LINGUIST List 7.537

Fri Apr 12 1996

Disc: Grammatical gender

Editor for this issue: Ann Dizdar <>


  1. Waruno Mahdi, Re: Disc: Grammatical gender
  2. KNAPPENVKPMZD.kph.Uni-Mainz.DE, Re: 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender
  3. Bernhard Rohrbacher, Re: 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender
  4. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Re: 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender

Message 1: Re: Disc: Grammatical gender

Date: Wed, 10 Apr 1996 21:16:15 +0200
From: Waruno Mahdi <>
Subject: Re: Disc: Grammatical gender
Re: Sean Witty's comment (7-522) to Alexis Ramer (7-419):

Not that I would suggest this as a "solution" or discussable venue for
prescriptive regulation, but there is another option, that of uniting
the feminine and masculine genders into a common gender which remains
distinct from the neuter. This is exactly what happenned in the
development from Middle Lower German to Dutch, where the common
(fem. + masc.) gender takes the definite article _de_ (corresponding
to both German _die_ and _der_), and the neuter gender takes _het_
(German _das_).

But this is neither here nor there, because gender is indeed a
grammatical category, as against the physiological category of
sex. And although the two are strongly interconnected, one cannot hope
to elliminate the former by reforming social gender roles in real
life, much less to achieve improvements in the latter by reforming

Re: Sean Witty's comment (7-522) to Michael Newman (7-419):

> 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

The line indicated with an arrow should be corrected to:

 English Russian
Animate-Neut.: it ?

cf.: English _It (the child) is crying._

There are very few Russian neuter nouns denoting persons, and I'm not
sure whether the corresponding personal pronoun to be used is _ono_.

Re: Sean Witty's comment (7-522) to Waruno Mahdi (7-419):

> "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."
> 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.

I think you are confusing grammar with logic (or should I even say
"wishful logic"?). Why is one noun for an inanimate denotate feminine,
and another one masculine in French (which does not have a neuter at
all)? Whereas German masculine nouns like _Ingenieur_ may be used in
reference to female representatives of the profession, a feminine noun
is not normally used for male representatives. "Not normally" means
here, that when you do use it, there is a pronounced humoristic
connotation as in the essentially "ungrammatical":

 German _Er ist nicht gegangen, er ist gegangen worden_
literally: "He didn't go, he was went" (i.e. ",,, he was made to go").

It is often more difficult to grasp the banal truth, that both sides
of a medal are extant, than one is normally aware of. That grammatical
gender and physiological sex are two distinct categories is true, but
that is only one side of the medal. The other is that language
reflects material facts and relations, directly, but also indirectly,
so that grammatical gender and physiological sex are not absolutely
independent categories. They are distinct in one plane, and
interconnected in another. _word_ is a word, and being made up of
only one non-zero morph, it is also a morph. Can a morph and a word be
one and the same? No, I'd say it's a word in one plane, and a morph in
another. Just an illustration to explain what I mean by plane.

Grammatically seen, German _Sekreta"rin_ is the feminine counterpart
to masculine _Sekreta"r_ "secretary", but the former only refers to
the lady sitting at the desk in the ante-room stenographing, typing,
and handling the calender timetable and incoming calls etc., whereas
the latter mainly refers to a relatively high-positioned
executive. Male persons doing the job of a _Sekreta"rin_ are never
referred to by this word, but only as _Sektreta"r_; female persons
occupying the position of said high executive are always referred to
by the masculine noun, never by _Sekreta"rin_. Here, language very
subtly reflects an underlying social inequality unfortunately still
extant in just about all societies of the world. This essentially
"chauvi"-biased assymmetry continues in the use of the feminine noun
_Tippse_, a pejorative word for neutral _Sekreta"rin_ (from the verb
_tippen_ "to type"). It is a standard "joke" in macho circles to
derogate a male stenographist/typist secretary by calling him a
_Tippse_. There is no masculine counterpart to this noun. This is
what one has as objectively existent phenomenon of language
(description). One might decide for oneself to avoid it in one's own
speech ("auto-prescription") and to recommend the same to others, but
that is ethics, not linguistics.

> "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?

Now, I think, you're confusing grammar with civil law. Prescription is
when you issue rules on what is grammatically correct and what is
not. If you write "the kat cought a maws" in a dictation, the teacher
my comment that with some red ink, implying the existence of some sort
of prescription on spelling. But when a lady decides to sue you for
libel, her lawyer would have to find a passage in the law or some
precedent court rulings to base that on. No grammatical rules,
prescriptive or otherwise, would do. In the US, it would finally have
to be Congress, I suppose, to decide such things, and the D.A. would
have to see to its enforcement? I'm not sure, ask Perry Mason. Don't
get me wrong: I do not advocate censorship, but suggest that people be
responsible for what they do or say. When they encroach upon some
unalienable rights of others, it cannot be wrong to hold them legally
responsible for that, can it?

> As a Linguist, I am outraged that you would suggest FORCING words into
> people's mouths!!! Who the heck are you????

I'm a linguist, somewhat taken aback by a Linguist's attempt to
forcibly put words I never uttered into my mouth. It was to keep words
OUT of people's mouths, when such words caused injury or oppression to
people. This is not because the words were ungrammatical, but because
they may have the same (or even worse or more lasting) effect on the
victims, than if one "merely" punched them in the nose. And there is a
law against that, isn't there? Do you know what a father does to an
adolescent daughter, when he calls her a whore? And there isn't even a
law against that, I think. Or would you really see that covered by the
right to freedom of speech? Freedom ends, where one encroaches upon
the freedom of others, would you not agree? But that too is not
linguistics, and you are of course welcome to an own opinion. In any
case, this wouldn't be the right place to argue the matter to the end
(supposing there were one). As for the linguistic aspect of the
problem, my opinion was (and is):

> 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.

