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.