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Ask-A-Linguist Message Details
|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|