Gender in language: what is it and what does it do?

Unlike English, words in many other European languages have genders, which affects the way they are used and perceived.

Unlike English, words in many other European languages have genders, which affects the way they are used and perceived.

One of the biggest problems that English speakers have when approaching foreign languages is getting their heads around why words suddenly have genders. After all, surely a table is just a table. How can it possibly be a he or a her?

I have to say, it’s something that I’m not too sure about myself. I’m not sure where it came from, but an awful lot of languages do use it. European languages and Hebrew and Arabic generally have masculine and feminine forms of words, and sometimes neuter as well. Often this is quite logical, i.e. that ‘woman’ is feminine and ‘man’ is masculine, but every now and then you come across some exceptions, such as girl being neuter in German – das Mädchen.

I think that gender is often a big part of a language’s character. It makes it more poetic, and for me as a native English speaker, brings the world around me to life. In English we live in two worlds: the world of the animate and the world of the inanimate. Animate things, that is things that are alive, we refer to according to their gender – Mary = she, John = he, the child = he/she, the friend = he/she etc. Things that are not alive, we refer to as ‘it’ – the sun = it, the country = it, the house = it, the bed = it, etc. Animals straddle the lines here, as they can either be ‘it’ or ‘he/she’ depending on whether or not we have a relationship with the animal, and would know its gender, or even refer to it by name. So your pet dog is never ‘it’, but always ‘he/she’, while a stray dog would be ‘it’. This can also apply to babies as well.

Most other languages don’t work like this. I’m quite a visual learner, so I tend to see things in colours. If we imagine for instance that there are three colours in the world – blue, red, and grey – then in English the whole world would be grey, with some blue and red things moving around it. If we take German, though, where words all have different genders regardless of whether or not they can physically, the world is suddenly plunged into colour. I have a feeling that even if only subconsciously, this is what the world looks like to a native speaker of a language with gender.

Sun is shiningLet’s look at the word ‘sun’ in German, Greek and Russian:

German: Die Sonne (f)
Greek: Ο ήλιος (m) o ílios
Russian: Солнце (n) sóntse

The German is feminine, the Greek is masculine, and the Russian is neuter. I’ve got a theory that this isn’t accidental, and in fact may say a lot about the way that each of those languages think about things like the sun. In Germany the sun is a pretty little thing that comes out every now and then, makes everyone smile, and then goes back behind the huge rain clouds and everything goes back to being grey. In Greece, however, the sun can be a problem. The scorching hot summers mean that it is perceived as strong, powerful, and is to be avoided for fear of serious skin disease and dehydration in the middle of the day. Finally in Russia, where huge swathes of the country spend at least half the year in sub-zero temperatures (but as Pushkin vouches for in his poetry, often with very sunny days) the sun often fails to affect the temperature at all and therefore is a kind of non-existent force. These three conceptions of the sun are all quite in keeping with its respective genders – the pretty German sun is feminine, the strong Greek sun is masculine, the fairly ineffective Russian sun is neuter.

This demonstrates how gender in language may influence the way people think. Gender, and which article to use when, is something that you’re not always thinking about when you’ve reached a high level of fluency, but nevertheless it is definitely something that you’re aware of. However, there are also instances where it can be problematic.

In the modern age, much of the gender stereotyping that dominated the whole of history is finally on the way out. Consequently languages that heavily feature gender have suddenly been forced to confront the inequality that exists in the way they describe, for example, male and female professions, and then reconcile this with modern-day gender equality. Many just put a suffix on the end of the male form of the noun in order to apply it to females, eg.

German: Der LehrerDie Lehrerin
Russian: Преподаватель 
(prepodavátel’) – Преподавательница (prepodavátel’nitsa)

uh60967,1290021446,lehrerinBut feminists amongst others have rightly pointed out that simply adding a feminine-sounding ending to a masculine verb is entirely unreasonable, and in fact reinforces gender division and stereotyping. It could even infer that a woman is less capable of doing a job than a man, as the masculine form is the ‘default’.

Russian therefore decided to allow women to use the masculine form of the nouns when describing their profession, and the feminine form to describe themselves as a person. This works quite well, although it doesn’t quite get around the idea that the job is naturally masculine. Therefore when a woman says “Я преподаватель” it means “My job is a teacher”, and “Я преподавательница” means “I am a teacher”, i.e. teaching is what I generally do in life. In colloquial speech both forms are used quite loosely, however.

German has gone down a very different route, which can be much more problematic. They keep both forms in use, and therefore on official forms write “Der/Die Lehrer/-in”. While personally I find this ugly, and I think that slashes should be kept to a minimum in written writing, it seems to be some kind of a solution.

This is actually a problem that has affected English as well, and in recent years words like ‘actress’ and ‘waitress’ have gone out of acceptable use, and we have gone down the same route as the Russians and refer to everyone as ‘actors’ or ‘waiters’ regardless. However this is an instance where the lack of gender in English seems to actually be a good thing. Because there’s no gender anywhere else in the language, we’re less aware that we are using the masculine forms for everyone. By removing all traces of the little bits of gender that we had in our language, perhaps in a few generations’ time English speakers will have no idea that it ever existed.

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