Guest post by jesse: Talking about gender in language

Originally a comment on Guest witticism by Anthony K: The purity of Engliſh ſpellyng. (I know; can I do that? Can I make a comment on a guest post another guest post? What if there’s a guest post comment on that post? How many levels can we take this? I don’t know. I’m venturing out into the unknown here. I can’t predict.)

End of preamble.

I think whenever we talk about gender in language we have to remember that the term “grammatical gender” often has almost nothing to do with the gender-as-social-construction we usually mean.

Take French. “le crayon” — masculine, “la plume” – feminine There is no logical reason for this whatsoever. (What could the possible difference between pencils and pens be?) Trying to connect this to “traditionally male” or “traditionally female” roles/nouns and such makes no sense. There is simply no correlation with, well, anything, which is why for second-language learners French or Spanish or Italian requires straight-up memorization for which nouns are masculine or feminine.

Russian has a neutral gender. But if you pick a random noun you have basically a 1/3 chance of getting it right, and no, there’s no correlation there either. (“ship” — корабль – masculine, “liverwurst” — ливерная колбаса — feminine, and anything that ends in certain consonants is neuter).

The term “gender” — gad I don’t know who came up with it but it’s just referring to grammar– you could call them “type 1″ and “type 2″ for all it matters.

Yes, there are times when the grammatical gender matches up with the sociological one, but in the ones I can think of that only happens in direct reference to people.

What’s interesting is that some modern romance languages have a neutral gender too–after all, Latin did (though I think the only major one that preserves it completely is Romanian(?)). If you want to say the equivalent of “one drives to the store” in Spanish, you say “se conduce a la tienda.” There’s no masculine or feminine noun here. (It’s reflexive). Hungarian doesn’t have grammatical gender at all.

English used to have a bigger variety of pronouns, though I am not certain if they were “gender neutral” in the modern sense. (You’d have to ask Beowulf).

In fact a lot of English pronouns were pared off in the last five hundred or so years. That is, a phrase “How art thou?” was the informal, 2nd person. Quakers used to use thee and thou because they were less formal, familiar words. “You” was considered uptight. This distinction is still made in a lot of other languages — Hungarian included:-) (“maga” and “te.”) But English seems to have lost it by about ~1700, at least in ordinary conversation.

AFAIK English kind-of-sort-of has grammatical gender, but it doesn’t really show except in certain words (like referring to ships as “she” — but that might not be a grammatical issue, I haven’t looked up how old that is and whether “ship” was a feminine noun in Old English). Or in words like “actor/ actress.” For the most part though we’ve lost it. Guess that’s what happens when you have the horrible train wreck between Norman French and Germanic that makes English what it is. (Fun fact: English kings did not speak English at home until Richard III, and even after that it wasn’t uncommon to have English kings who were non-native English speakers. I’m looking at you, George).

Basically, in English we got rid of most grammatical cases (the choices seem to be pretty random, which is one reason why English seems so illogical half the time). The only remnants we retain are things like tacking on an apostrophe s to indicate possession. (I’m not sure if even that counts, though). We’ve replaced the dative with “to the” and genitive with “of the…” and some words like “Kindred” and “children” — plurals which not coincidentally tend to be Germanic origin.

Anyhow, the presence of grammatical gender doesn’t seem to have any bearing on how “sexist” a given society is. I’ll lend some credence to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but it’s a lot more subtle than that, it seems to me (and judging by the work with speakers of even non-”exotic” languages). I mean, Chinese doesn’t have grammatical gender at all, nor does Japanese. That doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the way they see women.

@Marcus Ranum — there are two umlauts in Hungarian. The one that looks like German (ö) is like German and the one with the two little accents is akin to the German sound but further “front” in the mouth — I am not sure how to describe it. (The letter u with the two little things on it is like the french “u” when it’s alone, if that gives you any idea). They are both pure vowels.


  1. noastronomer says

    I think the ship thing more stems from a desire to anthromorhpize objects that people become attached to and all those not-gay sailors would rather be devoted to a female. Even then RN ships frequently have male names (HMS Nelson, HMS King George V).

    I wonder if actor/actress distinction arose due to the prohibition on women appearing on stage?


  2. RJW says

    Yes, indeed, anyone who wants to present a case for any correlation between gender in a language and misogyny has a problem, perhaps they should look for other indicators.

    Originally there was no need for any distinction, ‘gender’ was a grammatical term and ‘sex’ referred to the physiological difference between male and female, ‘sex’ usually means copulation these days, perhaps people just became coy and started using ‘gender’ instead of ‘sex’.

