I never did like those genders, anyhow

When I was learning German, I struggled with the whole concept of gendered words — you had to use different articles with different nouns, and adjective endings were all over the place. One of the nice things about English is that we’ve jettisoned all that nonsense, but our language used to have them.

Maybe we should continue the trend and get rid of the gendered pronouns? They just get in the way and flag people with often inappropriate assumptions. All the people who complain about having to respect pronouns should appreciate that since it makes everything so simple and means they won’t have to worry about “compelled speech” anymore.

It’s a property of English, learn to respect it! Or go learn Spanish.*

*(We Americans might all have to learn Spanish anyway, or at least some hybrid of Spanish and English**)

**(Which I would hope would ditch the gendered nouns, too.)


  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    When I was learning German, I struggled with the whole concept of gendered words…

    Same here! I was doing fine until we hit that grammatical speed bump. As far as I can tell, there seems to be not much in the way of rhyme or reason for what gender a noun should be.

  2. says

    When it comes to English, I really don’t mind un-gendering the pronouns, but removing the singular-plural distinction really seems to trip me up. I get that “they” was occasionally used as a singular, but I’d really prefer a singular pronoun (maybe “ze, zir”). That said, I know the language will change regardless of my preferences and I’ll probably survive it. ;-)

  3. konservenknilch says

    Without german pronouns, how would you know that the fork is feminine, the spoon is masculine and the knife is neuter? It’s common sense, people!

  4. Tethys says

    Learn Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. It will greatly improve your German too, once you start to automatically shift between the T for D and F for V difference in standard spelling.

    Three genders and four cases make it possible to communicate a lot of information in a single word. Its far more rich, precise and nuanced than modern English.

    Anyone who speaks English does know how some of the inflection system works. The internal vowel change can render your noun into a verb, denote singular/plural, and tense. You can also inflect it to be an adjective.
    Song. Sing Sang Sung Singer Sings Singing

    To be is one of the few verbs that retains all it forms in modern English, I am. You are She is They are. You were. He was. It is.

  5. cartomancer says

    Gender in language can have its advantages. If Latin didn’t have it, for example, we would not be aware of the only extant example of female-female love poetry that survives in the language (a poem inscribed in a wall in Pompeii). It is only thanks to the adjectival endings that we can tell it’s one woman writing to (and about) another at all. We would literally be erasing lesbians!.

  6. says

    Reminds me of a joke: guy gets into a taxi at Boston airport and tells the driver “I’m here for a couple days and I want to get some scrod.” And the taxi driver says “wow, I’ve never heard that in the pluperfect subjunctive before.”

  7. anat says

    konservenknilch @4: Well, in Hebrew both a knife and a fork are masculine whereas a spoon is feminine, so there!

    In my childhood I somehow managed learning both Hungarian, that has no genders, and Hebrew, which has 2 very distinct genders – including gendered pronouns, verbs, adjectives, and numbers.

    Supposedly people in whose language the word ‘bridge’ is masculine associate bridges with ‘strong’ as an adjective, whereas people in whose language ‘bridge’ is feminine associate them more with ‘elegant’. Assumptions about gender are messed up.

  8. gijoel says

    In Ancillary Justice there is only one gender. It’s female. All characters are referred to as she, even if they’re male. The only time that doesn’t happen is when there’s dialogue in a different language.

  9. Ariaflame, BSc, BF, PhD says

    In scottish gaelic the word for woman is masculine, the word for shirt is feminine but the word for blouse is masculine. Sometimes they’re just arbitrary labels for what sounded good when the rules were applied.

  10. leerudolph says

    Many, maybe most, natural languages have grammatical “noun classes” which may—but need not!—include (or be limited to) two that are called (in that language) “feminine” and “masculine”. Others have three, those two and “neuter” (like German). Quite a few have more than three (Chinese and Japanese)! For some languages, professional grammarians and lexicographers—but not so much, any more, linguists (whose relationship to grammarians and lexicographers has become like that between scientists and engineers)—still use the word “gender” instead of “noun class”, and some large proportion of both (actively or passively) continue to treat masculine/feminine/neuter as the paradigmatic example of grammatical gender (because it is, in their languages), and thereby make life much harder for all speakers. Fight back! They’re our languages!

  11. cartomancer says

    It is also worth pointing out that the original meaning of the word “gender” was the grammatical one – noun class (derived from the Latin gens – tribe, people, sort of person, also giving rise to genus, generation, genital, genre). The association with sex-adjacent personal identity constructs (our modern understanding of gender) came later and is a derived meaning.

