LINGUIST List 7.419

Wed Mar 20 1996

Disc: Grammatical gender and feminism

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  1. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan
  2. Yishai Tobin, Gender switch
  3. Michael Newman, Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan
  4. Waruno Mahdi, Re: 7.395, Discussion: Grammatical gender and feminism

Message 1: Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan

Date: Thu, 14 Mar 1996 18:48:38 EST
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan
The problem with trying to make a language like German more genderless
by deciding that nouns like Ingenieur be like English engineer is that
there is no grammatical category to which they could belong. You have
to have either a masculine or a feminine noun. Even if you tried to
ordain that Ingenieur could be of either gender, i.e., to allow die
Ingenieur as well as der Ingenieur to be grammatical, that would not
help, obviously. The only way to make German like English or Basque
would be to abolish the grammatical category of gender altogether
(same for Spanish or Russian), and quite clearly speakers find it
harder to imagine doing that than to make the changes described,
namely, insisting that Ingenieur can only mean 'male engineer' and
using Ingenieurin for a female one. That's presumably because of that
trite but true principle that the grammatical system of a language is
harder to mess with than its lexicon.
Alexis Manaster Ramer
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 2: Gender switch

Date: Fri, 15 Mar 1996 09:00:11 +0300
From: Yishai Tobin <>
Subject: Gender switch

This is indirectly related to the discussions of grammatical gender
and feminimism that has been on the net recently. It seems, and this
has been verified by my students, that the following phenomenon is
taking root in Israeli speech, particularly among the young. Hebrew,
as you probably know, has masc. and fem. gender marking not only for
nouns, pronouns and adjectives but for verb tense morphology and
numerals. Anyway, it seems that young men will address female friends
and girlfriends using masculine pronouns and morphology as a sign of
intimacy. Not only that, students have reported that they have
witnessed the same phenomenon taking place in conversations between
two close women friends addressing each other with masc. forms. I was
not aware of this phenomenon but all my students were. One even
mentioned that her boyfriend addresses her with masc. forms very
frequently and switches to the fem. ones when they are arguing or
disagreeing with each other. She also says that his entire family has
noticed with and talked about it with them on several occasions. I
would be interested in hearing about similar phenomena of gender
switch as well and am aware of it, of course, in the gay community
both as a sign of intimacy as well as its perjorative use.

Professor Yishai Tobin
Department of Foreign Literatures & Linguistics &
Department of Behavioral Sciences
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
P. O. Box 653
84 105 Be'er Sheva

fax: + - 972-7-472907 / + - 972-7-472932
office: + - 972-7-472047
home: + - 972-7-277950

Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 3: Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan

Date: Fri, 15 Mar 1996 09:57:04 EST
From: Michael Newman <>
Subject: Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan
With regards to Alan King's post on gender, it seems to me that there
are two issues that, though they are related on a social level, need
to be distinguished on a linguistic one.

First,what feminists and fellow-travelers (pardon the expression) are
concerned with is reference to people that looks like reference
exclusively to males. This is strictly speaking a question of language
use. It does not necessarily implicate the linguistic system. The
second is is a complication that comes about when the system is
implicated. The problem is that in some languages, particularly
almost all IE ones, sex reference is (i) imperfectly mapped into
grammatical gender (or vice versa) and (ii) the masculine gender is
the unmarked one.

The distinction can be seen comparing English with Spanish. In
English there is only reference to sex, either lexically through words
like son/daughter, derivationally through suffixes like -ess, through
compounding "Irishman/woman," or pronominally, through 3s pronouns.
There is no gender is simply that there are no grammatically
determined agreement patterns, the way there are, say, for number.
Thus, in English reference to sex is relatively straightforward,
though, of course, not straighforward enough for the person who is
determined to avoid sex-reference when using 3p pronouns. Also, there
has been a tendency to eliminate sex-reference in derivational and
compound forms. Intuitively, (I have no evidence) I think this is
probably in part spontaneous and in part political. For example, forms
such as "Scotsman" and so on sound more obsolete than sexist. Other
forms such as poetess, hostess, waitress and so on have also
disappeared or are disappearing, probably on sexist grounds. Negress
and Jewess are offensive more on a racial than sexist level as is
certainly the case of Chinaman/Chinawoman. (Unfortunately, that wierd
English tendency to try to import foreign morphology has landed us
with such clumsy terms as Latino/Latina, which go in precisely the
opposite direction.) Now, note that the solution is towards
neutralization either with the erstwhile male-reference form or a
neologism. The male form is the chosen because it is the base form;
(but what's happend with 'widow'?)

Now, in gender languages the marking of sex is pervasive and at time
grammatically demanded. As a joke, I used to tell Spanish friends
that they should take make the plural "alumnos y alumnas," into
"alumnes" This was received with horror, even as a joke. You cannot
legislate grammar. Yet the status quo is not pretty if you want to
evenhanded in reference. Once when translating with an Argentine
lesbian feminist, my friend decided she had had enough with female
invisibility and started "os/as"-ing and even "as/os"-ing all over the
place. After the 5th "as/os" she gave up and we went back to the
grammatical though sexist "-os" throughout. Aesthetics won out over
fairness. The only hope is to wait for a process of vowel
neutralization to kick in, something that, given the 1000 years or
more of relative vowel stability in Spanish, may not be expected any
time soon.

