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.

Why Minority Languages Matter

A lot of people will question learning minority languages such as Catalán, Navajo, or Irish. Many believe it is a waste of time, and that language death is inevitable. However, for the languages already mentioned, as well as several others, it is well within that community and other people’s capacity to help revitalize usage. Tom Scott makes a valid point about how if we let minority languages die, there are certain aspects of the human experience and capabilities of the brain that we let die with them. You can watch his video here: Fantastic Features We Don’t Have In the English Language.

Language is intimately linked to the way we live our lives. It is theorized that language evolved out of a method for human mothers to communicate with their children, and as human society became increasingly complex, involving multiple individuals in the process of raising children, it eventually became a medium for communicating with one another. Another hypothesis is that language is a vocal manifestation of one’s ideas. Ideas are apparent to oneself, in one’s mind, but not necessarily in comprehensible language. The idea is that humans needed a way to communicate their ideas and feelings regarding things, and that is why language evolved. Personally, the theory regarding mothers is a lot more plausible. There’s a reason, “motherese,” exists. However, these two hypotheses do point out crucial facts about the development of language. Languages have features based on the particular needs of a people in a certain place.

For example, the aboriginal language in Australia does not have words for left, right, up, or down, but rather assigns cardinal directions. As a result, most of the speakers of this language have an intuitive sense of direction..Some have proposed that due to the lack of landmarks for people to judge physical position in the Australian wilderness, language there had to have less arbitrary ways of describing direction. In a place like the Americas, the landscape is varied enough for people to judge direction based of off the various shapes of the land, and therefore, the language there can assign arbitrary directions, or at least directions revolve around a given point. The ability to distinguish direction in absolute terms is very useful, and demonstrates the capacity of the human brain to evaluate its surroundings as such. If this language dies out, we miss out on a generation of people who have this ability, and completely exclude it from the development of other people in the world.

Now, let’s look at a non-physical example. In Catalán, the construction no… pas is a nuanced one. It negates a predicate, and also indicates that this negation is contrary to a notion held by listener. This is a very useful feature, and is built into only a few words. It is for this reason that some non-native speakers of English can be very verbose, because they’re trying to express an equivalent sentiment of what might be a very short sentence in their native language. Implications and nuance are very important in some languages, especially in minority languages, where they can be unique to those languages. By letting such a language die, you allow a possibly more effective and expressive mode of communication die as well.

Perhaps the most grave loss in the process of language death is the loss of a culture and people. Language, as stated before, contains a great deal of history and knowledge behind the way people communicate. John McWhorter argues that language death and the loss of a culture are not necessarily linked. I refute this point, because of the reasons listed above. Skills and modes of expression that are exclusive to a particular language are part of a culture. A people lose a great deal of themselves in not being able to speak their language. There are things they will not be able to understand or express. Sure, they can maintain their traditions, but the meaning and history of those traditions is lost outside of the native language. By working to revitalize minority languages, even only within their indigenous areas, we maintain another part of the human experience. If it happened with Hebrew due to the work of Eliezer Ben-Yahuda, it can happen for any language at any time!

Languages are different for a reason. The subtle nuances and implications of certain words and phrases can often be lost in translation. There’s a reason that people who read manga in English will miss much of the symbolism, hidden meanings, jokes, puns, or wordplays that the original Japanese text might have. This is why I believe that translation can never do real justice to having a proper conversation in the language being translated. In a world with infinitely varied settings and circumstances, knowing other languages that express certain sentiments more accurately is paramount.

It’s been some time since I’ve written a full article. I haven’t really been doing much lately except writing language guides and subtitling Khan Academy videos (which you should do, if you know a language that you think people would benefit from having subtitles in).  I’d appreciate any comments on this, so feel free to leave some!