  12. blf says

    Another person here who struggled with genders in German — and now with genders in French. (Weirdly, diacritics in French give me much more of a problem than those in German; as far as I am aware, most diacritics in modern English — which are rare — are in borrowed words.)

    Whilst not the same thing, in Irish Gaelic, toilets are labeled Mna and Fir. Non-Gaelic speakers who haven’t been warned understandably assume the former is “Male” and the latter “Female”. Nope. This causes much merriment.

  13. Jake Wildstrom says

    Yeah, “grammatical gender = biological sex” is pretty exclusively an English-language hangup. In Indo-European languages with highly developed gender systems (which is pretty much all of them except English) the genders get assigned to sexless nouns with such abandon that they clearly don’t denote sex (and sometimes actively contradict it, as in the case of Fräulein, which as a German-language diminutive ending in -lein is grammatically neutral even though it denotes a female person). In Finno-Ugric languages without gender, grammatical gender isn’t a hangup at all. In Bantu languages, a grammatical feature roughly corresponding to gender is attached to nouns along descriptive lines which don’t have to do with sex at all (usually between five and ten diffferent “genders”, corresponding in some way to animateness, sapience, abstractness, and the like).

    I’m studying Swedish right now, and it’s to some extent in the same boat as English. It has sex-coded third-person pronouns (han for males and hon for females, although it also has the official gender-netral hen), and it also has a gender system with two cases which aren’t sex-linked at all: the genders are “common” and “neutral”, and all personal pronouns are common-gendered. For demonstrative pronouns, the common gender suggests “things” and the common “people”, e.g. the neutral något is “something” and the common någon is “someone”, but for actual nouns, the genders seem kind of arbitrary (e.g. children, apples, and conversations are neutral; teachers, oranges, and ideas are common).

  14. whheydt says

    English still has a few traces of gendered nouns. Ships are generally referred to as “she”, even when they have otherwise masculine names.

  15. birgerjohansson says

    I started learning German in seventh grade, but I could never remember which gender that went with which word. This – and the absence of German-language detective stories at the library- meant the lessons soon were forgotten.
    The late science fiction author Philip José Farmer wrote a novel ( The Lovers ) where an alien society had separate words for masculine gender, feminine gender, neutral, inanimate and spiritual.

  16. pwdm says

    Following what leerudolph posted, the word gender has its origin in the Latin word genus which generally means ‘type’ or ‘kind’ (think biology). It can be annoying, for English speakers, to think of various objects being classed as masculine or feminine (when they clearly have no genitals) but we could instead use other words to name the two arbitrary types of words. Would we English speakers be as frustrated if French speakers said ‘la table’ is a type 1 word but ‘le livre’ is a type 2 word? We might still wonder why French divides their words into the two classes but at least we don’t have to dwell on the sex of tables and books. Many languages have multiple genders (grammatical classes) – Zulu has 14 for example. In this modern world perhaps different sorts of sexual orientation/preferences could be mapped into the 14 grammatical classes.

  17. Jake Wildstrom says

    Probably so: the Swedish “hen” is pronounced very closely to the Finnish (gender-neutral, like all Finnish nouns) “hän”, and Swedish is one of the official languages of Finland, so it’d be a natural import. It helps that it slots nicely into the existing personal-pronoun scheme in Swedish, which already had subjective-case pronouns differentiated only by their middle vowel.

  18. Jazzlet says

    “Hen” is used for a woman in the north east of England, which was an area that had a lot of viking activity. I wonder if there is a connection?

  19. says

    We won’t get into the dubious subset of gendered English nouns, such as a seagoing vessel (which is always “she”/”her” — just ask any open-seas sailor). As anyone looking as spellings assigned by English-speaking sailors on the Pacific rim could tell you! (Go ahead, Professor, tell them how to spell and pronounce the name of the town and tribe near your home used as a prank for all new-to-the-area weather forecasters in the 60s and 70s; the first letter is indeed a “p” in English but it goes off the rails from there, and remember that the spelling was imposed by English sailors and mapmakers.) The group “sailors” — even officers, supposedly the best educated! — is not exactly a rich source of expertise for non-expletive-laden speech.

    Nor snickering that, in German, age and marital status determine whether a biological female is a sexual creature (das Mädchen, das Fräulein, but die Frau)… unless they’re gay (“die Lesbische,” adj. “lesbische”).

  20. Daryl Lafferty says

    Oral Chinese has no genders on the pronouns. For example, “he”, “she” and “it” all sound the same in Mandarin (“Ta”).
    But written Chinese characters can and usually do vary based on gender or humanity.

