Mapping Gender onto Language: Identity Construction and its Symbolic Significance in the Trans-Koti-Hijra Community of India

Author: Enakshi Nandi (Jawaharlal Nehru University)
Speaker: Enakshi Nandi
Topic: Language, Gender, Sexuality
The CALA 2021 General Session


Ulti, spoken by the transfeminine community of hijras and kotis in eastern India, is the site and means of identity construction as well as gender expression for this speech community. A secret language that has emerged historically from the socially segregated hijra households, Ulti is used exclusively for intra-community bonding and communication. From lexical items that give voice to taboo subjects like sexual activities (dhurano, khumur kora, etc.), private body parts (batli, likom, cipti, etc.), sexual and gender identities (bhobrashi, koti, panthi, etc.), and aspects intrinsic to the hijra social system to the semantic gender marker “mashi” (literal meaning: aunt) that modifies nouns, Ulti’s sole purpose is to give voice to the marginalized and disadvantaged hijra-koti communities in a predominantly heteropatriarchal and cis-normative society.

Unlike its regional counterparts, Ulti possesses no grammatical gender and does not participate in gender agreement. In the former, shifts in the speaker’s construction of their gender identity are indicated through the shifts in their use of gender agreement. In Ulti, the semantic gender marker “mashi”, which is an optional but highly productive marker, is used by the speakers in a conscious and deliberate attempt to index their gender(ed) identity and role in society. In using it, they claim to be feminizing their language as an extension of their own feminine identity and presentation. This paper will look at the ways in which contesting ideas of social gender are accommodated, negotiated, and subverted in the form of linguistic features at the syntactic, semantic, and lexical level in Ulti, and the role of these linguistic features in giving the speakers the agency to symbolically construct their identity at the level of the individual as well as the community.


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Keywords: Gender, Sexuality, Language, Transgender, Identity, Power