    English is unusual for an Indo-European language since gender has practically disappeared.

  3. mildlymagnificent says

    I wonder if actor/actress distinction arose due to the prohibition on women appearing on stage?

    It’s possible. My feeling is that’s more likely to be in the same family as authoress, sculptress, abbess, editress, poetess, stewardess, tigress as I was taught in 1950s primary school (we learned about adulteress later). We still use goddess and waitress in ordinary language though.

  4. Janothar says

    Just a side note, Japanese, while it doesn’t gender nouns like, say, Spanish or French, is a VERY gendered language. There are words and whole grammatical constructions that women can’t use and that are specifically for women (or sometimes for men trying to sound docile and non-threatening). The plethora of pronouns includes both levels of formality and familiarity as well as gender, particularly notable in the first person, ie, watashi is gender neutral, atashi is women only, boku is young men only (though sometimes used by tomboys, especially in media).

    Additionally, the writing system itself (which is from Chinese) has a lot of sexism built into it. 女 is woman, and 安 means “cheap” or “safe” and 姦 (resolution may be low, but it’s three copies of 女) means “noisy” and “mischief”, although it is admittedly not used so much these days.

  5. Brian E says

    Spanish still retains neutral pronouns, eso (that), esto (this), ello (it), and using lo can form abstract neutral nouns lo difícil (the difficult thing), lo bueno (the good thing), etc.

    I think English was already losing a lot of it’s cases before the Normans arrived. The Danes and Anglo-Saxons had to communicate, so both speaking Germanic languages, they split the difference a bit, and dropped (or at least) didn’t pronunce the case endings of works (name not pronounced nah-mer as it is in German).

    But I agree that gendered or ungenderedness of a language doesn’t have much to do with it’s culture.

  6. says

    The reason why ships are referred to as she is almost certainly historical and not linguistic. Military vessels of old had exclusively male occupants so referencing them by the female pronoun was perfectly natural. This tradition continues today though women are now allowed to sail in them also. Though having both sexes in confined areas for long periods of time at sea is not always a wise thing for obvious reasons. Men also affectionately refer to other modes of transport by the female pronoun too such as cars and aircraft. Indeed any inanimate object with which they have a relationship with such as guitars for example. So it is not always transport. I do not know of women doing the same with the male pronoun and so I think that it is exclusively a man thing

  7. Kilian Hekhuis says

    Just a random language gender fun-fact: Polish (and probably other slavonic languages) has separate counting words for counting men, as apposed to counting women and things.

  8. Shatterface says

    There’s some evidence grammatical gender does influence the way we think about objects:

    Across the board, object gender influenced the participants’ judgments. For example, the word “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers in the study tended to describe keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used words such as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and tiny when describing keys. The word “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Sure enough, German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, strong, sturdy, and towering

  9. Shatterface says

    I wonder if actor/actress distinction arose due to the prohibition on women appearing on stage?</i

    It's interesting that we have female priests now – not priestesses. That might be to disacociate the modern church from paganism though.

  10. rq says

    Hmm. Latvian also has no neutral pronoun, but does differentiate between addressing people or things. Which has nothing to do with gender, grammatical or otherwise.
    Third person plural works the same way as in French – if you have 100 women and 1 man, you use the male plural third person. When I was little I wondered why there wasn’t a third person plural option that references men-and-women together, or one that differentiated between many-women-few-men and many-men-few-women.

    Though having both sexes in confined areas for long periods of time at sea is not always a wise thing for obvious reasons.

    Well, living in confined spaces for extended periods of time can be stressful on the psyche, I agree. This is why it’s important to have a good crew that works well together and gets along nicely, too. Most adults seem capable of this.

    I think that it is exclusively a man thing

    Really? Exclusively? Have you asked the women around you?

  11. Shatterface says

    Completely unrelated to gender, I love the word ‘yous’ or (‘youse’) – the plural of ‘you’.

    We use it in Liverpool and it is common in Ireland, Scotland and Australia. It’s a tremendously useful word sadly lacking in standard English.

  12. says

    Janothar, that’s interesting.