    In some ways English pronouns can simplify context; e.g.: “I saw a man arguing with his wife. She hit him and ran away, while he just stood there.” In spoken Chinese it would not be as clear what happened.

  21. drew says

    @Jaws 22.
    The notion that small children have gender is only a concept that’s taken hold in the US in the last century or so. In old photos you can see children with long hair in dresses with no idea whether they’re boys or girls.

    I claim that forcing gender stereotypes on children is harmful and I really wish people would stop it.

  22. lasius says

    English is an overly complicated language too, and not easy for German speakers to master. One big problem is the complex aspect and tense system of English.

    I go to the park. I am going to the park. I will go to the park. I will be going to the park. I’m going to go to the park.

    In German it’s all the same.

  23. lasius says

    Or in the words of Justin B. Rye:

    ” A language’s favourite distinctions may be drawn by means of independent separate coinages (king/queen, mother/father) or with compounds (chairman/‐woman, prince/princess). But the whole thing can also be built into the syntax, so that words take gender‐marked adjectives (blond/blonde) or pronouns (he/she). Now, in place of gender, try imagining the same things being done to mark duration, proximity, certainty, agency, approbation, or urgency, and not being done to distinguish singular/plural or affirmative/negative. Often, concepts are treated as so important that they’re built into words and sentences automatically, whether they’re relevant or not. Thus it’s unnecessarily difficult to be neutral with regard to social position in Japanese, to gender in Esperanto, or to tense in English.”

  24. says

    @24: What I find interesting about this particular gender issue auf deutsch is that men have the “male” gender regardless of marital status, and get that accorded as a verbalism at a much earlier age than women. That’s the distinction I was getting at — not the fact of gendering, but the different treatment for identified men than identified women. There’s doesn’t yet seem to be a well-accepted convention for same-sex couples, exes, etc.… which is probably just as well near the Ku’damm.

    It’s also notable that the older usages of nouns for unmarried men fell out of favor about a century ago, but that the Frau/Fräulein distinction remains in less-transient writings (albeit the influence of “Ms.” is having an effect in newspapers, particularly in Frankfurt).

  25. milesteg says

    You have to understand that “gendered” words in languages have absolutely nothing to do with human gender. There’s no point in calling for their removal or otherwise getting getting worked up about it from a sociological standpoint.
    That said, having a (human gender) neutral set of pronouns in English and other languages would be a great addition. Though we should probably start with at least having/restoring a plural “you”.

  26. lasius says

    @28 Jaws

    This is primarily an effect of diminutive forms always being of neuter gender in the German language. “Jünglein”, “Männchen” etc are also grammatically neuter. Now, why a diminutive became the standard word for girl, or why it was more acceptable to use diminutive constructions for unmarried strangers if they were women is a different question.

  27. tuatara says

    milesteg @ 29

    Some here in Oz do an improvised version of a plural ‘you’ by simply adding the ‘s’ to form ‘yous’ thereby addressing us as ewes.

    So much for gender neutrality.

  28. lasius says

    @29 milesteg

    “Though we should probably start with at least having/restoring a plural “you”.”

    You mean a singular “you”? “You” is originally the third person plural pronoun.

  29. Jake Wildstrom says

    @30: Yeah, while “Fräulein” has historically been connotatively moderately neutral, “Mannchen” is pretty patronizing: apply it to anyone over the age of 18, and you’re being actively insulting.

    Some of that is parallel to (historical, and changing) paradigms in English: call a grown adult “little man” or “boy” and that does not go over well, but historically the phrase “little lady” or “girl” has been applied all too easily to adult women, especially unmarried. That is not as true now as it was 50 years ago, of course, and that’s a good thing.

  30. says

    @30: Chicken and egg — virtually all diminutives were intended to be at least vaguely insulting, so…

    More to the point, the absence of an established masculine equivalent to das Fräulein for a generic, non-class-or-occupation-bound unmarried man remains telling. What it is telling — a story of virtue because righteous young men wouldn’t “flower into gender” until marriage, or a recognition of property rights, or the converse that nobody can expect men to respect the “sanctity of marriage” so we won’t try — is a much darker and more interesting story, probably with a contrapuntal fugue buried inside it like some mad sociological variant on J.S. Bach. (Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be all that surprising.)

  31. Tethys says

    @33 lasius

    “Though we should probably start with at least having/restoring a plural “you”. ~ miles

    You mean a singular “you”? “You” is originally the third person plural pronoun.

    I think you are conflating the singular second person þu with the plurals that go with Ye.

    þu, þik, þin, þér are the singular second person pronouns. (You, you, your, to you )
    Thorn ends up turning into Y in English, but shifted to D in German. Thou, thee, thine, thy still exist, but we don’t use them anymore.

