LINGUIST List 7.429

Fri Mar 22 1996

Disc: Grammatical gender

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1., Grammatical gender and feminism
  2., Re: 7.419, Disc: Grammatical gender and feminism
  3. Joseph Davis, Sex and reference in Italian (fwd)
  4. Keith GOERINGER, gender switching

Message 1: Grammatical gender and feminism

Date: Thu, 21 Mar 1996 09:24:23 EST
From: <>
Subject: Grammatical gender and feminism
In LINGUIST 7.419 Waruno Mahdi writes:

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.

It is a common misapprehension even among native speakers of English
that "midwife" means some kind of "wife" and therefore refers to a
woman. The syllable "mid" here probably comes from Old English "mid"
'with' (cognate to German "mit"): the midwife stays *with* the woman
(who is typically a *wife*) during labor. English "male midwife" is, I
guess, partly due to this mistaken analysis, but is also justifiable on the
same grounds as "male nurse", as indicating the statistically marked sex
of the referent.

 Mark A. Mandel
 Dragon Systems, Inc. : speech recognition : +1 617 965-5200
 320 Nevada St. : Newton, Mass. 02160, USA :
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Message 2: Re: 7.419, Disc: Grammatical gender and feminism

Date: Thu, 21 Mar 1996 10:18:59 CST
From: <>
Subject: Re: 7.419, Disc: Grammatical gender and feminism

In spite of claims to the contrary, modern colloquial Basque is not
completely bereft of gender. In many western Basque varieties, Spanish
nouns and adjectives are borrowed in both their masc and fem forms. This is
especially interesting in the case of adjectives, since the facts show that
the grammatical notion of "gender" has been borrowed. For instance, in the
variety spoken in Lakeitio we find mutil alto bat "a tall boy" (boy tall
one) but neska alta bat "a tall girl" (girl tall-fem one), with an
alto/alta distinction . Now, as James Harris and others have argued, more
than a fem/masc gender contrast, Spanish has a fem/unmarked opposition.
That is, there are forms that carry a feminine gender feature and words
that are unmarked for gender. There are many strong arguments for this. One
of them is that prepositions, clauses and other constituents that do not
have and cannot have grammatical gender always take masculine agreement:
hay demasiados paras en este parrafo (example from Harris) "there are too
many(masc) "paras" in this paragraph", el que llegaras tarde me molesto'
"the(masc) [fact] that you arrived late bothered me", el comer mucho es
malo Lit. "the(masc) eating too much is bad(masc)", etc, etc. Lekeitio
Basque speakers appear to have grasped this unmarked status of the Spanish
masculine. Feminine adjectives are used exclusively in reference to female
animates. Inanimates invariable take the Spanish masculine: etxe alto bat
"a tall house". By the way, in the few Spanish borrowings of this type
found in Academic American English one finds the same pattern: he is a
Latino writer / she is a Latina writer / U.S. Latino Studies.
Jose Ignacio Hualde
Dept. of Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese
4080 FLB
Univ. of Illinois, Urbana, IL 61801
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Message 3: Sex and reference in Italian (fwd)

Date: Thu, 21 Mar 1996 18:35:22 EST
From: Joseph Davis <>
Subject: Sex and reference in Italian (fwd)

Yishai Tobin (3/21/96) notes the sometime use in Hebrew of 'masculine'
grammatical forms to refer to females in a familiar or intimate context.
He asks for other related observations. His interesting note made me
think of Italian forms of address. Italian has tu/te (you sg.), voi
(you pl.), lui (he/him) and lei (she/her). But in Standard Italian,
tu is, as is well known, the 'familiar' form, while the 'polite' or
deferential form is lei (sometimes written Lei). (Many speakers use
instead, or also, voi, as the French use vous.) This deferential lei
is usually treated at least implicitly as a homonym of lei=she/her,
i.e., a phonetically identical form with however a different meaning.
Yet one should be skeptical of hasty homonymy; often it's tantamount
to an admission of failure. Consider the possibility that lei has a
single meaning that accounts for all its uses.
In using either voi or lei to address a single individual, the speaker
is essentially lying, pretending not to be addressing the individual.
This is 'polite' because it allows the hearer to entertain the fiction
that anything the speaker says might not apply to him or her; the speaker
pretends not to presume anything about such an illustrious person as the
hearer. (Historically, this lei supposedly referred to 'Vostra Signoria'
(Your Lordship), but our concern is with the current state of affairs.)
Voi accomplishes this subterfuge by claiming that the speaker is address-
ing more than one person, including the hearer; so any statement risks
applying to that illustrious person only very indirectly. Lei accom-
lishes the same thing by pretending to refer to someone else entirely
(so it is sometimes noted that lei is even more deferential than voi).
Both uses, then, so far are understandable: they are deliberate
fictions, and for the linguist to ignore the fiction and posit homonyms
is to miss the point entirely.
The only question remaining is: Why lei instead of lui (he/him)?
Occasionally--not at all often--one finds in Standard Italian texts
lei referring not literally to a female but to something that might
be said nevertheless to have something approaching animacy. Some
of these examples appear to be personifications (another kind of
fiction). Rarely, though, it may be necessary to talk of a kind of
animacy that one would not want to label personification (for examples,
just ask). Ultimately, then--if one wishes to pursue a signal-meaning
approach--one might propose that lui means ONE MALE OTHER THAN SPEAKER
OR HEARER, and that lei means something like ONE NON-MALE ANIMATE-LIKE
REFERENT OTHER THAN SPEAKER OR HEARER, which would obviously include
females. (Naturally we would not expect every speaker of 'Italian' to
have the same grammar; there may well be speakers for whom lei does
mean just ONE FEMALE..., and speakers for whom lui is not specifically
MALE; an analysis applies to just those speakers/writers that it
successfully accounts for.)
What's striking here, then, is how in both the Hebrew and the Italian
cases, the 'feminine' form correlates with lack of familiarity.
Joseph Davis
Visiting Assistant Professor
English Department
University of Kentucky
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Message 4: gender switching

Date: Wed, 20 Mar 1996 18:41:46 PST
From: Keith GOERINGER <>
Subject: gender switching
Regarding Yishai Tobin's remarks on use of masculine markers by women, I
have heard similar things from Russian women. On more than one occasion,
I have heard different women use masculine endings on verbs and (once) on 
an adjective. The most common verb form I heard with with was *p=F3njal* 
past tense =3D '[I] understood'), versus *ponjal=E1* (the corresponding
feminine form). The adjective I heard it on was *soglasen* (masc.
short-form adj) '(I am) in agreement'.

The other verbs were along these same semantic lines -- showing agreement
or comprehension, and were generally uttered in isolation as single word
responses (or even interjections). When I cornered them and asked them
what the deal was with this (I had never heard it previously -- this firs=
happened 2 years ago), they said they often used the masculine forms in
such contexts. At first I thought it was, perhaps, a humorous sort of
gender-bending, but it seems to be more pragmatically rooted -- but I'm n=
sure how, and they couldn't articulate it for me...

Anyway, my 2 kopecks' worth.


Keith Goeringer
UC Berkeley
Slavic Languages & Literatures
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