LINGUIST List 7.557

Sun Apr 14 1996

Disc: Grammatical gender, re: 7.522 & 7.537

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Joel M. Hoffman, 7.537, Disc: Grammatical gender
  2. Ori Pomerantz, Reply to 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender
  3. Sean M. Witty, Grammatical Gender (ref: 7.537)

Message 1: 7.537, Disc: Grammatical gender

Date: Fri, 12 Apr 1996 17:51:00 EDT
From: Joel M. Hoffman <>
Subject: 7.537, Disc: Grammatical gender
>> 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 ?

I would suggest "they" for the Engligh Animate Indef, and "on" for the
Russian. In format Engligh, "he" is used for "they." E.g.:
"Someone left their bookbag lying around." or "Someone called me.
When they call back I'll ...." The use of "it" for animate subjects
such as babies and animals has to do with the reclassification of
these as non-animate, not the "default" pronoun system.

If the original intention was more along the lines of the French "on"
(i.e., "one" in formal English) again we use "they" in English, and in
Russian indeed the lack of a pronoun is used. So, e.g., "oni
govoryat" = "they (specific) people say" while "govoryat" has the
additional meaning of "they (e.g., unspecified people on the radio)

-Joel Hoffman
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Message 2: Reply to 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender

Date: Sat, 13 Apr 1996 21:37:01
From: Ori Pomerantz <>
Subject: Reply to 7.522, Disc: Grammatical gender

In 7.522 (Sean M. Witty) wrote:
> 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
> DEscription...

	At the risk of sounding like a complete neophyte (which I am), I'd 
like to ask who is better qualified to judge prescriptive grammer suggestions
than linguistics researchers. Obviously, some suggestions go "against the
grain" of the language and so would be impossible to adopt whereas others
can be almost natural additions.
	Whether or not there is a point in prescriptive grammer at all is,
of course, open for debate. But the fact that there is disagreement about
the subject means it is OPEN FOR DEBATE, not a closed case. 
	All languages are equal in that all languages use the same universal
grammer, but some languages are demonstratably better for some purposes
(and I dare anyone who thinks differently to discuss syntax trees in biblical
Hebrew with me) and some demonstratably encode different aspects of reality
than others (in Hebrew, for example, you could say a sentance which can be
either Present Simple or Present Progressive - in English I think you can't).

	- Ori Pomerantz
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Message 3: Grammatical Gender (ref: 7.537)

Date: Sat, 13 Apr 1996 20:56:45 PDT
From: Sean M. Witty <>
Subject: Grammatical Gender (ref: 7.537)
1. On an appropriate solution.

Again, I would dare state that, in my opinion, it is not our place to 
engage in directing the course of Language Evolution. Description 
means that we are in the business of describing, therefore we can only 
talk about the way things are and were. While each of us has our own 
conceptions for what language SHOULD look like, that's not our 
business. Personally, I agree with you. In a perfect world, with 
perfect usage, there is no Grammatical Gender. Sure would make 
learning languages easier :), but that's not my professional opinion.

2. The nasty 3P-Animate Indefinite pronoun.

When I presented my chart (7.522), I made it perfectly clear that there 
are representations of this pronoun, but that native speakers are not 
comfortable with any particular one. Rather than pull a Caxton, by 
using my own version, I refrained from listing one. Here's why:

 The child is crying.
 He is crying. (He being indefinite of sex)
 It is crying. (I have problems with this)

I know of no Animate 3P pronouns in Russian, so the question is moot. 
If anyone happens to know of any, please post them!

3. On the matter of Sexual dichotomy.

Mahdi thinks wrong :)
 I am not confusing Grammar with Logic, simply asking why she thinks 
that there should be "midhusband" in languages that have "midwife". My 
point was that if "der Ingenieur" can have Masculine Gender and cover 
Male/Indefinite Sex, why can't "die Hebamme" have Feminine Gender and 
cover Female/Indefinite Sex? Isn't that, after all, what these words 

NOTE: Interesting question (Mahdi): Why is one noun for an inanimate 
denotate feminine, and another one masculine in French? But not the 
same in German?

ANSWER: Because French comes from Latin, and German doesn't. Note 
these rules from Italian (barring exceptions):

>1. Names of male beings are masculine by nature.
>2. Names of female beings are feminine by nature.
>3. Nouns ending in -o are usually masculine.
>4. Nouns ending in -a are usually feminine.
>5. Nouns ending in -e can be either masculine or feminine.

German probably has rules similar to 3-5, but does not have rules 1 & 
2, except in cases where Nouns have been borrowed from other languages 
or created from verbs. Thus, "die Hebamme" takes its gender not 
because it's a woman, surely there is nothing in the word to indicate a 
woman, but from its Phonetics. Hence, a married woman is not "die 
Herrin" but rather "die Frau". But, a woman who teaches is "die 
Lehrerin" and a woman who is an architect is "die Architektin".

