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Language and Gender

February 2007

Language and Gender:

  • English has no gender-neutral third-person pronoun. Genderless (‘it'), and gender-indeterminate (‘they' in the singular sense) are available, but there is no truly gender-neutral term. This causes problems for Christians with feminist sympathies, who think it bad form to refer to God as ‘he.'

  • Japanese has male- and female-gendered collective pronouns (gendered forms of ‘they' or ‘you'), but with interesting usage; an all-female group is Kanojora (かのじょら, her-plural), but if there is even one male in the group it becomes Karera (かれら, him-plural).

  • German nouns are all gendered, with the definite articles ‘der' (masculine), ‘die' (feminine, pronounced dee), and ‘das,' (neuter). For instance, dog (‘hund') is masculine, so even a female dog would be ‘der hund'.

See also Wikipedia on grammatical gender and gender-neutrality in languages with grammatical gender.

Nato commented:

For german, could people ignore the connection between masculine words and males, and feminine words and females, and treat it instead as a kinda of 'flavour' of the word. If a female dog is masculine, and a male feminine-noun (assuming one exists) is feminine, then masculine and feminine no longer really correspond to male and female. People could just treat it as an artefact of language, rather than a gender issue. Much like no-one really questions that female and woman are really male and man, with an extra prefix. It's just the words that language has produced.

Of course, I'm speaking from a complete ignorance of the german language, and of a lot of gender issues... :)

Matt commented:

I imagine you're probably correct; I just find it interesting how language might shape thinking and culture.

IDIEEASY commented:

All English nouns are gendered, it just doesn't show up in articals, only in pronouns :) e.g. Mechanical things are often feminine, but to find that out we have to turn it into a pronoun. We are probably in the process of phasing out gender though. "It" is not neutral, its more like "unknown". It can be applied to humans, for example, when enquiring about the gender of a baby "was it a boy or girl?". In that sense, I think 'It' would be ok for refering to God, since we sort of "dont know". On the other hand, we cant apply it to adults without feeling uncomfortable. So, imho, the real problem is that we personify God. Thats not really a language problem, thats a problem with being human and needing to have a way to understand God.

I dont think language shapes how we think much at all. We all have the same instinctive structure of language when we are born (probably). And a basic rule of language is that all languages can express the same idea, length of expression is not really an issue.

That might be a ramble.

Christina commented:

So many issues I want to take to task, so little time... ah, commenting during breaks at work ;) I'm not dissing anyone, this is just exercising my horribly dusty Ling muscles :P

Firstly, English hasn't got gender. At all. It was fairly systematic and eloborate in Old English (masculine, feminine and neuter), and to an extent early Middle English, which is when it disappeared. Maybe you've gotten inherent grammatical gender mixed up with giving a noun a gendered tag? i.e calling a ship 'she' as opposed to the noun 'ship' being feminine and having to agree with other feminine participles in a phrase. They're pretty different really - one's more cosmetic, and the other is morphological (structural).

"I don't think language shapes how we think much at all" - maybe what you're thinking of as language is words? If you take the basicness of language (the words, the syntax or grammatical structure of the language, the morphology and semantics, the sounds which facilitate its' expression from one human to another) away, is it possible to think, function or communicate without it, either as a whole, or without any of the components? How do kids who never learnt to speak a human language communicate with others? It's quite interesting to see the effect language does have on how we think, communicate and view the world.

"...all languages can express the same idea"... not really, eh. There's a few South American Indian languages, which, because of isolation and the geography of the community of the speakers, (they live on the side of a very steep mountain) has no concept of 'left' or 'right' - only degrees of up or down. In French, you can't talk about a bottle 'floating through' a tunnel of water - the precise concepts given by the specific participles and the orders of those particples makes it an almost unique concept to English. There are similarities, and close equivalents, but direct and identical translations or concepts from one language to another are basically impossible in many areas.

Having said all of that, I am a Neo-Whorvian, so I might be a little biased :P

Language is a bit ike air - it's a basic necessity that is impossible to function without, but of which most people are completely unaware, and are perfectly able to use regardless.

Sorry for the length... that's my (very, very geeky) two cents

IDIEEASY commented:

Well, its true that I've not put much thought into the social impacts of language, since I'm rather Chompskyan in my linguistics (mainly cos i like drawing those x-bar structure trees ;-), and cos it has more impact on AI etc). Maybe I should have been more explainatory above, but all that typing... i couldn't be arsed!

Language determines how we view the world? I dont think you could ever possably seperate that little chicken and egg. As you mentioned with the left/right thing, its not the language that determined the inability to say left or right but the context. Its interesting to think of language as a sub-concious record of a societies history.

The concept of a bottle floating down a tunnel of water is not unique to english, the ability to easily describe it is. Maybe french doesnt have a shortcut way to describe it, but description should be possable none the less. Its sort of like saying i cant describe a ball bouncing because im not a physicist... i just dont have the precise way to do it. Dont worry if you doubt this argument, cos so do i and im not sure what to do about it... maybe abadon it? Maybe its time.

