs, I don’t have pronouns in German. I had a Skype-date with Moritz, the friend who now lives in Switzerland. His English is quite good, and he’s a very thoughtful friend, so I tried to explain my gender identity while fishing for pronouns to claim. But his response was sobering. “You can’t say that,” he answered. “People just won’t understand.”

In German, “sie” means they and is grammatically plural. It can never refer to one person. To communicate in German, I needed to make a choice — be a “he” or be an “it.” This beautiful language and culture which I claim, and a Mutterland that feels like a home away from home, doesn’t have a pronoun for me.

Moritz understood the frustration here, and when they were here we spent much of our two weeks together talking about this problem in German. Although Tobias and Moritz didn’t totally understand, they tried. And I love them for trying. The vacation was over too soon, and then it was back to New Jersey. And back to learning Spanish.

Oh, yeah.

Spanish doesn’t have gender neutral pronouns either.

My love of languages — and my love of learning languages — has become a soul-crushing and identity-questioning encounter. It’s as if my passport has expired, and I am no longer allowed to travel through cultures and languages foreign to me. It’s as if a binary border wall keeps me from seeking freedom and fleeing violence.

Now let’s be honest: just because “they” is becoming a more common singular-use pronoun in English doesn’t mean it’s all sunshine and unicorns and rainbows in the United States. In fact, we are facing increased xenophobia and transphobia. Our (or not our) Administration is erasing protections for transgender folks, and the Blue Wave has a lot of reparations to make. 

At least I have pronouns in English.

I don’t like writing a blog post without a clear direction or exhortation. Usually I point to some new, grace-oriented way of existing. But with this, I’m just grieving. With this, there is no answer. With this, there are no words. With this, I no longer have a language.

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