LINGUIST List 3.275

Fri 20 Mar 1992

Disc: Gender, Spanish la - el

Editor for this issue: <>


  1. Lesli LaRocco, Re: 3.270 Gender
  2. Jacques Guy, Gender again
  3. Price Caldwell, Feminine as the unmarked case
  4. bert peeters, 3.267 Gender
  5. "Larry G. Hutchinson", Re: 3.267 Queries: Heine, Prehistory, Gender
  6. Michael Newman, Re: 3.267 Queries: Heine, Prehistory, Gender
  7. , languages with the feminine as the unmarked case
  8. , Spanish la/el

Message 1: Re: 3.270 Gender

Date: Thu, 19 Mar 92 18:26:57 ESRe: 3.270 Gender
Subject: Re: 3.270 Gender

The extinct language Sumerian made no gender distinctions whatsoever, even in
the pronouns; but it did distinguish between animate and inanimate.
As for using "it" as the gender neutral pronoun, why not just take a cue
from spoken American English, and use "they"?
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Message 2: Gender again

Date: Fri, 20 Mar 92 10:35:42 ESGender again
From: Jacques Guy <>
Subject: Gender again mentions that "E. Nesbit, early Fabian
socialist and author of children's books later read by (among others)
Freeman Dyson, regularly used "it" for a child of either gender".

When I learnt English in high school (1955 or thereabouts) I was TAUGHT
that "it" was normally used to refer to young children regardless of
sex... unless you were in the presence of their parents and thought
they might take it as a lack of interest in their "brats" (my teacher's
very word!). I am pretty sure that that usage predates the Fabian
society by a century or two, for I dimly remember having read older
texts in which "it" referred to infants. Perhaps Nesbit only stretched
just a wee, wee bit the accepted usage of the time.
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Message 3: Feminine as the unmarked case

Date: Thu, 19 Mar 92 19:02:35 CSFeminine as the unmarked case
From: Price Caldwell <tpc1Ra.MsState.Edu>
Subject: Feminine as the unmarked case

There are unmarked feminines even in English. Witness cow vs. bull,
duck vs. drake.

--Price Caldwell
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Message 4: 3.267 Gender

Date: Fri, 20 Mar 92 9:17:07 EST3.267 Gender
From: bert peeters <>
Subject: 3.267 Gender

> Date: Wed, 18 Mar 92 16:02:23 CST
> From: (Edward G. Kovach) <>

> 1. Are there any languages with the femimine gender as the unmarked or
> generic case, and the masculine as the marked?

Although the view is not very widespread, there are advantages to viewing
the feminine form of French adjectives as the basic form, and to deriving
the masculine from the feminine (most of the time by merely deleting the
final consonant). I'm talking in terms of pronunciation, obviously, not
in terms of spelling.

E.g. heureuse /OrOz/ - heureux /OrO/
 /O/ is my attempt at transcribing the vowel -eu-
 longue /lo~g/ - long /lo~/
 grande /gra~d/ - grand /gra~/

There are other derivations, such as desonorisation:

E.g. bre`ve /brEv/ - bref /brEf/

or slight vowel change + final C deletion:

E.g. premie`re /prmjEr/ - premier /prmje/

Although this overview is by no means exhaustive, one will soon discover
that in the long run it is easier to describe the masculine forms in the
spoken language starting from the feminine than it would be to go the
other way round.

Cf. long /lo~/ - longue /lo~g/
 rond /ro~/ - ronde /ro~d/
 bon /bo~/ - bonne /bon/

> 2. If such languages exist, how "sexist" do the speakers appear to be?