Another solution is to use the feminine form as unmarked, at least at
times, along the lines of default "she" in English that appears in
academic articles and conference presentations. I know of a case
where this was done in Catalan on during a doctoral defense in
linguistics. The candidate passed. So maybe there's hope after all.

Michael Newman
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue

Message 4: Re: 7.395, Discussion: Grammatical gender and feminism

Date: Fri, 15 Mar 1996 22:34:37 +0100
From: Waruno Mahdi <>
Subject: Re: 7.395, Discussion: Grammatical gender and feminism
On Thu, 14 Mar 1996, Alan R. King wrote:
> Very rarely, I have seen an orthographic usage (presumably with no
> spoken equivalent) consisting of employing the character  to
> represent a/o, so (e) would be spelt as in (e'):
> e'. tods ls otrs alumns implicads

> I don't know if anyone has looked into the grammatical implications of this
> convention, but it certainly looks... well, politically correct.

A similar artificial (and not "officially" established, but
nevertheless more widespread than -a in Spanish) procedure also
exists in German, where one writes (note the capitalised "I" in the

 Wegen Krankheit mussten drei IngenieurInnen ersetzt werden.

to mean:

 Wegen Krankheit mussten drei Ingenieure und Ingenieurinnen ersetzt werden.

 "Three male and female engineers had to be replaced due to illness"

> Now comes my question. I have a native language (English) in which
> the main (if not quite the only) linguistic difficulty for feminists
> and pro-feminists (among whom I think I wish to include myself) is the
> handling of third-person singular pronouns, which is troublesome
> enough, as anyone who has tried to write in a consistently
> "non-sexist" way knows for her/himself. So we're very lucky that, in
> English, engineers are engineers and students are students,
> irrespective of sex. Indeed, if we could only somehow eliminate the
> gender distinction from that one darned pronominal contrast, it would
> be almost plain sailing.

The stress, of course, must be on "almost", note: actor/actress,
heir/heiress, prince/princess etc. But as for the (implied) question
itself, I find it important first of all to distinguish between
grammatical gender and biological sex. They are without doubt
massively interconnected, but nevertheless represent distinct
categories. In German, diminutives are always neuter, as a result of
which the words Maedchen "girl", Fraeulein "Miss, young lady" are not
feminine, but neuter:

 Wie heisst das Maedchen? Es [sic!] heisst Maria.
 "What is the girls name? Its name is Maria."

Using sie "she" here would be grammatically incorrect.
Something similar we find in English with the word "child":

 How old is the child? It is five.

The automatic assumption of masculinity does not hold here.

Even in the context of biological sex, the existence of
gender-distinct personal pronouns has not only negative aspects, but
also positive ones. The cause against sexism is aimed against
injustices based on inequal rights of persons according to sex, but I
don't understand it to be aimed at eliminating what the French call
"la difference". The world would otherwise become a dreary place
indeed to live in. Is it not quite natural, that language tends to
retain means by which to express those distinctions which contribute
to livening up life? Perhaps that is one reason why gender distinction
in English has persisted in nouns such as actor/actress,
prince/princess, being associated with distinct emotional or symbolic
connotations for the male and for the female speaker/listener/reader.

This is perhaps also the reason why -- in spite of well-meant efforts
to reduce gender-specific features in language -- one nevertheless
comes accross seemingly needless instances of their retention or even
innovation. Ships in English are usually referred to as "she" rather
than "it". It is perhaps not by coincidence, that the bow of wooden
ships were decorated with a (usually bare-breasted) female figurine,
and only rarely with a male one. I understand that psychologists have
connected this with the association in the male (sailor's) mind of
"home/haven/fate" with a woman.

In German, the female correspondent to male Polizist "policeman" is
Polizistin "policewomen", but when the police in this country began
employing female police with the specific task of writing out parking
tickets, the emotional conflict in (male) drivers between anger at the
ticket, and galantry towards the persons writing them, expressed
itself linguistically in the creation of a new word for female police
officer: Politesse, for which there is no masculine correspondent. The
German police, at least with regard to its understanding of psychology
of male drivers (more prone to wrong parking than the female of the
species), has obviously proven here to be better than its
reputation. There is incidentally also no masculine correspondent to
the German feminine noun Hebamme "midwife" (just as there is no
*"midhusband" in English), although male persons pursuing that
profession do exist in Germany. Correspondingly you also cannot form
plurals like *PolitessInnen or *HebammInnen.

With regard to recommendations at neutralising gender distinctions in
language, I see two aspects to the problem: (1) "political
correctness" in language should certainly not only be recommended, but
sometimes even enforced, when language is being misused to oppress or
injure people on the base of their sex (or by any other criteria); (2)
but otherwise I'd say, language is a mirror of life, and it is quite
pointless to try to reform social reality by eliminating certain
words, the natural procedure being for language to comply to changes
in society. Wouldn't the contrary be like the elimination of purged
politicians from official photographs as practiced by certain regimes?
Apart from that, the relationship between means of expression and
content in language, and between that and reality, is much more
complex than language reformers are often aware of, and too energetic
efforts on their part have sometimes shown alarming similarities with
Newspeak in Orwell's "1984". This is not, however, to imply that the
previous discusser may have had anything even distantly similar to
such sombre developments in mind.

Waruno Mahdi tel: +49 30 8413 5408
Faradayweg 4-6 fax: +49 30 8413 3155
14195 Berlin email:
Germany WWW:
Mail to author|Respond to list|Read more issues|LINGUIST home page|Top of issue