All languages that I know, at least to some extent, are much more gender specific than English, and I can fake somewhat convincingly at least 7 languages.
Although unlike German or French, Latin does not have articles, it has 3 grammatical genders for nouns, which creates complicated declensions for nouns and adjectives because every noun can have a different ending in 6 different cases, from nominative to ablative. It takes a long time to learn all the different cases, but this also makes it easier to see the relationships between different parts of speech in Latin than in other languages.
In German, for example, we have 3 grammatical genders, masculine (Der), feminine (Die), and neutral (Das), and every noun belongs to one of these three genders. The endings of some nouns indicate the gender, for example –eit is always feminine, -er is usually masculine, except for words like Tochter (daughter), or Schwester (sister). But most nouns give no clue to their gender and one has to simply memorize them. This is a big stumbling block for foreign speakers of German since there is no logic to it as Mark Twain famously complained in an article more than 130 years ago (“Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp”).
It’s too bad Mark Twain never tried to learn Chinese or Japanese, I would love to be able to read his analysis and evaluation of these languages.
Some characteristics of gender specificity in German are somewhat puzzling: a “Miss” or young woman in German is Das Fräulein, which literally means “a little woman”, who, interestingly, is of neutral gender, while there is no similar equivalent for a “Mr.” or young man, which would have to be “Das Männlein“, a word that I am told theoretically does exist in the German language but is not used to address young men as Das Fräulein is used for addressing young women.
French only has two genders for nouns: masculine: le, and feminine: la, and every noun again must belong to one or the other and one has to remember which one it is. But it is much easier to remember the genders in French if you learn Latin first because the genders in Romance languages are generally derived from Latin. Some endings of nouns and adjectives indicate the gender in French, for example a noun ending in -esse is always feminine, and when a man is happy in French, he is “heureux”, while a woman would be “heureuse”. English sometime uses a version of the feminine French ending “-esse” to compensate for the inability to distinguish between genders in English, although “mistress” is not quite the feminine equivalent of the word “mister” in English.
SLAVIC LANGUAGES AND CZECH
Slavic language such as Russian, Czech, or Polish don’t have articles (Bulgarian is the only Slavic language with an article, which is placed after the noun), but every noun is masculine, feminine, or neutral, and so are adjectives, and because Slavic languages have even more complicated declensions for nouns and adjectives with more cases than Latin – Czech has 7 cases for nouns, the result is a very complex system that is quite difficult to learn for foreign speakers.
I think that many politically correct native speakers of English would probably describe the obsession for female endings for nouns, adjectives, and verbs encountered in Slavic languages as positively sexist.
For example, when a happy Czech couple gets married, the woman usually takes the man’s surname, but a feminine ending must be added to make sure that nobody mistakes her for a man. If the man’s name is Novák, her name will be Nováková.
If you translate the sentence “we were there” into Czech, the ending in the verb “were” will depend on whether the “we” is masculine or feminine. If it was a group of girls only on a “Girl’s Night” (which would be “dámská jízda” in Czech), it would be written as “my jsme tam byly“.
If it was a gang of men merrily drinking the night away, it would be written as “my jsme tam byli” (the y-ending of the verb indicates the feminine, and the i-ending indicates the masculine gender).
If it was a bunch of women with one man thrown in, the ending would still be “i” because the masculine gender always takes precedence according to Czech grammar, or at least it did a few decades ago. Personally, I think that this grammatical rule is kind of silly. If it were up to me, I would use “i” for both genders in this case. As far as I am concerned, gender specificity does not really need to be that specific.
In Japanese, there are no articles, nouns and adjectives have no identifiable gender, and foreign speakers of the language thus don’t have to learn different endings depending on gender, declension, or the case of the noun, etc.
In fact, as many words in Japanese are written with characters that were originally Chinese, it is not really clear what is a single word in Japanese. Compound nouns represent just one of a number of interesting similarities between the Japanese and German language and way of thinking as I write in this post.
