LINGUIST List 7.564

Tue Apr 16 1996

Disc: Grammatical Gender

Editor for this issue: T. Daniel Seely <>


  1. Richard DeArmond, Re: 7.557, Disc: Grammatical gender, re: 7.522 & 7.537
  2. Alexis Manaster Ramer, Gender gender
  3. "Jurij R. Lotoshko", Re 4-522, 7-537 & 7-557 Disc: Grammatical Gender and Feminism
  4. Waruno Mahdi, Re: Disc: Grammatical gender
  5. Ian Watering) (Ian Watering, Re: 7.557, Disc: Grammatical gender, re: 7.522 & 7.537

Message 1: Re: 7.557, Disc: Grammatical gender, re: 7.522 & 7.537

Date: Mon, 15 Apr 1996 00:33:16 PDT
From: Richard DeArmond <>
Subject: Re: 7.557, Disc: Grammatical gender, re: 7.522 & 7.537
A note on Hoffman's observation. 'It' is commonly used in some or most
N.American dialects to refer to animals that are not named. If they acquire
a name, there is a strong tendency to use 'he' or 'she' whichever is
1) As for Fido, he is a common mongrel.
2) ??As for Fido, it is a common mongrel.
3_ Look at that strange dog over there. It looks like a common mongrel.
 I find myself reluctant to use 'it' for babies even when the sex is
unknown. Either I avoid a pronoun or look for a clue or, dangerously, use
'he' or 'she'.
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Message 2: Gender gender

Date: Sun, 14 Apr 1996 23:17:30 EDT
From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
Subject: Gender gender
I would love to know if Mr. Witty can find even a single example
of a basic (i.e., not a derived diminutive) noun in German which
is neuter and which refers to a class of human beings containing
adult men and women equally and which could therefore serve as
a modek for his proposed *das Ingenieur. My point, which perhaps
I did not express clearly, is that German as a matter of principle
does not allow such a situation. There could perhaps be individual
lexical exceptions, although that would still not be enough to allow
a speaker to even dream of applying such a pattern productively
(much as the existence of the neuter noun Weib 'woman' is an
exception to another very general principle and does not make
it possible for speakers to experiment with making other nouns
referring to adult women neuter), but in this case I cannot think
of any such exceptions. It is the existence of such fundamental
principles in German (as in many other languages) that explain
quite straightforwardly why there can be feminists who want to
make der Ingenieur exclusively male and insist on die Ingenieurin
when female, but it is inconceivable that there should be
German feminists who would try to use the neuter, as Mr. Witty
Which also neatly brings me to the troubling question of whether
linguists should engage in language engineering (alias prescriptivism).
I tried to initiate a discussion of this very topic some months ago,
which did not get very far beyond revealing that most linguists
either think the answer is obviously yes or that it is obviously no
(whereas I think it is a highly qualified yes and by no means obvious).
BUT--in the case before us, that really is not (or at least NEED not)
be the issue. What we are saying can be taken as advice to potential
language engineers perhaps (but they do not need any advice, they
seem to be forging ahead on their own), but it can also be taken
as an attempt to explain why German feminists have, some of them,
started doing what they have started doing (and have not resorted
to other alternatives, such as 
(a) do away with gender altogether in German,
(b) merge the feminine and masc. genders into a single ("animate")
gender, as in much of Dutch and the Scandinavian languages, or
(c) use the neuter for nouns referring to adult human beings,
as Mr. Witty suggested.
Surely, without trying to prescribe or even counsel, we are entitled
to try to explain why speakers do what they do and not something else.
That's what I thought the question was that was originally posed
(sorry, I forget by whom) and to which I think my answer is still
the best (or perhaps only) one that has surfaced in this discussion
so far.
Alexis MR
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Message 3: Re 4-522, 7-537 & 7-557 Disc: Grammatical Gender and Feminism

Date: Tue, 16 Apr 1996 09:57:44 +0400
From: "Jurij R. Lotoshko" <>
Subject: Re 4-522, 7-537 & 7-557 Disc: Grammatical Gender and Feminism

Subject: Disc: Grammatical Gender and Feminism

Re: 7-522 to Sean M. Witty
>> A note about Russian. Russian has three genders as well, but it
>> also uses a special provision that allows for Pronouns of Ani-
>> mate Nouns to match for Sex. Thus, a noun like [papa], which is
>> declined as a Feminine Noun, is referred to by using Masculine
>> Pronouns.

Russian has three genders and common gender (see Lingvist list

>> When you divide Nouns into two categories, Animate and Inanima-
>> te, 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 spread:
>> 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

 It's very 'a lot more cumbersome' model for Russion grammar,
for Russian understanding.
 In Russian language for each words are important its own
grammatic categories. If you take only one of forms
personal Pronouns and try to find to it conformity in other
language, you infringe integrity of systems of both languages.
 For Russian language concept "Animate-Indefinit" not
accepted. All, that is uncertain, concerns to Neutr gender.
 In Russian language Pronauns of the third person "he" is
changed on genders. (Sing.: 'on'=3D he,it, 'ona'=3D she, it, 'ono'=3D
it; in Plur. for all genders - they).