As speakers remain mostly unaware of the alternative approach sketched
above, this question does not arise (just yet) - at least not in this
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Message 5: Re: 3.267 Queries: Heine, Prehistory, Gender

Date: Thu, 19 Mar 92 17:54:43 -0Re: 3.267 Queries: Heine, Prehistory, Gender
From: "Larry G. Hutchinson" <>
Subject: Re: 3.267 Queries: Heine, Prehistory, Gender

Many African languages have sexless pronouns. There are no "he" vs "she"
pronouns at all. The societies that speak these languages certainly do not
strike me as being less sexist.
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Message 6: Re: 3.267 Queries: Heine, Prehistory, Gender

Date: Thu, 19 Mar 92 18:48:54 ESRe: 3.267 Queries: Heine, Prehistory, Gender
From: Michael Newman <MNEHCCUNYVM.CUNY.EDU>
Subject: Re: 3.267 Queries: Heine, Prehistory, Gender

As regards gender-neutral pronominals, I'm in the midst of a rather large study
(actually it's my dissertation) on the theme of pronominal variations with
human reference antecedents; so I've seen a lot of data. On the specific issue
involved here, it seems that it a gross oversimplification to imagine that the
third person singular subparadigm is neatly divided up into masculine, feminine
and neuter with a gaping hole in the middle for uncertain, unspecified, indis-
tinct or irrelevant, just waiting for the right element to come along and fill
it. A social psychologist named Donald MacKay spent a good part of the 80s try-
ing to get everyone to adopt a neologism 'E' (with a capital) as this gender-
neutral pronoun and even received a National Institute of Mental Health grant
for his investigative work at solving this conundrum. About this Dwight Bolin-
ger once suggested that he receive one of those Golden Fleece awards that ex-
senator Proxmire was in the habit of giving out for wastes of government money.
Apparently, my sources tell me, MacKay is still at it using 'E' in his lectures
Of course, most of his students, following the normal rules of English phono-
logy will assume he is saying 'HE'. (If you think I am being unnecessarily
nasty about MacKay, I should point out that he begins one of his articles
with an attack on linguists for not coming up with solutions to this pressing
In fact, the conclusion I am coming to is that the whole matter is-linguis-
tically speaking- a pseudoproblem. Each of the pronominal possiblities for
that supposedly empty slot, HE, SHE, HE OR SHE, SHE OR HE, THEY, IT makes its
own semantic contribution. For example, when using a generic antecedent which
refers to a stereotypically masculine occupation, such as lumberjack or parti-
cipant in congressional sex-scandals, speakers tend to use HE. When referring
to a child or baby in the abstract, there is a tendency to use IT.
This semantic contribution is what makes across-the-board use of HE objection-
able to those concerned with unfair gender implications of course. However,
that sociolinguistic question cannot be solved by legislating another form in,
whatever that form would be--even if there were an offical body capable of
doing such legislation. Even THEY which is certainly the most frequent prono-
minal used in epicene reference has its own semantic baggage, which is too
complicated for me to go into here.
The best thing that can happen here is to simply use whatever form seems most
natural. The whole awkwardness came about, after all, only when the linguists
of the 18th century noticed a pattern which didn't fit into their theory of
the time--the usage of THEY coreferent with a formally singular antecedent.
Instead of changing their understanding of agreement they tried to change
usage. This is the grammatical equivalent of iatrogenic (or doctor-created)
Michael Newman
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Message 7: languages with the feminine as the unmarked case

Date: Fri, 20 Mar 92 00:33:03 -0languages with the feminine as the unmarked case
From: <>
Subject: languages with the feminine as the unmarked case

>Date: Wed, 18 Mar 92 16:02:23 CST
>From: (Edward G. Kovach) <>
>Subject: languages with the femimine as the unmarked case
>1. Are there any languages with the femimine gender as the unmarked or
> generic case, and the masculine as the marked?

Uhh, how about French? Adjectives, that is...

Synchronically, the difference between most of the masculine and
feminine adjective forms is that the feminine form has an additional
*unpredictable* consonant at the end. So -- _petit_ /pti/ small (masc
sg) and _petite_ /ptit/ small (fem sg). Given this, it seems far more
economical to hypothesize that the feminine form is the base case,
with a rule of final consonant deletion to derive the masculine form
-- rather than assuming the masculine form as basic, and somehow
adding an unpredictable consonant suffix in the feminine.

