LINGUIST List 7.522

Wed Apr 10 1996

Disc: Grammatical gender

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Sean M. Witty, Disc: Grammatical Gender and Feminism
  2. Larry Horn, On midwives
  3., Re: 7.419, Disc: Grammatical gender and feminism
  4. Marina & Anthony Green, Re: Sex and reference in Italian

Message 1: Disc: Grammatical Gender and Feminism

Date: Thu, 21 Mar 1996 11:30:24 PST
From: Sean M. Witty <>
Subject: Disc: Grammatical Gender and Feminism
[Moderator's note: we apologize for the delay in posting
these messages.]

As Linguists, we have two basic responsibilities: objective 
description of language related phenomena and accuracy in reporting. 
If one of us should betray these objectives, by placing their own 
personal agendas before these responsibilities, then that individual 
serves to undermine the efforts of those who bear faith...

1. Reference: 7.419 -- Alexis Manaster Ramer
"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."

Why would anyone want to do such a thing? This is PREscription, not 

"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."

No, but [das Ingenieur] would accomplish the same thing. Apparently, 
Alexis either did not study German, or did not pay much attention. For 
if she had, then she might know about the Neuter Gender in German, and 
would NEVER have made a statement like the intial one above.

"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."

Sure, if you're of the misconception that Sex is the most important 
aspect of Grammatical Gender. Ingenieur is a bad example, because 
while the noun carries the Masculine Gender, the meaning is truly 
indefinite. I challenge anyone to claim otherwise, especially since my 
German Dictionary lists Lehrer/Lehrerin but not Ingenieur/Ingenieurin. 
Note the following (German):

arbeiten -- to work
die Arbeit (f.) -- the work
der Arbeiter (m.) -- the worker (Male and indefinite)
die Arbeiterin (f.) -- the worker (Female)

You see, [Arbeit] went from being Feminine to Masculine with the 
application of the Morpheme '-er', which carries with it Masculine 
Gender. The Feminine version acquires Gender with the addition of the 
'-in' Morpheme. Thus, Gender is supplied by the Phonetic Ending of the 
word, not by the Sex of the object (see additional info in #2 below).

A note about Russian. Russian has three genders as well, but it also 
uses a special provision that allows for Pronouns of Animate Nouns to 
match for Sex. Thus, a noun like [papa], which is declined as a 
Feminine Noun, is referred to by using Masculine Pronouns. This is 
true of English, with the exception that nouns are not declined.

2. Reference: 7.419 -- Michael Newman

"The problem is that in some languages, particularly almost all IE 
ones, sex reference is (i) imperfectly mapped into the grammatical 
gender (or vice versa) and (ii) the masculine gender is the unmarked 

When you divide Nouns into two categories, Animate and Inanimate, then 
sub-divide these into Animate-Male, Animate-Female, Animate-Indefinite, 
Inanimate-Masculine, Inanimate-Feminine, and Inanimate-Neuter, it 
becomes less of a problem (and a heck of a lot more cumbersome). In 
essence, this is what is done in English and Russian, note the pronoun 
 English Russian
Animate-Male: he on
Animate-Female: she ona
Animate-Indef.: NA ---
Animate-Plural: they oni
Inanimate-Masc: it on
Inanimate-Fem: it ona
Inanimate-Neut: it ono
Inanimate-Plural: they oni

In English, there is no Animate-Indefinite Pronoun that speakers feel 
comfortable with. In Russian, Animate-Indefinite is expressed 
according to the Gender of the Noun. Thus, a dog [sobaka] is Feminine 
(ona). If we know that the dog is a male, then it becomes [on], 
otherwise, it remains [ona]. The equivalent in English would be to 
call any Animate-Indefinite object [it]. There lies the problem...

The fact that the 'base' form of a word is the Masculine form, only 
holds true in Feminine nouns that are derived from Masculine ones. 
This is to be expected, and what difference does it really make? 
Simply being a Masculine noun DOES NOT imply that the object is male. 
In the place of Masculine/Feminine/Neuter people could just a well say 
A/B/C, the derivation would still be the same.

"For example, forms such as "Scotsman" and so on sound more obsolete 
than sexist." 

This term is sexually indefinite, [man] meaning 'one who is', and 
Masculine in Gender. The same holds for [wyfman] of Old English. 
[Wyf} is neuter, meaning [wife]; [man] is masculine, meaning [one who 
is]. Thus, their compound [wyfman], the ancestor of [woman], is a 
Masculine Noun, commonly referred to by the Masculine Pronoun [he], in 
Old English Texts. Hmm, we all know that a woman is female...

"Other forms such as poetess, hostess, waitress, and so on have also 
disappeared or are disappearing, probably on sexist grounds."

