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"Buenos dias", "buenas noches" -- this was the first words in a foreign language I heard in my life, as a three-year old boy growing up in developing post-war Western Germany, where the first gastarbeiters had arrived from Spain. Fascinated by the strange sounds, I tried to get to know some more languages, the only opportunity being TV courses of English and French -- there was no foreign language education for pre-teen school children in Germany yet in those days. Read more



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Subject: To what extent can grammar be sexist?
Question: Marie Darrieussecq, the French novelist, said recently on BBC
Radio that the freedom of women in France is very much a matter
of words and iit is related to the language: you have to add an e for
the feminine form as if being a woman was an accident as opposed
tp the universal masculine normality. Grammatically, one man
rules over any number of women and if, for example, you want to
say five million women and a dog, you have to use the masculine
because dog is masculine. She added that when a young girl at
school, she learnt that the masculine rules over the feminine and
that the language says something about the society.

To what extent is this argument valid? I have always understood
noun gender as a way of dividing nouns into classes rather than a
reflection of human gender differences (famously, the German for
girl is neuter) and the Bantu languages, less confusingly, use
instead the term noun classes, of which there are many. Is this
really a case of projecting society's historic characteristics onto
grammar rather than grammar refledting society or is it a two-way
process?

Reply: I think that you're right about grammatical gender being more about noun classes
than actual gender. In the case of French, linguists have found that the maximum
explanatory generalizations require that the base form of an adjective actually be the
feminine, as one can predict the masculine from the feminine but not vice versa. So
for example, petit vs. petite. If you start with [pti] there's no way to predict what the
feminine form will be , but if you start with [ptit] then you can form the masculine just
by dropping the final [t]. It is true that the only time you use the feminine form is if
everyone/everything being described is grammatically feminine, though.

Reply From: Susan D Fischer      click here to access email
 
Date: 29-Nov-2012
 
Other Replies:
  1. Re: To what extent can grammar be sexist?    Elizabeth J Pyatt     (03-Dec-2012)
  2. Re: To what extent can grammar be sexist?    Geoffrey Richard Sampson     (30-Nov-2012)
  3. Re: To what extent can grammar be sexist?    Marilyn N Silva     (29-Nov-2012)
  4. Re: To what extent can grammar be sexist?    Steven Schaufele     (30-Nov-2012)

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