How to say transgender in Greek

By: | Post date: 2017-06-07 | Comments: No Comments
Posted in categories: Linguistics, Modern Greek

In A cis lament for the Greek language, I posted on the difficulties of rendering transgender and intersex in Greek. The solution I reported there seems not to have been the settled solution. I did some further reading since, and this is an expanded version on the challenges that were involved.

The first challenge to rendering transgender and intersex in Greek is that, like most languages Greek does not have a distinct word for sex and gender. An added complication is that all the words Greek does have for sex (or gender) are derived from words for ‘tribe’ (since that’s how Greeks first conceived of sex—as two different tribes of people); and any words based on ‘gender’ or ‘sex’ are going to sound like they’re referring to ethnicities or nations instead.

The word genos for example is used for grammatical gender; outside of grammar, it only means ‘ethnicity’. The word that has prevailed is phylon (our phylum), and that is uncomfortably close to phylē ‘race’. So phyletikē diakrisē is ‘racial discrimination’, although the default term for that is ratsismos. (And ratsismos has been extended to mean bigotry in general; it is used to include homophobia and sectarian prejudice, for example.)

Which means that there is no good adjectival form for phylon, to mean gender-related. Any attempt is going to sound too close to ‘racial’; and the default solution, phylikos, is pronounced identically to the well established philikos ‘friendly’. (I’m using Ancient Greek transliteration here to help readers recognise the terms; in Modern Greek, they’re both filikos.)

Here, Modern Greek has used a nice trick. While the default strategy for forming adjectives is to suffix an ending like –ik-, an alternate strategy is to prefix en– ‘in’. There is a subtle meaning distinction, which, like all subtle meaning distinctions, is not always there: the ‘in’ adjectives have a connotation of the noun being immersed, imbued with the adjective quality, whereas the -ik- adjectives can just mean the noun is about the adjective quality. So metrikos is ‘metrical’, ‘about metre’; emmetros is ‘in-metre, put in verse’. A treatise is metrikos if it is about verse; it is emmetros if it is in verse. Similarly, rhythmikos is ‘rhythmical’; errhythmos is specifically ‘in rhythm, with a beat’. Psychikos is ‘relating to the soul’ (psikhiko in the vernacular is almsgiving, which is done for the good of your soul); empsychos is ‘having a soul, animate’.

So gender studies are emphyles meletes, and gender identity is emphylē tautotēta. It’s not an identity about gender; it’s an identity in gender, realised through gender. (Of course the real reason for this being adopted is that the default formation phylikē tautotēta would be misunderstood as ‘friendly identity’.)

Because emphylos has been established as a rendering of English ‘gender’ as an adjective, the Greek renderings of transgender have used emphylos rather than phyl-ik-. That could be generalised into a notion of phyl– ‘sex’ vs emphyl– ‘gender’, given that homosexual and heterosexual already use phyl-: homophylophilos, heterophylophilos. In fact the coinage I reported last post, too clever by half, differentiated transgender and intersex as di-emphyl-ikos and dia-phyl-ikos. It really was too clever, and it hasn’t stuck.

That was the first puzzle to deal with. The second is that Greek is very proud of its prepositional prefixes, but none of them is a precise match for trans-.

Greek does have a precise adverb match for trans and cis, the Latin for ‘this side of’ and ‘the other side of’: enteuthen and ekeithen. The Latin expressions where trans and cis got the most exposure were Transalpine and Cisalpine Gaul: Gaul on the other side of the Alps (= France), and Gaul on this side of the Alps (Northern Italy, which was still Celtic). The Greek renderings of those were Galatia ekeithen tōn Alpeōn and Galatia enteuthen tōn Alpeōn. But as you can see, that’s an adverb, not a prefix. So it won’t work for transgender.

Greek has no less than four prefixes that have been used to render trans– ‘other side of’.

  • Meta– means ‘after’. It is the established classical means of rendering trans– (if you’ve gone the other side of a state, you are in the aftermath of the state), and indeed a lot of trans- words in Latin are renderings of meta– words in Greek. So transformation, transition, translation = metamorphōsis, metabasis, metaphrasis. So it’d be the obvious solution…
    • … if this was Classical Greece. Meta– has kept picking up connotations since, and metaphylikos would now end up sounding like either ‘meta-sexual’ or ‘post-sexual’. Phylometabatikos ‘gender-transitioning’ has been suggested, but I think you can see the problems with that.
  • Hyper– means ‘above’, and it can be used in the sense of overcoming something. Cf. hyperanthropos, Nietzsche’s Übermensch. Hyperphylikos was in fact an early proposal for transgender.
    • No, hyperphylikos does not immediately make one think ‘hypersexual’; and no, hyperphylikos still didn’t get accepted.
  • Para– ‘by the side’ has longstanding usage to mean ‘auxiliary’ or ‘unconventional’. The model in English is paramilitary; the prefix is much more productive in Greek. So parekklēsiastikos ‘para-church’ is a name for religious organisations that are not officially part of the church; parakratos ‘para-State’ is the term for the Deep State or for thugs acting as a regime’s enforcers.
    • This is of course a value-laden term, so it was never contemplated for transgender. It has however been adopted for cross-dressing (old term: trans-vestite): parendytikos. The unconventionality in cross-dressing is, for many practitioners of it, the point.
  • The prefix people have settled on is dia– ‘across’. The problem with dia– is that it means ‘inter-’ as much as it means ‘trans-’; in fact, the coinages I reported used it in both ways. Diemphylikos seems to have stuck as the official rendering of transgender—although as I reported, the term that is actually used most is transdzender.

And if diaphylikos was rejected for ‘intersex’, what has been used instead? The NGO pamphlet I found that was up on all the current terminology didn’t use any of the above. It used mesophylikos.

I don’t think it’s necessarily a coincidence that mesophylikos corresponds exactly to the title of a renowned novel with an intersex protagonist, written as it happens by a Greek-American: Middlesex.

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