“Yeah, I’m just here visiting — I’m an alumni.” I smiled and nodded at the nice woman in front of me, but my mind wheeled backward to high school when I learned the various forms of the word “alumnus.” As a student at an all-girls school, I had the unique opportunity of becoming part of a group of alumnae upon graduation, so I had to know how to say it properly. A few days ago, I found myself parked behind yet another car with a license plate holder advertising “CAL ALUMNI” in bold letters. I could give the license-plate-frame makers the benefit of the doubt and say they’re labeling the owner of the car as a member of the group of Cal’s graduates collectively known as alumni. But, it still makes me wish I could request a series of Berkeley “alumna” license plate holders.
Even now as I write this, the word processor suggests that I change “alumna” to “alumni.” If you’re not a copy editor, you might be saying, “Who cares?” Of course it’s not an issue of great consequence, but my attention to it is heightened not only by my line of work but by the two other languages I speak: Bulgarian and French.
Like many other languages, they include three and two genders, respectively, which means that whenever you’re referring to a noun, you have to know how to gender its corresponding articles and adjectives. I wonder if I would care quite so much about the distinction between “alumnus” and “alumna” if I didn’t spend so much time learning gendering rules while studying foreign languages. And, in a world where gender is often viewed as fluid and nonbinary, its grammatical role has become increasingly examined and even controversial. For heavily gendered languages, it seems impossible to overturn thousands of years of linguistic development in favor of a gender-neutral grammar utopia.
But isn’t it rather arbitrary, anyway? In Bulgarian, “bird” (птица) is feminine, while in French it’s masculine (oiseau). In French, “family” (famille) is feminine, while in Bulgarian, it’s neuter (семейство). And in English, these words don’t have gender at all. It seems that the idea of gender in Bulgarian and French is rather ambiguous, since words are gendered simply based on spelling and how they sound, for the most part. As in English, questions of personal sensitivity would arise when referring to humans, as some people do not identify within the feminine/masculine binary. But for me that seems to be a separate domain from grammatical gender. In fact, languages that gender inanimate nouns implicitly propose a more abstract and flexible definition of gender, since the gender of, say, a soccer ball is clearly not determined by its biological sex. And then, at the other end of the spectrum, I recently learned from my friend that there is one neutral pronoun for all genders in Mandarin, and he said a system for gendering was only invented in the 1960s because it was getting too confusing.
It’s pretty clear that systems of gendering among languages are as varied and irregular as the average night editor’s sleep schedule. But I still can’t quite let it go — I’m not an “alumni.” (By the way, “alumnus” is the masculine singular form, “alumna” is feminine singular, “alumnae” is feminine plural, and “alumni” is masculine or mixed-gender plural.) As an editor and language learner, it usually feels natural for me to distinguish between gender as a form of human identity and gender as a grammatical construction. In a way, speaking languages in which you refer to everything as a “she” or a “he” lessens the impact of specifying gender by its ubiquity. Pronouns sort of become just another word. So yes, I’m an alumna, but in another language, my car would be, too, if it graduated from high school. I’ll try not to cringe next time someone claims individual “alumni” status. At the end of the day, we can all be “alums,” anyway.