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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: To my mind it is all a feminist fantasy. Consider the Chinese language: grammatically it has always been a thoroughly "sexless" language. Third-person pronouns are neutral between "he" and "she" (in modern Mandarin there is just one word to cover both, and although earlier forms of Chinese had a greater variety of third-person pronouns, the choice was never in terms of the sex of the person referred to). The basic word for a human being, rén in Mandarin, means a person of either sex, and if you want to specify man v. woman or vice versa you prefix "male" or "female". There is certainly nothing like European sex-based gender systems in the language. If grammar and social relationships mirrored one another as this idea assumes, one would have to predict that China was traditionally a country with unusually little differentiation between the social roles of the two sexes. Nothing could be further from the truth. The lives of the two sexes were at least as sharply differentiated in China as anywhere in Europe, arguably more so (consider for instance the system, operative for the last several centuries of Imperial China, of female foot-binding, whereby girls' feet were mutilated in childhood so that as adults they could do no more than hobble). It is perhaps natural for linguists to exaggerate the importance of grammar in human life (to a hammer everything looks like a nail), and I write as a grammarian myself, but the truth is that one just cannot read off social structures from linguistic structures in this way. Geoffrey Sampson
Reply From: Geoffrey Richard Sampson      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?    Marilyn N Silva     (29-Nov-2012)
  4. Re: To what extent can grammar be sexist?    Steven Schaufele     (30-Nov-2012)

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