Generally, I would agree that it is more common to find Masculine terms 
covering the Indefinite. This is, after all, what is really at the 
heart of this discussion. Might I point out that this is not always 
the case (and rules really only apply when they are ALWAYS true). 

 I.E. Widow/Widower & Bride/Bridegroom

So I contend that this phenomenon is simply a coincindence. While this 
is a hard pill to swallow, it does a better job accounting for the 
above examples than anything else that I have heard.

4. Secretaries.

I do not hold the same definitions for these terms that Mahdi does. 
Sure, there is one definition that means "an administrative assistant", 
and since this a borrowed word in German there are two forms. There is 
also the meaning "a high ranking politician", which should also employ 
the two forms as well. In short, there is no Occupational Distinction 
that is implied when the Sex is changed. A woman who is a high ranking 
politician is still "die Sekretarin". Whether or not there are German 
women who actually hold these positions has nothing to do with the 

5. Forcing words into people's mouths.

By Mahdi's account, I'm rather confused. I assure you all that I am 
not! Semantics dictates that if something is going to be "enforced", a 
direct quote, then someone must do the enforcing. For such a 
suggestion to be made is wholly inappropriate. Words, in and of 
themselves, are not offensive. So, if I am being sued because I said 
that a person who was talking about something that they don't know 
anything about is "Kibbitzing", no offense has been rendered - the 
usage was appropriate. Yet, there are those who believe that this term 
is offensive. So, who is going to judge? Should someone be held 
accountable simply because someone else took offense at an innocent, 
but appropriate usage? I'm certain that the term "bitch", which most 
of us agree is offensive, at one time wasn't. The world is screwed up 
enough without the Language Police monitoring everything we say, OR a 
group of people running around sueing everyone else because they have a 
problem with the words others use.
 I didn't attribute anything to Mahdi that she herself did not say. 
She talked about enforcing PC, not me. When one talks about keeping 
words out of people's mouths, this is simply another way of saying that 
one wishes to control what others say. Thus, KEEPING words out of the 
mouths of others, equates to PUTTING words into the mouths of others. 
I have been hit in the nose, and I've had people say bad things about 
me. They are not the same thing. And, as for the Father and his 
daughter, he is not encroaching on her freedom, and is only wrong if 
his daughter isn't a whore. Frankly, I miss the connection the between 
a father calling his daughter a whore and the encroachment on her 
freedom. Sure, she might not like being called a whore, and takes 
offense. So what? 

Sticks and Stones might break my bones, but names will never hurt me...

6. Maria does not demonstrate what Mahdi says it does.

Is there any reason to preclude a name from having Gender? Is Maria 
not the feminine form of Mario (actually the other way around)? If a 
noun is simply nothing more that a name, and carries gender, names 
should likewise do the same thing. Thus, there are names with Feminine 
Gender, Masculine Gender, and Neuter Gender (usuable by both sexes).

This brings me to another point. For me, Alexis carries Feminine 
Gender, thus AMR was referred to as 'she'. I am fully aware of his 
being a Male from previous discussions on the list. I was simply 
matching for gender and not making a sexist generalisation (actually 
trying to prove a point).

7. Ingenieur/Ingenieurin.

Actually, I did find the feminine form in an old textbook. The bad 
news is that I have been informed by a German, German Professor, that 
the feminine form is NOT listed in the most recent edition of the 
Duden. So, as we can see, there is a large degree of confusion in this 
area, and I was not wrong to raise an eyebrow. Further, "Ingenieur", 
among other words, is a word that I don't believe to be native to 
German (see #3 above).

8. Alexis Manaster Ramer.

No, my name is not a misnomer. 
 I don't see the need for taking pock-shots at my 
name. To respond to his paultry claims...

A). I mentioned "das Ingenieur" as an alternative to degenderizing the 
language, and also to demonstrate the futility of doing so. The fact 
is that there are Animate Objects in German that carry Neuter Gender 
(Madchen, Kind, Junge [not boy], etc...). These are NOT exceptions as 
he calls them, but the data with which one must work. I merely 
suggested that the Indefinite Forms of dichotomic nouns use Neuter 
Gender (but I wasn't being prescriptive in doing so). An engineer who 
is known to be female is NEVER addressed in the German masculine. 

B). As for his claims regarding the German Neuter Gender, I seriously 
hope that "the Neuter Gender being basically restricted to reference to 
nonhumans..." is his own idea. If not, I'd love to hear his sources 
because that is so wrong...

C). Finally, he mentions " other way to proceed..." Where are we 

Sean M. Witty
Philadelphia, PA
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