Posted by: patenttranslator | January 25, 2013

Is The Lack of Gender Specificity in The English Language a Good Thing?

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.

LATIN

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.

GERMAN

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

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.

JAPANESE

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.

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Responses

  1. Interesting perspective. I never thought about English being the odd one out.

    Oh, and it’s “heureux” and “heureuse”. You’re welcome 😉

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  2. Thanks, Rob, as always.

    Somebody already corrected my German example, but I am still waiting for corrections of my Czech and Japanese examples.

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  3. Enjoyed your observations immensely, Steve, as I always do, especially the Japanese part. On the German side, I should say that your rule that everything that ends in -er is always masculine is a tad off the mark–what could be more feminine than Mutter, Schwester etc. “-er” just isn’t a good gender indicator in German. “Männlein” would have double n, just as Männchen, and these diminuitives, like all others, in German are always neutral. Pity the poor people who have to learn all this, although I am told that Markt Twain actually managed to become quite proficient.

    As for your actual question–I beg to differ; there isn’t a complete lack of gender specificity in the English language: After all, you have both masculine and feminine personal and possessive pronouns (he, she/his her etc.) If you want a language completely without gender specificity, take Farsi (Persian). If someone talks about a person and never mentions a name, and if you are not acquainted with that person’s family position (mother, father, aunt uncle etc.) you have no way of knowing whether the person is male or female. It is always “ou”او or “wey” وى and both can be either masculine or feminine. Since Persians, however, are an extremely family-oriented lot and have exact terms to describe relations within the family, at least in that realm you will never be unsure about the person being discussed.

    Keep it up, Steve!

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    • Interesting. Didn’t know you knew Persian.

      Do you have a 100% safe masculine ending for German?

      German is much less flexible than Slavic languages if every diminutive must have neutral gender, diminutives can have any grammatical gender in Czech.

      The equivalent of the word “Männlein” (muzicek) exists in Czech too but it is mostly used to describe creatures such as “hastermans” or leprechauns.

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      • Männlein… (sigh)

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  4. “Somebody already corrected my German example, but I am still waiting for corrections of my Czech and Japanese examples.”

    I guess, you could wait long. However, I used to make fun with the “woman radical 女” when teaching some Europeans the principles of deciphering Kanji. I would mention the characters combined with the woman radical.

    For instances, 女 alone, 婦 and 好. The 女 crosses her legs and does nothing. So, you give her a broom 帚 and make her a wife 婦. When she begets a child 子, it is good 好. However, when three women come together, that is really bad 姦.

    BTW, when we saw on the news that the US army lifted the ban on women in combat, my wife took it for a shame and said that there should be no war at all. I didn’t say anything, but thought by myself: there was a legendary tribe of women who were warriors – what was the name of the tribe? (Are women less capable of fighting? Hm…)

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  5. “For instances, 女 alone, 婦 and 好. The 女 crosses her legs and does nothing. So, you give her a broom 帚 and make her a wife 婦.”

    Or a witch.

    I could have chosen other words of course.

    I am saying in the post that I am choosing only words that will hopefully keep me out of trouble.

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    • Don’t worry about troubles.

      You would have no way to get out of the trouble of being in trouble, so long as you are still. That is one of the Four Truths Buddha was talking about. ;o

      My European students like my explanation of the principles of deciphering Kanji and learn very quickly the radicals and the combinations of characters. I would tell them:

      Look at the character 人 which means “human being.” The human being stands on two legs.

      And look at the character “great” 大. When a human being describes the greatness of something, he spreads his both hands to the left and the right.

      What is greater than the greatness? That is 天 which means “heaven” with a limit on top. You can hardly go over the Heaven. But there is something that is even greater than the Heaven. That is “husband” 夫 whose head sticks above the Heaven.

      By this way, it becomes much much more easier for long-nosed devils to learn Chinese characters. 人, 大, 天 and 夫. Easy to remember, right? Just as easy as to remember every character with the woman radical. ;o

      In European languages, we may encounter some “false friends.” The same happens to Japanese Kanji and Chinese characters, too. They are of the same origin, but they differ very often in meanings.

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      • I was using similar tricks when I was teaching Japanese at Nobirukai in San Francisco.

        Tricks like that can stimulate interest in characters but they will not really help your students learn the language.

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  6. […] 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. LATIN Although unlike German or French, La…  […]

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  7. […] 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. LATIN Although unlike German or French, La…  […]

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  8. Nice post! Let me add some stuff I’ve been learning in class: Some scholars believe that grammatical gender assignment is actually arbitrary (e.g. based on patterns of repeated sounds). Case in point: I always thought it was interesting that the table and the moon are female in French but male in German. Also, some languages have gender assignments that are not even based on biological sex; Bantu languages, for instance, use animacy, shape, etc. What does that tell us about gender specificity? 😉 It’s really just a way to categorize things.

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  9. “It’s really just a way to categorize things.”

    Well, of course. So are parts of speech and army ranks.

    Japanese has counters that are used for different categories of objects in plural, for instance animals have different counters depending on whether they are big or small, the way English uses loaves of bread for example, or “pieces of advice”. So different counters are used for rabbits and for cows.

    But Japanese does not have the category of grammatical gender either.

    The question is, why some languages take full advantage of these categories, while some choose to ignore them, English in particular?

    You have to look far and wide to find examples where a version of the concept of grammatical gender intrudes upon the sensibilities of modern English speakers, for instance a ship is always a she, and so is San Francisco.

    Old English did have grammatical genders, but according to some linguists (John McWhorter, “What Language Is”, Vikings got rid of genders and cases because it was too hard to remember all that nonsense and their version of butchered language spoken by foreigners eventually became the genderless norm that English is using now.

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  10. Turkish in fact has no gender. Even “he” “she” “him” “her” do not exist in Turkish, these pronouns are simply bundled together as “o”.

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  11. Very interesting article. I do have to take exception with your social commentary, however: Women being traditionally excluded from things like warfare has less to do with them being respected in some way, and more to do with women being cast as weak and feeble by men. Women and children are not grouped together out of respect—they are simply viewed and equally helpless and useless.

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  12. […] Interpreters Retaining an Accent – Why some people retain an accent in a second language Is The Lack of Gender Specificity in The English Language a Good Thing? Seven Tips for Freelance Translators on Surviving in The Crisis Mode How to multiply your revenue […]

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  13. […] 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. LATIN Although unlike German or French, La…  […]

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  14. I don’t know if it’s a good thing for the English language itself, but it’s certainly a good thing for non-native English speakers like me. My mother tongue is Greek (three genders for nouns and adjectives, five cases in singular/plural), so a language lacking genders was something inconceivable for me at first (meaning when I started learning English at the age of nine). Later on, I realized it was one of those things that make the specific language a foreigner’s heaven.

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