What’s in a name? – about identity questions a little differently

Do you remember that scene in Romeo and Juliet where Juliet realizes that Romeo is the son of the hostile family and she starts thinking about what names actually mean? Shakespeare devoted a whole monologue to explore what it means in fact to name things like this or that. We might not even exaggerate if we say that the whole drama is about this question. But what does this mean in the age of modern identities? What does this mean at the time of the LGBTQ acronym?

‘I go by she, her, hers’ - that is, I use feminine pronouns. As a Hungarian it is hard to understand such a statement. Meanwhile in the US in queer and progressive circles it is an increasingly common way of self-determination, what is more, in some cases it is sort of mandatory. What does this mean, where does it come from, and why is it good, if it is good at all, to classify queer people in alignment with pronouns?

The Hungarian language is a special one, since it lacks grammatical gender, which means that it does not separate nouns based on their gender. The grammatical gender is known from such languages as German or French (where the der, die, das or the le and la define the gender of the noun, respectively). In these languages it is also obvious that the genders of the nouns have nothing to do with actual genders: for instance, why would a table (der Tisch) be male? Why would the sun in German be female (die Sonne), while in French male (le soleil)?

The Hungarian language does not recognize such a differentiation, however, it is even weirder that there is no difference between men and women with regards to pronouns. While in English the third person singular can be she or he, in German er and sie and in French il and elle, in Hungarian both the male and female third person is simply ő. Therefore, if we talk about someone without mentioning his or her (you see?) name, he or she (again!) can be anything: man, woman, animal, extraterrestrial. This exciting ambiguity also provides Hungarian poetry with great opportunities to exploit.

The setup is very different in other parts of the world, where if we talk about a person, we allocate him or her straight away into a gender category. Thus it is not surprising that queer people have been struggling with issues of traditional language use, since pretty often they do not feel belonging to that gender you would assume at first sight. This can be the explanation why the ‘What are your pronouns?’ question got integrated in the introduction practice within the queer community. You can define yourself which pronouns should be used while someone is addressing you, the male or the female ones? Which ones are you identifying or self-determining yourself with? If none of these two options are applicable, you still can use the they-them-their possibility: when you just talk about someone in general.

So Americans came up with the idea of including the pronouns within the introduction in order to avoid embarrassing situations that can occur due to confusion caused by the possible misuse of these pronouns. By stating your self-chosen gender, namely if you should be addressed as she, he or they, all these embarrassing misunderstandings can be avoided. Therefore by socializing or even at work (in progressive circles) it can happen that during the first encounter each member of the group inflects his, her or their pronouns. (The reason why it is necessary to actually inflect your pronouns is not clear. It is sort of mysterious what kind of added value this delivers.) Anyway, this method has the advantage of helping to allocate everybody to their little self-chosen category, and by doing so all the problems can be put aside.

If some of you felt a bit of irony while reading the lines above, I have to admit, you were right. While it is not hard to sympathize with the original problem, namely with people fighting for self-determination, there is still something disturbing in this rather convenient solution. That it regards the problem solved by a simple grammatical maneuver - choosing your pronoun. That it tries to simplify the complicated and exciting question of gender identity by one pronoun. Actually, this is not a queer way of thinking at all: it is not accidental that in English heterosexual people are called straight. Straight stands for something simple, twodimensional, flat, plain. The categories are clear, orderly. The genders are simple and understandable. However, for a queer person there are no clearly defined lines: things are interweaving, overlapping, what is more, they can constantly change.

By having self-determination as an organic part of introduction, a deserved right turns into a constraint - you have to make a statement: are you a girl or a boy? You have to decide, and if you don’t, it has a category as well, we still put you in one: they. The straight logic wins, because this way the genders are unambiguous, they become concrete. You can still decide which one you want to belong to, but you still have to choose a clear and solid category, and from that moment that is you, there is no middle ground, no transformation, no experimentation. This is how a sympathetic initiative becomes a restrictive, limiting system. And what might be an even bigger issue is that this initiative is encouraged by LGBTQ+ people.

Luckily, Hungarian has no gender specific pronouns. This way we don’t have to worry about how to determine ourselves while we keep the experimentation and openness. We can learn from the American case though, because it displays very well how a queer goal or ambition, despite of its actual purpose, can be in alignment with the traditional, heterosexual way of thinking.

“What’s in a name?” - this is the question that is relevant ever since the time of Romeo and Juliet and even then and there it becomes clear, that it really doesn’t matter, because “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”.


Translated by Rita Teller

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