    Vas vissi bist vishdú? (Probably misspelled because min kleine German vocabulary is archaic dialect OHG rather than modern German)

  32. Tethys says

    @Jaws 36

    virtually all diminutives were intended to be at least vaguely insulting, so…

    Nien leibchen, the diminutives are generally terms of endearment, often applied to children, who are small and grammatically neuter.

    Hansel and Gretel are small Hans and small Greta.

    Frau is a title that means Lady, and comes from Freya (fem) and Freyr (masc), who are ancient sibling Deities. Its also the root of English friar, friend, and French frére.
    I’ve no idea why die Frau, but perhaps because its inherently feminine plus divinity.

  33. lasius says


    “You” is derived from the old second person plural form:


    “Thorn ends up turning into Y in English, but shifted to D in German.”

    No, thorn did never turn into “y” it turned into “th”. Hence “thou”, “thine” and “thy” are the old singular forms.

    “Probably misspelled because min kleine German vocabulary is archaic dialect OHG rather than modern German”

    No it is not. There are no archaic dialects of OHG still spoken, that’s like saying you are a prehistoric human. German dialects are “archaic” if they are older stages of modern dialects.

    “Frau is a title that means Lady, and comes from Freya (fem) and Freyr (masc), who are ancient sibling Deities. Its also the root of English friar, friend, and French frére.”

    If you would have stopped at the first sentence you would have been somewhat correct. But “friend” and “Frau” are unrelated.

    Please stop saying anything about linguistics and etymology. Every time you’ve tried so far has been wrong. I have never seen a better example of Dunning-Kruger, and that effect has been debunked.

    Also please stop trying to write German. I have never seen you string even two correct words together.

  34. milesteg says


    No, I mean adding or restoring a word for the plural of “you”. Regardless of the history of the word “you” we don’t currently have both a singular and plural for the word.

    For example, in Italian there is “tu” which is “you”, and there is also “voi” which is the plural for addressing more than one person. And verbs have their own conjugation for the plural form. For example, vedere “to see”: is said “tu vedi” for the singular “you see” you and “voi vedete” for the plural “you [more than one person] see”.

    In English we don’t have an actual plural to “you” or a conjugation to signify plurality which is why there are work arounds like “you all/y’all” or similar.

    Having a proper plural for you would eliminate some ambiguity in the language and smooth over one of the rough edges of English. And over a few generations maybe stamp out “y’all”.

  35. lasius says


    “In English we don’t have an actual plural to “you” or a conjugation to signify plurality which is why there are work arounds like “you all/y’all” or similar.”

    As I said, “you are” is technically the plural form, which is apparent in that it uses the same conjugation as the other plurals (“we are”, “they are”) and its relation German’s languages’ (thou-du, thee-dir, thy-dein, ye-ihr, you-euch, your-euer).
    English is technically lacking a second person singular form and the easiest way to reverse it would be to reinstate the old “thou art”.

    Of course language evolution generally doesn’t work that way. The same happened in Dutch where “je” (equivalent to “ye”) replaced the old singular form (“du”) and a new plural form “jullie” (from “jij lui”-“you people”) developed.

  36. Tethys says


    Please demonstrate my etymology error in friend, Freyr, Freya, Frau, or shishkibibble. Lord and Lady are much older than Friar and Frau and they do indeed all share the same root.

    Futhark is the original Germanic alphabet, so I’ve no idea why you can’t clearly see how Thorn works in proto-Germanic. I even wrote out all four forms of Thu with a thorn for comparison. You and du are the same word with the same root and they’ve never been third person pronouns. Did you even watch the video or vas? Knock knock wooden head.

    You are incorrect in most of your assertions, and your grasp of the etymology of your own language is laughable. German is syllabic! Break the words down into their parts and you get a definition of said word. English would be so much easier if it retained that feature.

    I am amused that you claim I’m incorrect, yet you sure seem pissed at the German phrase so I’m guessing it’s not spelled too badly. Don’t cry!

  37. John Morales says

    Re English:

    The Middle English pronouns follow a similar trajectory:

    Thou = you when the subject (“Thou liketh writing.”)
    Thee = you when the object (“Writing liketh thee.”)
    Thy = your possessive form of you. (“Thy blade well serves thee.”)
    Thine = your possessive form of you, typically used before a noun. (“Thine writing smacks of mastery.” or, “The writing is thine.” — thy own can be used in place of thine to similar effect)
    Ye = you all | all of you used when referring to a group of people (“Ye fools!”)


