Sunday, 27 March 2016

Language is a many gendered thing

English has largely given up on grammatical genders. Boats are still mostly feminine ('May God bless her and all who sail in her'), as are countries (return to the motherland). But tables and books and floors are genderless. On the other hand, if you learn any other PIE language, you need to come to grips with gender. (And if you're learning Latin, as I am, not only do you need gender, but also declension.)

I'm going to go with the bold assumption that you, my dear reader, have had at least some exposure to another PIE language, even if it was just a couple of years of German in primary school, or a crash course in Italian before travelling there, and that you therefore have some concept of grammatical gender. (If you haven't, you could read this.)

You therefore know that if you want to write the green balloon in French, then you not only need to know the word for 'balloon', but you also need to know the gender of the word, so you can use the correctly gendered version of 'the' and 'green'. In French, 'balloon' is masculine, so 'the' and 'green' must also be masculine: le ballon vert.

Calvin & Hobbes 26 Feb 14 (?)

So what relation does the grammatical gender bear to the natural gender? And when and why did English drop grammatical gender, and what are the implications?

Grammatical gender vs natural gender
The first thing to note is that grammatical gender is about the word, not the concept or thing it describes. The word ballon is masculine, but balloons are not intrinsically masculine. In fact, even when the object has a clear natural gender, the word for it may not be the same.

Old English had at least three words for 'woman': cwen, wif, and wifmann. The word cwen was a feminine noun (and is the root of the word 'queen'),  wif  was neuter (later meaning 'wife'), while the word wifmann (literally "female person", and the etymological root for 'woman') was actually a masculine noun. (The plural, wifmenn, is reflected in the Modern English plural 'women'.) And in German, das Mädchen (the girl) is a neuter word. Go figure.

As a random aside, wer and wermann meant man or husband, just as wif and wifmann meant woman or wife. So the 'man' in 'woman' just means 'human' or 'person'. And 'person' comes from the Latin word 'persona' meaning character, and has nothing to do with 'each male child'.

The loss of gender in English
As Old English transitioned into early Middle English in the century or so following the Norman Conquest, the language gradually lost the gendered inflections. The invasions and settlement by Norse Vikings, and later the Norman French, each with their own grammatical structures and inflections may have contributed to the language metaphorically throwing up its hands and saying 'if you kids can't agree, then no-one gets any'. By dropping the endings, and relying on the word-stems, communication between languages and dialects was made easier, and also made it easier to absorb new words into the language too.

Oh, and it was around this time (mid 1100s or so) that English adopted 'the' as the genderless numberless caseless definite article. It didn't matter whether the noun was (formerly) masculine or feminine, singular or plural, the subject or the object, you just used the same word: the. Easy-peasy.

On the upside, you don't need to know whether the table or book or envelope is masculine or feminine. But you also can't revert to the grammatical gender when the natural gender is relevant but unknown. "Oh what a beautiful baby! What's his/her/its name?" or "Dear Sir or Madam". This also is an issue for the third person singular personal pronouns: he, she and it.

You can use the old school method, and use 'he' as generic for all (not very PC); you could alternate the gender of the pronoun (very confusing); you can use 'he/she' each time (rather cumbersome); you could use a newly made-up word, like 'ze' (limited recognition); or you could use the singular 'they' ('Someone sent you a text, saying they'd ring you later'). While some prescriptivists cringe at the use of the singular they, it's not without precedent: after all we use the singular you all the time - it kicked out thee and thou yonks back.

So while in English you can ditch the last remnants of gender and adopt the singular they, you still need to pay attention to your m and f in France, else you might end up asking for some goat (la chèvre) rather than some cheese (le chèvre), or in Spain, where you might insult the Pope (el papa) by calling him a potato (la papa).

Heavily plagiarised from:

1 comment:

  1. I've just come across a list of other words proposed at various times to be used as a genderless third person singular pronoun, including:
    e hesh, po, tey, co, jhe, ve, xe, he'er, thon, and na