    In Chinese “女”(nü) means “woman.” It was originally a picture of someone kneeling but after centuries of simplification it no longer looks like that. The character for “man” is “男”(nan) and is a compound of the character “田” meaning “field” and “力” meaning physical strength. So there we have it, the man exerts his physical strength working in the field while the woman kneels. Actually if traditional Chinese stories are to be believed, the woman works in the field while the man lies in a hammock watching, sipping rice wine, stopping occasionally to write a few lines of poetry. The character “安”(an) is the standard Chinese word for “peace,” as in “天安门”(Tiananmen) “The Gate of Heavenly Peace.” It depicts a woman under a roof and suggests that you have peace when women stay at home.[1] The original meaning of “姦”(jian) was “adulterer.” There is no equivalent with three ““男s,” presumably because (respectable) women didn’t get up to that sort of thing. In later Chinese it comes to mean rapist, and later anything bad in general.

    The really interesting case is that of the pronouns “他”(ta) and “她”(ta.) Up until 1911, when various language reforms were introduced, only the first form existed and could mean either “he” or “she.” The female form was introduced partly to make it easier to translate European languages into Chinese, but it only affects written Chinese; the two forms are pronounced identically. But there is something illogical here as the male form contains the somewhat distorted character “人”(ren) which means “person” as in “中华人民共和国” (People’s Republic of China.) This has been replaced by the character for a woman to get the female form. The orthography suggests that there are not men and women but people and women.

    As an aside, the first time I went to the PRC in the early 80’s, we missed a connection in a small village near Zhongshan city and had to wait over 3 hours for the next bus. We found a traditional Chinese tea shop to spend some time in. My two most vivid memories of this were first that a man came in with a goat on a lead, the goat sat under the table and nobody batted an eyelid and second that the waitress who served us spoke to me, the man, even though it was obvious my Cantonese[2] was more or less non-existent and my wife was speaking “my” part of the conversation. The interesting thing is that the waitress must have been about 17 or 18 years old and would have been brought up in the PRC. From her earliest days in school she would have sung songs about how in the “New China” everyone was equal and women had the same opportunities as men. Evidently the reality was somewhat different.

    [1] You can’t always be sure of interpretations like this as Chinese orthography has some very strange oddities. For instance, the character 家(jia) for home actually depicts an elephant under a roof!

    [2] The local language in that part of China. My Mandarin was quite good at the time.

  13. Shatterface says

    Tangentially related to gender is sentence structure. In English we have subject verb object (SVO) order and in newspaper headlines it’s usually men in the subject (active) position an women in the object (passive) position.

  14. kevinalexander says

    I remember this from The Blank Slate. I don’t know who first wrote it. It’s about classes of words, in this case involving a cannibal tribe.
    In the Wari dictionary,
    The word for food is ‘Not a Wari’
    So dinner time is lots of fun,
    For all but the unWari one

  15. yahweh says

    Korean seems to provide an extreme case of language reflecting social structure. It has a very complex system of honorifics and speech levels which give due respect to those being spoken of and spoken to respectively. Nouns to not apparently have grammatical gender although there are male and female versions of nouns (like actor and actress).

  16. quixote says

    Y’all, at least around New Orleans, was often used as a singular. Which means you need another term for a group…. So that’s “all y’all” of course!

  17. medivh says

    This topic, in conjunction with a previous comment thread regarding “womyn” brings me to an odd question. Are there feminists in countries that speak romance languages that have adapted them to be gender-neutral? Declared that, at a guess, the masculine grammar structures are now ungramatical and that it’s no longer “le crayon” but “la crayon”, as an example?

    If so, it would have the advantage of being easier to learn.

  18. yahweh says

    I should have added that Korea is a very conservative country and women in senior positions, for example, have great difficulty being taken seriously (more a problem for foreign companies than Korean).

  19. Jenora Feuer says

    And in German, words like Fraulein (young woman) and Mädchen (little girl) are both neuter, not feminine. The reason for that, though, is that ALL diminutive words (any noun ending in -lein or -chen) in German are neuter. Inclinding things like ein Bißchen (a little bit). The roots Frau and Mädel are both feminine.

    Of course, the fact that young boys are often referred to as Jugend (youth) instead of using a diminutive is likely more language-based sexism.

    Douglas Hofstadter did some interesting writing on this in his Metamagical Themas column, including a satirical piece called A Person Paper on Purity in Language in which he explicitly swapped the male/female dichotomy of language for a white/black dichotomy, and wrote a paper decrying those who wanted to de-colour language. (He also noted his own subconscious tendencies to treat male==normal, and was somewhat apologetic for having all the main characters in his dialogues in Gödel, Escher, and Back be male… and was happy that the French translation of his book made the Tortoise female, as Madame Tortue.)