Despite this, the French don't seem either more or less noticably
sexist than anyone else. Possibly that's because, diachronically, the
immediately preceeding forms for the adjectives was one where the
masculine form was basic, and the feminine was derived from it by a
schwa suffix. Given a final consonant deletion followed by a final
schwa deletion, and we get the synchronic system.

Having a somewhat pessimistic view of sociolinguistic relations, I
expect that most cases where the feminine form is unmarked will be the
result of the blind operation of sound change laws to a previously
(predictably) masculinist system.

John O'Neil
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Message 8: Spanish la/el

Date: Tue, 17 Mar 92 15:33:16 ESSpanish la/el
From: <>
Subject: Spanish la/el

Jim Harris seems unhappy with my brief discussion of why the
distribution of el vs. la in Spanish was something that I
thought worth asking for data about. My statement, to the
effect that the facts appear to undermine some theoretical
claims that have been made with regard to these phenomena,
was not intended as a definitive argument, but merely as an
indication to the readers of LINGUIST of what I was up to.

However, since the issue has been joined, it does seem to
me that the facts I summarized undermine the claim that the
rule in Spanish calls for el instead of la before feminines
beginning in stressed a, and in derived forms of such feminines
(so el alma, because the a is stressed, el almita, because
almita is derived from alma).

There are two issues here.

(1) For the millions of speakers, to quote Jim, who treat
el azucar as feminine, this is clear evidence that words beginning
with unstressed a can also undergo this rule, and that in turn
makes it possible to argue that forms like el almita are NOT
explained (transderivationally) by the stress pattern of the
basic form el alma. Furthermore, the existence of words with
stressed initial a which do not undergo the rule also suggests
that perhaps stress is not the relevant condition.

It is crucial in this context to note that speakers who have
el azucar as a feminine also have el azuquitar (the diminutive
of the same) as a feminine. Thus the following proportion seems
to hold:

 el alma : el almita :: el azucar (fem.) : el azuquitar (fem.)

Since (transderivational, cyclic, whatever) stress on the
initial a is NOT involved in the second pair, it seems to me
reasonable to question whether it is in the first pair, as well.

(It may be relevant for some readers to point out that
alma is stressed on the first syllable, but none of the
other examples are).

(2) Perhaps more to the point, I would like to argue that the
dialect variation IS relevant, because it bears on the issue
of what is POSSIBLE as opposed to merely ATTESTED
IN A STANDARD DICTIONARY. Now, there certainly
are plenty of speakers for whom avestruz (and even azucar) are
masculine. Such speakers may, therefore, not have any attested
feminines with unstressed a that take el. However, the relevant
question for THEORETICAL linguistics must be whether such forms
are POSSIBLE for these speakers. I am not sure what the answer
is, but I AM sure that that is the question. Dialects can,
of course, differ in what is possible, but that needs to be shown.

This preoccupation with what is possible (which, of course,
comes out of the work of a certain Noam Chomsky) is why I also
asked about judgements regarding made-up feminines with stressed
initial a, like arba. Now, Jim asserts that millions of speakers
"unhesitatingly" pick el arba. I would question this, because
I do not know of any relevant published research. The few speakers
who responded to my query were quite hesitant (I had not posted
this result, because I got so few responses).

One final thought: in my experience, it is usually the
case that one can find examples of neologisms and such
and that one does not, therefore, necessarily need to
consider made up words. I wonder, for example, if there
are any attestations in the Spanish-language press of the
Khmer word angka (used to refer to the Khmer Rouge organization)
and if so whether anybody knows which syllable the word was
stressed on, whether it was feminine, and what form, if any,
of the definite article it took. Or if there are any other
relevant ATTESTED examples of neologisms, loanwords, and such.

In any event, though, I think that the critical question IS
what is possible, and I am unconvinced by the available data
that there is any documented Spanish dialect in which the la -> el
rule is IN PRINCIPLE applicable to all and only feminines
beginning with stressed a (on the relevant cycle).
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