He, She, or It: On Gender in Language

It is widely known that the languages that descended from Latin (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian, etc.) utilize gender in their grammatical structure. Nouns are either masculine or feminine, but rarely neutral. But did you know that many other languages also use gender (and other quite different systems) to classify nouns?

According to Wikipedia:

– 76 world languages (including English, Japanese, and Turkish) are gender-neutral
– 39 (including Arabic, Hebrew, Urdu, and Welsh) have a masculine/feminine noun system
– many languages (such as Danish, Hittite, and several Native American) use a classification system of animate vs. inanimate rather than gender to determine grammar rules
– Hawaiian languages use a system based on things you have control over vs. things beyond your control (I’m simplifying a bit here)
– some languages have developed a system of more than three “genders” or classification systems (including Tuyuca, spoken in the eastern Amazon, which is estimated to have between 50 and 140 different noun classes).

In today’s emphasis on gender equality, and sometimes on gender neutrality, are masculine/feminine and other distinctions within nouns still relevant? Or are they destined to go the way of the rotary phone, natural hair color, and the bookstore down the street?

You may be wondering why I’m bringing this up. Well, it has to do with something we discussed in Spanish class last night — something that got the old brain cells spinning once again. (I really like when that happens. It gives me something to blog about.)

The topic of last night’s class was Names, which branched off (as our class discussions often do) into a discussion of titles such as Señor, Señora, and Señorita. We learned from our “maestra” (teacher — and yes, she happens to be a maestra, not a maestro) that the practice of calling a woman Señorita if she’s unmarried (the equivalent of being a virgin in the old days) but Señora if she’s married is going out of style in Mexico and elsewhere.  It’s becoming more popular to just use Señor and Señora. This change is similar to the use of the title “Ms.” in English, although there isn’t a Spanish word for “Ms.” — yet.

I’ve seen some people using an “x” at the end of words that normally indicate gender with an “a” or an “o,” as, for example: Latinx). This might simplify things if you don’t know the gender or don’t want to be sexist, and is similar to our trend in the U.S. of using endings such as “person” (chairperson) or of just dropping the “ess,” “ette” and other unnecessary, diminutive tags that for some reason connote something of lesser substance. (I hate it when I catch myself saying “stewardess,” but why does making something female imply that it is lesser? Just another question to set my brain cells spinning.)

Our “maestra” — should I be calling her “maestrx“? — mentioned that there’s even a movement afoot somewhere to use the @ symbol in place of the -a and -o endings on Spanish nouns that refer to people —  such as changing “amigos” or “amigas” to “amig@s“. That way nobody’s offended. Except that people are offended, she warned — people who feel it insults the Spanish-speaking world. By changing one of the foundational rules of that language, it can be seen as an attack on the culture. I agree with that point of view. You shouldn’t mess with someone’s language. Just look at the harm done when the government banned Native American languages in schools.

As an American whose first language was English, I’m not going to change the word endings in anyone’s language to x or @ or any other symbol unless it’s okay with them. But as for myself, I do like Ms. so much better than Miss or Mrs.

P.S. In Spanish, the word “cheer” (humor) is masculine, but “pepper” (pimiento or pimienta) can be either masculine or feminine, depending on the type of pepper. What type of pepper are you?

(This post is part of a blog challenge for the month of November called “Nano Poblano.” A Cheer Pepper is a member of that group who cheers the others on.)

(Also, thanks to Meg for allowing me to use my photo of her paper zombies!)

Badge 2017

2 thoughts on “He, She, or It: On Gender in Language

  1. This is a fascinating topic. It would be useful to lose the masculine and feminine side so you don’t have to remember which one is which for French for example (which is what I learnt back at school, and not very well I might add). I would relish anything being removed that would make learning other languages a hell of a lot easier, as I have been dying to look at German, Italian, Spanish and even French again, along with other languages. I even wanted to learn Cantonese at one point because of all the Chinese movies that I was watching (with subtitles of course) but they have seven different tones/accents, which put me off and made me want to study Mandarin instead, which is far more straightforward (compared to Cantonese!) I really hope the don’t put the @ symbol in Spanish words to neutralise them though because it looks like ugly text speak to me and I feel it would sully the look and feel of the language!

    Like

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