4.0005 Gender and Language (59)

Elaine Brennan & Allen Renear (EDITORS@BROWNVM.BITNET)
Mon, 7 May 90 20:17:57 EDT

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 4, No. 0005. Monday, 7 May 1990.

Date: Fri, 4 May 90 16:57:12 -0500
From: Alan D Corre <corre@csd4.csd.uwm.edu>
Subject: Gender

Clearly there is some connection between sex and gender, but in most
languages it is not clear cut. English pays little attention to
sex/gender. It differentiates chiefly in the third person singular
pronouns. Occasionally inanimate things are called "she" but this is
often rather deliberate. (Consider the news item that went something
like this: "Her Grace christened the ship by breaking a bottle of
champagne over her bows, after which she gently slid into the water.")
Tamil, a Dravidian language quite unrelated to English behaves in much
the same way. It has three third person pronouns like English, but
there is no adjectival concord by gender. The third person verb does
have separate endings though. On the other hand, German, a language
closely related to English, has complex gender distinctions that often
relate to the shape of the word rather than the sex of the object
referred to. Thus the word for "girl" is neuter, and referred to as
"it" because the word has a diminutive ending which selects the neuter
gender. The Romance languages lack a neuter gender, or largely so, and
squeeze all objects into the masculine/feminine dichotomy. This is often
determined by the shape of the word. Thus the word for "sentry" in
French is feminine, and referred to as "she" although women rarely
fulfill this role. In Latin some words of typically feminine shape can
however be masculine, poeta, for example. One looks in vain for logic
in natural languages which constantly change, ironing out some
irregularities while creating others. We may ask why the distinction
exists at all. Professor Rabin of the Hebrew University told me of an
individual of his acquaintance who had unilaterally decided that gender
distinctions in Hebrew were unnecessary in the modern world, and refused
to use any feminines, referring even to his wife as "he". (I mean the
English "he"; the word "he" in Hebrew happens to mean "she"). I imagine
that most people would find this quite difficult. It is worth pointing
out that Semitic languages are particular to distinguish gender in the
"you" forms, even where some other distinctions are obliterated in
modern dialects. Accordingly one finds that the recipes on the side of
food packages in Hebrew ("take one tablespoon..add water..stir") are
invariably in the feminine, while the instructions for operating a
hacksaw will be in the masculine. It's easy to see how this fosters sex
roles, and probably this is part of the key to the whole issue. Natural
languages have many subtle markers which put varying degrees of space
between interlocutors. In a recent showing of "People's Court" Judge
Wapner chastised a defendant who addressed him as "man". The individual
replied: "Sorry, judge." I also once had occasion to calm a colleague
who was incensed at a student who had used the expression "..and all that
shit.." in an exam paper. I pointed out that the student was probably
unaware that such a locution may be ok in the local bar, but is not to be
used in written English, and he simply should be advised accordingly.
These expressions give cues as to the relationship between speakers, and
sometimes misfire. French has a familiar "tu" and a formal "vous" and
even verbs to indicate the usage ("tutoyer" -- to call someone "tu").
Whether one uses one or the other can sometimes be a matter of
difficulty. It's interesting to note that in local Tunisian French,
"tu" is routinely used, presumably because the colonists didn't see fit
to address the locals ever by the polite form, which is itself a comment
on social attitudes. Gender differences are probably tied up with these
subtle ways that we differentiate you/me boy/girl lower/higher and so
on. Such things can be exasperating or fascinating, and that will
probably determine whether you enjoy studying foreign languages, or
avoid them like the plague.