I'm glad you didn't disagree with that.

> Language does not oppress. People's usage does.

Exactly! Otherwise it would be too easy: somebody got murdered? Sentence
the revolver to the grill (Hasta la vista, Baby!).

Re: Larry Horn's comment (7-522) to Mark Mandel's comment (7-429)
 to Waruno Mahdi (7-419):

Thus, in German, we find:

_Mitgift_ "dowry" (_Gift_ "that, which is given"),
 i.e. "that which is given along with (the bride)"

_Mitschu"ler_ "schoolfriend" (_Schu"ler_ "pupil, schoolchild")
 i.e. "he/she/it who attends the same school with (one)"

_Mitschu"ulerin_ "female schoolfriend"

But I actually thought that the humoristic intent behind something as
blatantly inappropriate as mid"husband" for mid"wife" (from an historical
linguistic point of view) would be obvious....

Re: Herman Teichert's comment (7-522) [to Waruno Mahdi (7-419)]:

> 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"?

My example was given in the concrete context:

> 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.

On the other hand:

 Wie heisst die Dame? Sie heisst Maria.
 "What is the lady's name? Her name is Maria."

Here, in turn, _es_ "it" would have been wrong, because _Dame_ "lady"
is feminine. When there is no preceding noun governing the gender of the
pronoun, one uses the grammatical gender corresponding to the physiological

 Wie heisst sie? Sie heisst Maria.
 "What is her name? Her name is Maria."

which, in turn, demonstrates the connection between the grammatical and
the physiological....

- ---------------------------------------------------------------------
Waruno Mahdi tel: +49 30 8413 5408
Faradayweg 4-6 fax: +49 30 8413 3155
14195 Berlin email:
Germany WWW:
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Message 2: Re: 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender

Date: Wed, 10 Apr 1996 18:36:54 BST
Subject: Re: 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender
Sean M. Witty schrieb:

>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.

German dictionaries are notoriously incomplete, as the german language
can easily form new nouns on existing ones. As a native speaker of
german I can only tell you, that `Ingenieurin' is indeed a commonly
used german word, and with more women taking engeneering, you will see
it more often and maybe lexicographers take note of it.

There is also an organisation of female engineers, called DIB
(Deutscher Ingenieurinnen-Bund) where the word occurs. Since engineers
used to be male (and are in overwhelming majority still are male), the
word `Ingenieur' clearly carries maleness.

- J"org Knappen.
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Message 3: Re: 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender

Date: Wed, 10 Apr 1996 10:54:31 CDT
From: Bernhard Rohrbacher <>
Subject: Re: 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender
>Date: Thu, 21 Mar 1996 11:30:24 PST
>From: (Sean M. Witty)
>Subject: Disc: Grammatical Gender and Feminism
>1. Reference: 7.419 -- Alexis Manaster Ramer
>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...

Indeed. And following the example set by Sean in this her posting, I
will start using the female pronoun when referring to (naturally) male
antecendents. It's the only way to go.

Bernhard Rohrbacher
Department of Cognitive & Linguistic Sciences
Box 1978, Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
phone: (401) 863 1053
FAX: (401) 863 2255
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Message 4: Re: 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender

Date: Wed, 10 Apr 1996 20:35:41 EDT
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Re: 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender
In response to Sean Witty (a misnomer?), I HAVE studied German and
have heard tell of that very abstruse category of neuter gender, but
the suggestion that one could avoid the problem under discussion by
making nouns like Ingenieur neuter seems to me much less likely to
succeed than any other option mentioned, since, despite the existence
of a few exceptions like Weib and Ma"dchen, neuter is not a category
that you can productively put nouns referring to persons into in
German, and especially not nouns that are suppoed to refer to males as
well as females such Ingenieur. And so the points I originally made
stand. I forget whose comments I was responding to, but as I recall
the question was why some German feminist language engineers try to
solve the problem by insisting that nouns like Ingenieur be used only
to refer to males and that nouns like Ingenieurin be used whenever
women are intended.
Although the effect is to increase rather than decrease the domain of
sex-specificity in the language, there really IS no other way to
proceed, PRECISELY because German does not have a grammatical category
which would be sex-neutral, the neuter gender being basically
restricted to reference to nonhumans (except for diminutives and some
ways of referring to women but not men).
The point here really is the sort of thing that Sapir and Whordf
(oops, Whorf) taught us so long ago (I do NOT mean that bowdlerized
monstrosity called the 'Sapir-Whorf hypothesis', which appears to have
been the creation of Hoijer and perhaps some other of Sapir's
less-than-worthy heirs, I mean the real work of Sapir and Whorf),
namely, that the grammatical categories of a language carry certain
definite semantic/pragmatic associations and are practically a
straitjacket, making the kind of change which some feminists would
like to see very very difficult.
Alexis Manaster Ramer
(By the way, I am saddened to see that, ever since I started
occasionally addressing issues of gender on this list, more and more
people who do not know me automatically assume that I am myself a
woman. Sorry to disappoint you, Sean. It's not Alexis ... she/her,
but rather Alexis ... he/him/his.)
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