An interesting piece by Ilana Masad on the difficulty of being a feminist, or transgender, in a Hebrew-speaking environment:
Many people may be familiar with languages like Spanish or French in which nouns are gendered. The main difference between Hebrew and these other languages, however, is that one cannot speak in first or second person in Hebrew without indicating gender. The word “I” is ungendered, but any verb connected to it in present or future tenses inherently is. Thus, the phrase “I want a cookie” becomes, in literal translation, “I female-want a female-cookie.” (Cookie is a female-gendered noun, which I’m okay with, because yum, cookies.) In the example above, the reason the word “canceled” is attached to the word “female” is because “train” is a female subject, grammatically, and thus most verb conjugations describing that train will be gendered.
In other words, interpersonal conversation is never without the indication of gender. Even if you and another person were on two sides of a barrier and your voices were not indicative of your gender, you would each know the other’s gender within a few sentences because of the verb formulations you’d use.
[. . .]
Coming back to Israel after a year away and speaking Hebrew day in and day out again has been a bit of a shock. I have been reminded of the many, many issues women deal with here. For one thing, the correct way to address a group of people in Hebrew is usually with male pronouns and verbs, unless the group is exclusively female. So if a lecture hall is filled with women, but one seat is occupied by a man, the professor is supposed to address the crowd with you-plural-male pronouns and verbs. Announcements at airports and train- and bus-stations similarly address crowds with the second-person-plural-male pronouns, because the assumption is that there will be men there (even one is enough to make this mandatory).
This “correct” way of speaking has been handed down from on high, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which is “the world’s premiere institution for the Hebrew language, and in Israel, its decisions are binding on all governmental agencies.” The About section of the Academy’s website goes on to say: “Although the Academy has the reputation of being Israel’s ‘language police’, it does not police spontaneous speech. The institution considers its decisions binding only for written texts and formal speeches.”
What does this mean in practice? That formal speeches are addressed to men. That academics address their papers to men. That national examinations are usually addressed to men, with a little asterisk at the bottom of the page or the end of the exam booklet with some version of this disclaimer: “This test is geared towards both men and women.” […] Furthermore, in day-to-day speech, the general second-person pronoun used in hypotheticals or examples of any kind is also gendered male.
The stuff about gendered nouns is silly, but doesn’t affect the author’s main point. (And please, no jokes about LGBTQIA — yes, the terminology can get awkward, but there are good reasons for it.) Thanks, Yoram!