Masculine, Feminine, What’s the Point? Or So You Think.

Grammatical gender is a fairly common concept in many Romance languages, as well as several Indo-European and many Slavic languages. It distinguishes nouns and adjectives (and occasionally verb conjugations) by classifying them as being of a certain gender. Grammatical gender is also referred to as noun class. However, as many Spanish, French, and other Romance language learners are painfully aware, the gender of a noun often has nothing to do with its biological gender, or any, “masculine,” or, “feminine,” qualities that it may possess. Further, it may not even be a, “gender,” in the biological sense. For example, you have German and Romanian, which both have neuter gender. Neuter is not a gender you assign to people at birth. In Basque, words are classified as animate or inanimate, which, admittedly, has much more logic to it than the male-female systems of Spanish, French, and other such languages.

However, there are people who have issues with the idea of a gendered grammar system. There is a feminist argument for the gender-neutralization of Spanish, and I’m sure of other Romance languages. Teresa Meana Suárez argues that there is an inherent sexism in the Spanish language. She indicates that most professions are, by default, masculine. When you indicate a group of people in plural, and said group is mixed, the default is the masculine plural form. Some time ago, any time that you were referring to the generic form of a word that has different forms based on gender, you used the masculine form as the generic. Now, both the masculine and feminine forms are given. Now, I personally think that languages would be greatly simplified if we made things gender-neutral, but I realize that this is impractical as a quick fix. Within common sense, it is not at all practical to try and force people to adopt a rule for the way they speak. If you made Spanish gender-neutral, you would be changing most of the language.

While I certainly agree that Suárez makes some valid points, there is a question I have. This is not meant to poke holes in her logic, but rather an abstract question: What if the grammatical genders of nouns were not designated specifically as male and female? What if they were just Class A and Class B? What if they weren’t even genders, just classes of nouns? This is not an absolute claim I’m trying to make; what the gender is called, or whether it’s even called, “gender” is something important to address. Take Basque: the argument that Suárez makes doesn’t apply, because the, “genders,” are designated animate and inanimate. I don’t know why the categories of nouns and adjectives are supposed to be, “masculine,” and, “feminine.” As I said before, excluding words for professions, family members, and other such words, there is little logic as to why a word is masculine or feminine. But then again, the language I use most often, English, is a gender-neutral language, for the most part, so I may be biased in any claims that I make here.

Others who take issues with grammatical gender do so with respect to practical usage. is Tom Scott, in his video on gender-neutral pronouns, mentions that he finds grammatical gender useless. He calls it, “clunky,” because in things such as job advertisements, you have to make it clear that you’re looking for a male or female who does the job, or both. However, it goes both ways: English cannot specify gender as easily, and for professions such as, “babysitter,” you have to specify if you specifically want a male or female babysitter, by adding the words, “male,” or, “female.”

Scott also mentions that it influences the way people think. His example shows the differences between the German der Schlüssel and Spanish la llave, which are masculine and feminine, respectively. They both mean, “key,” but when speakers of each language were asked to describe a key, German speakers apparently used, “hard, heavy,” and, “jagged”. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used, “golden, intricate,” and, “little”. Ordinarily, you’d think that this particular example is not all that terrible. However, for words that describe people, such as those for professions and such, it can be somewhat… sexist. In one of the few gendered examples in English, the word, “seamstress,” in its original meaning (a woman who weaves clothes) is feminine. But then, what if a man weaves clothes? The word, “seamster,” is not a word. There is a subtle implication here, that weaving is a woman’s work. Because of this, people conscious of such considerations typically opt for the gender-neutral, “weaver.”

Despite these arguments against gendered systems, there is little one can do in the short term. If Spanish, French, and the other Romance languages become “de”-gendered over time, so be it. However, considering how long the gendered systems have persisted, I think that there must be a reason for it.

In the study, “Language Environment and Gender Identity Attainment,” Guiora, Beit-Hallahmi, Fried, and Yoder examined how people’s understanding of gender develops with respect to the language they speak. Languages where gender is marked greatly, such as Semitic languages such as Hebrew and Arabic, were contrasted with those where gender is not a prominent feature, such as Finnish and English. The idea is that when children are growing up, they have to learn that they have to respond differently to questions or other interactions that consider one’s own sex or the opposite sex. Therefore, whatever they think and say have to revolve around such things.

The Michigan Gender Identity Test was used to compare children’s abilities to sort people’s photographs based on gender. Being successful in this test means that the child can clearly sort things by gender, and then explain using gender. Israeli Hebrew-speaking children did very well, as 50% or more of the children from 25-42 months succeeded. On the other hand, Finnish children were not able to succeed in the same proportions until 34-36 months. English-speaking children were in the middle, as more children began to succeed from 28-42 months.

From these results, I’m thinking that gender-determinacy is important to gender identity recognition. This is obviously very important for a child to know. I can’t really think of many other reasons, but this is a very big one. Of course, in this day and age, there are people who may be biologically male or female, but identify as the opposite sex. Languages typically do not account for such circumstances, as it is probably very strange for a Hebrew speaker to address a man as he or she would a woman, because that man feels he is a woman.

In short, there is no clear reason as to why gender-determinacy exists. I’m sure there’s a good reason, given how long it’s been around, but only time will tell. If you guys have any comments on this topic, please let me know!

Works Cited

“Gender Neutral Pronouns: They’re Here, Get Used To Them.” YouTube. YouTube, 5 July 2013. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

Guiora, Alexander Z., Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Risto Fried, and Cecelia Yoder. “Language Environment And Gender Identity Attainment.” Language Learning (1982): 289-304. Web. 11 Sept. 2014.

“Sexism in the Spanish Language.” Revista Envío. 1 May 2002. Web. 10 Sept. 2014.

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sr3934@nyu.edu

I'm a student studying at NYU, hoping to pursue a career in diplomatic services, and I'm obsessed with learning and teaching foreign languages. I like to practice Taekwondo, enjoy Square Enix video games, and engage in Asian-American social activism and international political activism.