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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

Reply: It is certainly true that in French, a group that includes at least one masculine member is referred to in the aggregate by the masculine gender, no matter how many items of feminine gender might be included. This is a fact about French as she is used nowadays; it doesn't say anything about how French may be used 100, 200, or 500 years from now. If the community of French-speakers decide they want to change this, not even the Academy can stop them.

My impression, based on discussion with some French feminists, is that this issue is VERY far down their list of priorities; there are a WHOLE LOT OF OTHER things that, in their opinion, are more important to deal with.

It is also true that there is no evidence that the grammar of a particular language *forces* the speakers of that language to think a certain way. In particular, it is true that most European languages have a gender system based on sexual metaphors; other languages -- e.g., Turkish, Bantu, Chinese -- don't; they have gender systems based on quite different metaphors. But that doesn't make the *societies using those languages* any less sexist.

So, yes, to be brief, it's much more a matter of projecting a society's charateristics onto the grammar of the language used by that society than the other way around. And the language will change in ways that the community using that language want it to change.

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

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