But unlike in the English language, gender awareness in the Japanese language is inescapable. Certain words can be used essentially only by women, called onna kotoba (女言葉, “women’s words”) or joseigo (女性語, “women’s language”), and certain words mostly only by men. Women can choose to use a different “I” (“atashi” instead of the word “watashi” which can be used by both sexes for the pronoun “I”). Men can use “boku” or “ore” for “I” to stress their masculinity, while women often intersperse their speech with “feminine particles” such “wa“, which can be used after every 5 words or so (the way “blyat” can be used, but only by men, in Russian, “putain“, which means the same thing as “blyat” in Russian, can be used by by both sexes in French, or the “f-word” can be used, again by both sexes, in English.
These “feminine particles” have no other role than to stress that the speaker is female. One could say that Japanese women use them the way women just about everywhere use skirts instead of pants to advertise and celebrate that they had to good luck to be born as women. After all, it takes a while before the gender of an embryo is established, which must mean that it could have clearly gone either way.
It is also interesting to take a brief look at Japanese (or Chinese) characters which contain the radical (the main and significant component of a character) woman (女, jo, onna). If you take a closer look, you can see that the character looks like a woman, unlike the character for man 人 (jin, nin, hito).
The “woman radical (女) is used in a great number of words in Japanese as it is one of the most frequently used radicals in the Japanese language. It is used for instance in words like beginning (始 hajimari), love (好, suki), hate (嫌, iya), jealous (嫉, sonemu), glad (嬉, ureshii), shape (姿, sugata), or strange, delicate or charming (妙, myo), and of course, hime (姫, princess). I could have chosen other words as well, but these words will hopefully keep me out of trouble.
I wonder which language would be more gender specific than Japanese, if there is such a language. I sincerely doubt it.
BACK IN AMERICA
To some English speakers, consistent use of grammatical genders in a language may seem incomprehensible. Here is an answer to the question “Why do some languages have a masculine and feminine form?” that I found on the Internet:
“Great question, and there probably is no answer, except that some of our forefathers liked to look at the world in this sexually segregated way”.
Come again? Some of our forefathers noticed that there are two genders in this world, but paying attention to this simple fact is according to this disturbingly politically correct great Anglo philosopher “sexual segregation”. Let’s pretend that there is only one sex because nobody really cares about genders anymore in the 21st century.
I think that the real question is “Why some language don’t have at least a masculine and feminine form?” Don’t we live in a world that is mostly created by the tension and interaction between the ying and yang principle expressed so eloquently in Taoism? If just about every living thing in the world around us has a gender, is it then not logical to assign a gender also to objects and abstract concepts in our language? After all, even a tree is alive, and so is spinach. If we keep pretending that different sexes don’t exist in the world around us, we will create a bland, colorless, boring world, one that our forefathers would probably not even want to live in.
But that is exactly what we seem to be doing. Just today I saw on the news that the US army lifted the ban on women in combat.
It used to be that men tried to protect women from getting killed, even women in the army, in any culture that I can think of. Did the men in America ask women to fight on the front during the War of Independence or during the Civil War? They did not because back then, they still understood that there is a difference between the two genders and that it is a good thing. Did the Germans allow women to fight on the front in World War I and II? I don’t think so. Did the British? The only British woman on the front that I can think of is Florence Nightingale. What about the French? I can’t think of any French female fighters in combat either, other than Jeanne d’Arc or half naked mythical figures waving a French flag and fighting on barricades. The Russians did not send women to fight in Afghanistan either, did they?
There is probably no connection to grammatical gender specificity here, but clearly, most cultures and nations see women as life givers and life keepers, not as life takers, including the American nation up until now. The only exception that I can think of was when the former Libyan dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi who surrounded himself by 200 personal body guards consisting of women. Gaddafi’s lack of awareness of gender specificity did not work out very well for him in the end, did it?
But when the army is stretched to the limit from endless wars, I guess women can be used for cannon fodder just as well as men.
This is such a terrible, barbaric idea that even this “right of center” columnist of the “very right of center” Washington Post agrees with me.