Though it might appear so, I have another, more linguistically 
plausible theory. Since Specifiers do not agree for Gender, or Sex, 
the following is ambiguous if one actor is Male, and the other Female:

I (nom) threw actor (acc) at actor (acc).

Which actor is the woman? One of the forms must deviate for clarity. 
In English, Russian, German, etc.. the base form generally resembles 
the Masculine, or Gender Category A if you prefer, so the deviant form 
must take an ending that will resemble a different gender, or category, 
and distinguish it from the original form. Thus,

I (nom) threw actor (acc) at actress (acc).

Again, Sex is the note the primary player here, just an instrument 
being used for distinction.

3. Reference: 7.419 -- Waruno Mahdi

"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 

Should there be? Why is it not possible for [die Hebamme] to have 
Neuter Gender and Indefinite Sex? They do it for [der Ingenieur], so 
we should expect it to go the other way as well.

"With regards 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);"

WHAT!!! Sounds awfully PREscriptive. Who will determine what 
constitutes misuse, oppression, or injury? Who is going to enforce it? 
As a Linguist, I am outraged that you would suggest FORCING words into 
people's mouths!!! Who the heck are you???? Sure, people abuse 
language through their usage. This is the type of mentality that 
creates the problem that Feminists claim exists. Language does not 
oppress. People's usage does. 

"We kill what we fear, and we fear what we don't understand."

Sean M. Witty
Philadelphia, PA
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Message 2: On midwives

Date: Fri, 22 Mar 1996 20:01:54 EST
From: Larry Horn <>
Subject: On midwives
In response to Mark Mandel's point on _midwife_, in the last gender/feminism
set: the argument is almost correct. The prepositional prefix did indeed
designate 'with'.
But in fact it's not that the women the midwifes (midwives?) were with were
"usually wives", but that they were always women. WIF was the basic
word for 'woman' at that time, although also occurring in the compound WIF-MAN,
i.e. 'female person', whence WOMAN. Cf. Ger. WEIB 'woman', (secondarily)
'wife' (a standard duality, as of course with Frau, femme, etc.
Curiously, the OED glosses _midwife_ as 'a woman who is with the mother at the
birth', 'a woman who assists other women at childbirth', 'a female accoucheur'
[!], although it lists as a separate sense 'man-midwife', with an illustration
from 1577. There doesn't seem to be any clear reason for considering this as
a separate sense, given Mark's and my assumption (borne out by the actual
prefix-head construction of _midwife_, as supported by the OED and other
dictionaries) that the 'wife' here is the patient, not the agent. Beyond
the fact that midwives were in fact women, there's no obvious reason to
assume two distinct senses depending on the sex of the accompanist.

- Larry
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Message 3: Re: 7.419, Disc: Grammatical gender and feminism

Date: Sat, 23 Mar 1996 12:14:24 EST
From: <>
Subject: Re: 7.419, Disc: Grammatical gender and feminism
What you have to say about the problem of gender is interesting. However, for
the example with "Maedchen" - Is not true that once you give a name to a
girl, that you may say in actual practice: "Sie heisst Maria" rather than the
"correct" grammatical formulation "Es heisst Maria"? Herman Teichert
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Message 4: Re: Sex and reference in Italian

Date: Sat, 23 Mar 1996 20:02:00 +0100
From: Marina & Anthony Green <>
Subject: Re: Sex and reference in Italian
On Thu, 21 Mar 1996 18:35:22 EST Joseph Davis wrote:
>Subject: Sex and reference in Italian (fwd)

>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. 

 Surely Voi is just a throwback to certain historical political
moments - I refer in particular to the efforts made by Mussolini to promote
the Voi form because it was similar to the French vous (and by analogy
therefore "cultured").
 Indeed, in contemporary Apulia, Voi is regarded as being in some way
"Fascist language"

>Lei accomplishes the same thing by pretending to refer to someone else
entirely (so it is sometimes noted that lei is even more deferential than voi).

 Undoubtedly Lei is 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)?

 You said it before - it refers to "Signoria vostra" and not to the
sex of the interlocutor.

>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.)

 IMHO, this idea, however attractive, may be no more than a lovely
fiction of yours. :-) 

 Given that we are in an intellectually "dangerous" profession, do
you have any evidence at all for this, or are you in some way putting the
cart before the horse?
 Thankyou for your contribution in any case, it certainly started me
thinking, and I hope you can convince me that you are right!

 BTW, the amount of embarrassed circumlocution caused by the doubt as
to whether to use Tu or Lei among colleagues at my faculty is a fascinating
but often tiresome insight into the excessive formalities of what is still a
strictly hierarchical society.

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