  38. lasius says


    Frau and Freya do indeed share the old Germanic root for “lady” (reconstructed as *frawjǭ). “Friar” is derived from French “frere” for brother and is unrelated. “free” is derived from reconstructed proto-Germanic *frijaz and is also unrelated to the “lady” meaning of *frawjǭ. Actually there were two different old Germanic godesses with names derived from the two stems. Freya the “lady” and Frigg the “free one”.

    You have to distinguish written characters and the sound they represent. The thorn was indeed later often written as “Y” but that does not mean it was pronounced like modern y. “ye olde” was never pronounced “ye” but “the” instead. The sound that the thorn represented became voiced “th” in modern English and “d” in German. Hence The equivalent of German “du” is English “thou”. “You” is derived from the old second person genitive singular, equivalent to German “euer” and you can clearly see the relation.

    So yes, exactly like in Dutch. In English the old second person plural form replaced the old singular. In Dutch the standard form of the language already agreed on a new distinct plural form. For English that is yet to happen.

    This is all easy to read up on and verify.

  39. Tethys says


    In English we don’t have an actual plural to “you”

    Yes English lost all its plural pronouns except for Ye, which makes translating Old English or Old Norse to modern English really difficult.

    English doesn’t have a word that means plural you, plural he, or plural she, and you can’t inflect numbers to show gender. The first line of Beowulf contains examples of both usages.

  40. lasius says

    Correction, “you” is derived from the old second person plural objective case from and equivalent to German “euch”.

    As wiktionary says:

    “See usage notes. Ye, you and your are cognate with Dutch jij/je, jou, jouw; Low German ji, jo/ju, jug and German ihr, euch and euer respectively. Ye is also cognate with archaic Swedish I. “

  41. Tethys says

    Frére Jacques is not referring to brother as in sibling, he is a friar type brother. There are quite a few Germanic roots in French via Frankish.

  42. Tethys says


    So how would you translate this sentence?
    I suspect its a Dutch dialect circa 730 since OE doesn’t use ihr.

    Aurdælf ihr sif nu Eisen euer.

    Weird elf? Gold elf? is the female relative now of Eisen?

  43. lasius says

    @Tethys, I don’t know how that is related but can you give me a source and context for your quote?

  44. milesteg says


    “you all” is not the plural of you, it is a colloquial expression english speakers use to clarify the the usage of “you”.

    Both the singular and plural is “you”.

    When speaking to a single person: You are my friend.
    When speaking to a group: You are my friends.
    — or with the colloquial “you all/y’all”: You all/y’all are my friends.

    The reason it’s limiting is you don’t always have another word to clarify what the subject is (hence the colloquial “you all”). For example, “You are here” which is grammatically correct for both the singular and plural but also ambiguous (in part because English verb conjugations do not uniquely identify the subject like Italian or Spanish). In Italian, it would be “Tu sei qui” or “Voi siete qui” which is unambiguous.

  45. Tethys says

    Show me!

    Hweat Ye Garde. = Heed everybody in the house!

    in gear-dagum, þeod-cyninga, þrym gefrunon

    In ancient days, learned kings, three men were most wise.

    I can’t think of a better term than wise, though gefrunon isn’t literally the word wise.

  46. lasius says

    Okay, but where do second person pronouns feature in that quote?

    I do not disagree. I speak German which is similar to Italian in that way.

    I just wanted to show that etymologically “you” (actually “ye”) is the old plural form that replaced the old singular “thou”.

  47. Tethys says


    I don’t know how that is related but can you give me a source and context for your quote?

    It’s a runic inscription on a box. I’m asking because in English, the meaning of that sentence changes depending on if you put a comma before now, or after now.

    However, I don’t know if that applies in German or Dutch though they both use ihr and euer.

    The second line says ‘ Ir augir a thrauw aguiribne graf nefu Ausch. (Sorry but that’s as close as my keyboard can get to runic)

    An auger who throws at the springs of the grove known as Ausch. (Aachen/Aix)

    Ir augir could also mean ‘he saw her’ but it’s not clear if it’s referring to seeing, or a female seer.
    I did not know that Aachen had sulfurous hot springs, but the box predates Charlemagne’s palace.

  48. Tethys says

    Okay, but where do second person pronouns feature in that quote?

    Ye. It’s the second word.

    In geardagum. That dative um ending on day should actually be ‘in ancients days of learned kings. The inflections are quite precise.

    Ridum hestum, hart und barum.
    We ride our horses, hard and bare(back)
    Brigdum sverdum, hie a braut.
    We brandish our swords, and hit the road.

  49. DanDare says

    Japanese has a lot of social rank status descriptors. English still has some. That could go too.