"take the basicness of language"... thats exactly why im saying it doesnt have an effect on how we think, because deep down its all the same anyway. We all (well, in a general, healthy human sense) have the ability to 'do' language, 'built in' to our brains. What gets layered on top of this ability is determined by our social setting. Welcome back, the chicken (or is that the egg, i dont know).

You seem to have made an arbitrary definition of gender, after all there is agreement it just so happens that the agreement is the same for masculine and feminine. I imagine it would be rather difficult to convince you on that point, but stop trying to rip 2 years of my education away from me!!! ;)

Anyway, all of that was basically incidental, the main point i was making is its not a language problem that makes God a man, its a human problem with needing to personify God and then (perhaps arbitrarily) assigning a gender. Polytheistic religions usually have both genders (sometimes even equally) represented, and thats perhaps not just coincidence. Monotheism is holding us back! Since Jesus was the only definate man, lets call God 'she', Jesus 'he', and the Holy Spirit 'it'. I blame the council of Nicaea, if they had settled on 'homoiousious' we could get away with the above quite easily! (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ousia#Homoousios_and_Homoiousious)

Nato commented:

Wikipedia on gramatical gender is useful, particularly This subsection.

Having learnt a language with gramatical gender, I'm of the opinion that english is mostly (gramatically) genderless. A few nouns retain some form of gender, but I'm not sure whether that gender is determined by english, or something else.

Christina commented:

Ideieasy - Yeah, I'm Chomskian too - kinda hard not to be since my lecturers all basically worshiped the guy :D (Something that has to be seen to be believed: academics who are usually fairly scathing of organised religion effectively worshiping someone via psuedo-religious behaviour :P). I totally can't agree with you about X-Bar theory though, I hated it :D

The whole chicken-and-egg thing is pretty much the Sapir-Whorf thing of not being able to seperate culture and langauge, as they're so interrelated, so it looks like we're agreeing on various bits and just saying them differently.

"The concept of a bottle floating down a tunnel of water is not unique to english" - yeah, woops, I didn't explain myself too well there. The concept might not be unique, but the particular shade of meaning / describing it is; each language will have it's own little nooks and cranies that might not be paralleled by other languages.

Human language as a whole though, yeah, I agree with that - it's basically linked to Universal Grammar (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Universal_grammar). Wikipedia is so awesome, it explains everything :)

From what I remember of Government and Binding Theory (which is kinda blurry and like remembering a coma), gender might be a non-implicational universal - it's a grammatical feature of (all) human language(s) that's like an on-off switch, so languages are either gendered or not gendered - I seem to remember that case and pro-drop definitely were, but maybe I'm just mixing them up.

I like the idea of the gender of God being a human one, it's kinda cool. Perhaps the assignation of gender by monotheistic religions could be linked with a lot of those religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism etc) coming from fairly patriarchal and heirarchical cultures? So if the power structure in those cultures were heavily weighted in favour of males (i.e. the people who wielded the most power in the home, or in society were guys) I guess they'd pretty much assume God was also a male.

We could always create a fourth gender, specifically for things that aren't masculine or feminine, but no one knows if they're neuter or not either. I guess we'd have to give it a non-gendered title/name, go figure :P

Heh, this is the second lunch break I've spent commenting on Matt's blog, I think I need to get myself a life :P

Sarah H. commented:

I'm a student of German and I have always wondered at the seemingly arbitrary assignation of genders to nouns. For instance, some rivers in Europe are given the feminine gender (like "die Elbe") while others are given the masculine one (like "der Rhein"). Interestingly enough, I have seen evidence that there is a type of folklorish character called "Father Rhein", suggesting that the Rhein at one point had a male deity or nature-spirit associated with it. Perhaps, following this train of thought, the Elbe river had a female deity associated with it as well, and in time these deities were forgotten but the residuals of the deity's gender remained. Naturally not every single thing would have had a deity associated with it (I don't think Animism was very big with the Germanic tribes), and also Latin has influenced German quite a bit, but it would be very interesting to try and puzzle out exactly what caused the gendering of some things. There's also a bit of chauvinism inherent in gendering nouns, as in German a great many of the female nouns are for stereotypically weaker things, like die Katze (the cat), die Liebe (the love), die schwaeche (the weakness) and the male nouns for stronger things, like der Berg (the mountain), der Himmel (the heaven), der Zug (the train). However, there are exceptions (such as Weapon is feminine, but that could be the same case as in English referring to ships and the sea as 'she' because typically men dealt with them in a very relationship-type way).

I would assume that this gender assignment has been a constant work in progress, perhaps beginning with animism or the left-overs of it from between the time of Tacitus around the time of Christ to the Goths (who also had 3 genders). Then there is the gendering that is descriptive of strength, then the gendering that just rather makes sense for the representative of a pair, such as in animals (feminine cats, male dogs, male horses, male deer, feminine generic birds, male eagles, etc etc), and then gendering to fill in the gaps (such as with neuter).

What does anyone else think? I know this is pretty German-centric, but the only other language I can really offer anything else on is Finnish, and that has no genders or gender markers at all.