A cis lament for the Greek language

By: | Post date: 2017-05-31 | Comments: 3 Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

Today, I felt sad for the Greek language.

As I was describing on Nick Nicholas’ answer to Does modern Greek still have Latin prefixes and suffixes?, Greek has withstood the pressure to make like the Western languages for millennia. Oh, the common folk borrowed words from Latin and Turkish and Italian and Albanian, but scholarly vocabulary? Borrow from Latin? Screw that, we taught those beef-eaters everything they know. So for millennia, every scholarly term of Latin origin was meticulously calqued into Greek elements.

We had a great run of it. The run’s pretty much over. There’s some valiant work to keep calquing westernisms, but today I came across an instance where we just gave up.

The instance, maybe not that surprisingly, is vocabulary about gender, which has undergone upheaval in the last decade or so.

For links to what’s happened, see the linked answer. I’m drawing on the reports of Christina-Antoinette Neofotistou, a trans woman who was involved in coining native terms (and abandoned them) (transgender = διεμφυλικός, Η δήθεν ανακοίνωση των μουσουλμάνων και τα ψέματα (;) του Άδωνη), and on perusal of Greek Wikipedia.

Greek runs into a few problems when trying to render the concepts transgender, intersex, and cis.

  • Greek does not differentiate between gender and sex. They’re both phylon (phlyum). To render the English distinction, Greek has to resort to ‘biological gender’ vs ‘social gender’. Which makes the distinction much clearer, but is also awkward.
  • Greek does not differentiate between the prefixes trans– and inter-. Both are rendered as dia-, meaning ‘across’.
  • Greek does not have a notion of cis– as a prefix at all. It certainly has a notion of ‘this side of the river’ or ‘this side of the mountain’ in place names; but that notion is expressed as mesa vs exō ‘Inner vs Outer’; e.g. Mesa Mani and Exo Mani. It’s not a notion that you can usefully contrast with trans-.

Greek rather cluelessly called transgender people travesti ‘transvestites’ for a while. (To be fair, most people did, including transgender people themselves.) When it faced having to render transsexual, and then transgender… it got stuck.

(Cross-dressers, at least, was much easier to render in Greek: travesti has been replaced by par-endyt-ikos. That’s para- as in para-military: unconventionally dressing, if you like.)

Neofotistou and other trans people got together and came up with something ingenious to render both intersex and transgender. Naively, you could calque it as dia-phylos or dia-phyl-ikos ‘inter-gender, trans-gender’. But because dia– ‘across’ means both inter and trans, that doesn’t get you far. Never mind trying to differentiate sex and gender in the name—that’s just hopeless in Greek.

What they did was, pick up the adjective em-phylos ‘in-gender’ (or ‘in-tribe’—because the two words are not coincidentally related: gender was first identified as a ‘tribe’ of people). The adjective was already in use for a while, to use ‘within a tribe’; it’s a synonym of emphylios, which is used for ‘civil war’ (within a tribe). There was a biological use of em-phylos, to refer to reproduction in which both genders were involved. Latterly, em-phylos refers to the adjective ‘gender’ as in gender studies or gender roles; phenomena that gender is embedded in (‘in-gender’, ‘gendered’).

Neofotistou’s group decided to differentiate between phyl-ikos ‘sex-related’ and em-phyl-ikos ‘relating to the in-gender’, but they then interpreted em-phylos as ‘the gender one is born with’. So intersex is dia-phyl-ikos ‘across sex’ (across the two sexes); but transgender is di-em-phyl-ikos ‘across the in-sex’ (differentiated from the sex of birth).

You’ll see both diaphylikos and diemphylikos used online to render ‘transgender’. But what you’ll see overwhelmingly is trans and transdzender. Including by Neofotistou herself, who dismisses her coinages as pedantic and clinical.

I’m not sure what you *would* do with cis in this case; Greek Wikipedia just gives up and contrasts Τρανς – Βικιπαίδεια with Cisgender – Βικιπαίδεια, abbreviated cis or μη τρανς ‘non trans’. If people cared about using Greek terms, you could go with emphylikos ‘of the in-sex’ (sex of birth), or to make the point more explicitly, adiemphylikos ‘not across the in-sex’.

No hits for either on Google. Noone’s even trying any more.

I don’t know that I can convey what a feeling of loss I have, to have seen this. Greek-speakers themselves are used to using English terms for modern concepts, and they won’t see what the fuss is about. English-speakers are likely relieved that Greek-speakers use their terms.

But… it’s seeing a language that held out for millennia, saying “screw your Latinate vocabulary, we taught you beef-eaters everything you know”… crumple.

A small thing to get hung up on, perhaps. And after all, quem patronum rogaturus, cum vix justus sit securus: German Quora is full of programming questions, with half their terminology in English. I wish I could find it again (Quora Search), but I just saw a question there about which the most popular programming languages were in Chemical Engineering—and so help me, Chemical Engineering was in English. Didn’t those guys invent that discipline? And all the other disciplines in existence?

This… is what made me sad today.


  • John Cowan says:

    I’ve had that happen too. I think it just means you worked on the comment too long before posting it, and something timed out.

  • David Marjanović says:

    German doesn’t actually have a word for “engineering” other than Ingenieurswissenschaften “engineer sciences”.

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