  20. Shatterface says

    I’m kind of lucky that my local dialect uses ‘their’ in a singular form, eg ‘Someone has left their bag on the floor’ so I don’t have to use awkward sentences like ‘Someone has left his or her bag on the floor’.

    It outrages the grammar police but so what?

  21. Shatterface says

    IIRC, one of the character’s in Ian McEwan’s A Child in Time Has an affaire with the Prime Minister but McEwan withholds gendered pronouns so you can’t tell if it is a heterosexual or homosexual relationship.

  22. says

    In fact a lot of English pronouns were pared off in the last five hundred or so years. That is, a phrase “How art thou?” was the informal, 2nd person. Quakers used to use thee and thou because they were less formal, familiar words. “You” was considered uptight. This distinction is still made in a lot of other languages — Hungarian included:-) (“maga” and “te.”)

    I’m a language dilettante, er, hobbyist, and it’s interesting to me how the boundaries of the T/V distinction vary across languages and even dialects (I understand, for instance, Quebec French has more or less lost it entirely, while French French (and other European dialects?) still uses it in some contexts. In some languages/cultures, addressing your doctor with the T-form is unthinkable, while in others the V-form sounds, I guess, like you don’t trust them, and this my or may not correspond to how they address you, and I imagine there’s a whole other set of considerations when it’s a therapist.

  23. K. says

    Some remarks about Hungarian:
    – Though nouns have no gender and gendered pronouns, the language still is rather strongly gendered, similarly as in English. There are e.g. special expressions for actress, nurse, and you’d rather use the gendered “tanárnő” for a female schoolteacher than the apparently neutral “tanár” or talk about your “orvosnő”, not your “orvos” (doctor). Hungarian even discerns between királyné = queen as wife of a king and királynő=a queen who rules a country in her own right.
    – Re formal and informal pronouns: Hungarian still has 3 today (Ön, maga, te), and there used to be several honorifics (kegyed, méltóságod, etc.) that practically functioned as pronouns. Also, if you directly address an elderly person today, you use the expression “if it pleases you” as an auxiliary (in a functional grammar approach), and you use it rather towards women than men (another aspect of gendered language).
    – The sound described by an ő is quite the same as ö (and formed in the same place of course), except it is a little bit longer and articulated stronger (you have the time to contract your muscles better). English learners of Hungarian tend to have difficulties with the ö and ü sounds.

  24. RJW says


    A British English speaker criticised me for using “their” in place of “his/her”, I pointed out that it’s standard usage in my dialect–it’s in the dictionary.

  25. Kimpatsu says

    like referring to ships as “she” — but that might not be a grammatical issue, I haven’t looked up how old that is and whether “ship” was a feminine noun in Old English
    It comes from the Latin.
    Incidentally, Atapascan also has two genders–animate and inanimate, so I am tempted to write “animate” on forms that ask me for my “gender”…

  26. cressida says

    “English kings did not speak English at home until Richard III”

    Really? I haven’t researched it but I’d be surprised if Edward IV didn’t speak English at home. Is he included in the non-English-speakers?

  27. jesse says

    Late to this, I am glad yo all liked the post/ comment. I never knew that taking Middle English Verse Romances and the survey course of Old English — along with the Latin I took — would come in so handy. :-)

    (BTW one of my teachers of Middle English was Sarah Higley, who Trek enthusiasts might remember as an author on a certain TNG episode “Holow Pursuits” and a language-oriented episode of DS9 called “Babel.”)

    And I like reading about Hungarian (which I speak only at the elementary level) and Chinese, which I don’t know at all. I do know Japanese — the point about male and female constructions was a good one, and the same applies to Hebrew and Arabic to a lesser extent). Korean and Japanese are probably related so it is no surprise they’d share certain characteristics. The really interesting thing though is that even though both have these elaborate constructions for men and women, the nouns themselves aren’t gendered – there is no equivalent of masculine and feminine nouns as in German or Spanish.

    BTW on English Kings: Remember that after the Norman Conquest they were French speakers. Richard III was the first one to promote the use of English in an official capacity. His predecessor (at least the one that lasted more than Edward V, who reigned three months) was born in Rouen, France, and probably spoke French as a first language. There was a lot of intermarriage and such between English kings and French families for a long time; George II was born in Hanover — in fact the Georges and their descendants were German, and that was as late as the 18th/ 19th century. The House of Windsor was the House of Saxe-Coburg in 1900.

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