>> 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], otherwi-
>> se, it remains [ona]. The equivalent in English would be to
>> call any Animate-Indefinite object [it]. There lies the prob-
>> lem...

 In Russian language a word 'sobaka' [dog] expresses sort,
kind attribute of all dogs (not depended from their sexual attri-
bute). But if the owner a dog wants to note a sexual attribute, on
question about sex a dog he will answer - "boy" or "girl" (termi-
nological designations of a sexual attribute of dogs - 'suka' =3D
[bitch] and "kobel'_" =3D [dog]. In colloquial language both these
words have negative konnotation).
 For Polish or Chechen languages kind word for all dogs (man's
and female sex) is a word 'pes' (m).

>> The fact that the 'base' form of a word is the Masculine form,
>> on ly holds true in Feminine nouns that are derived from Mascu-
>> line ones.

 Are yuo sure, that 'base' form of a word is the Masculine
form? Find the works Franch linguist A.Meje (don't sure in trans-
literation) about gender in sanscrit.

>> 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 gene-
>> rally resembles the Masculine .....

 In Russian language in similar design grammatic distinctions of a
sort can coincide

"Ja brosaju druga v bede' =3D=3D I throu the friend in denger.
"Ja brosaju tetrad' v ogon'" =3D=3D I threw notebook in fire.
"Ja zaper zenu, papu v s^kafu" =3D=3D I have locked the wife, farther
 in dress-room.
Re: Sean M. Witty comment (7.557)
>> I know of no Animate 3P pronouns in Russian, so the question is
>> moot. If anyone happens to know of any, please post them!

 You are right, there are no Animate 3P pronouns in Russian.
It's nonsense.

Re: Waruno Mahdi comment (7-537) Item 1
>> There are very few Russian neuter nouns denoting persons...

 This assertion deserves the Nobel premium. Please, publish
these words. It is news for me.
Re: Joel Hoffman comment (7.557)

>> 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" =3D "they (specific) people say"
>> while "govoryat" has the additional meaning of "they (e.g.,
>> unspecified people on the radio) say."

 The availability or =AE=E2=E1=E2=E3=E2=A2=A8=A5 =AC=A5=E1=E2=AE=A8=AC=
=A5=AD=A8=A9 in Russian sentences
is not connected with category of a gender. In Russian
language there are personal, Indefinite-personal and impersonal
sentences. A main principle of allocation is availability//inavai-
lability a subject (subject of the statement). For western slavic
languages such condition is away.
 If in Russian or English language in statement we should use
some words, in Chechen language it is enough one word. In Chechen
language are other grammatic laws.

English ------- It's rainig.
Russian ------- Idet doz^d' =3D=3D There is the rain.
Chechen ------- Prs^i.

 For Russian is very difficultly to determine a sexual fit-
ting, correlation first (proper) name -- person.
 The last sound (the letter) in word is the index of a gramma-
tic gender and according to sexual correlation.
 So such names as Keith, Seen, Waruno, Alexis and many other
can associate with any sex, but not with Neuter Gender.
 Although the words with -o (okno, Waruno) must be the words of
Neuter Gender.


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Message 4: Re: Disc: Grammatical gender

Date: Tue, 16 Apr 1996 13:04:11 +0200
From: Waruno Mahdi <>
Subject: Re: Disc: Grammatical gender
Re: Joel Hoffman's comment (7-557):

The problem lies in Sean Witty's original table:

> 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

We find two sets contrasted as Animate/Inanimate, each subdivided into
3 gender-contrasted singular and 1 plural term. Apart from the rather
problematic Animate/Inanimate contrast (which ignores the probably more
important Person/Non-Person contrast which is marked in Russian in the
accusative case of the singular), two different sets of gender categories
are used for each set: Male/Female/Indef. for the Animate, and
Masc./Fem./Neut. for the Inanimate. This is all very nice for the logic
of the matter, but what has it got to do with the grammar?

Let us inspect the two grammars separately: English does not have
either Inanimate-Masc. or Inanimate-Fem., so Inanimate-Neut. should be
renamed to Inanimate-Singular for the English list to begin with. But
in English the way I know it (perhaps dialectal differences exists?),
a ram and a ewe are both _it_, though animate. So the Non-Person
Animates belong together with the Inanimates, and the main contrast
becomes Person/Non-Person. The Animate-Indef. Has now become the
Person-Indef., and insofar as this is kept this way, I could agree
with your suggestion of placing _they_ in the slot for some
dialects (including the one you apparently are best familiar with).
In the instances you mentioned, I would have used _he_ in informal, or
_he_or_she_ in formal context (actually depending upon which of the two
would under given circumstances seem the more appropriate). As for my
suggesting _it_, I firstly replaced the "Indef." with "Neut." to account
for an existing feature of English, i.e. that _child_ and _baby_ take
_it_ (in the English I know of). You are right, of course, that one can
also see this as a reclassification as Non-Person (to remain with
my terminology), and we then have for English:

 Singular-Person-Male: he
 -Female: she
 -Unknown: he / he or she / they
 -Non-Person: it
 Plural: they

For Russian, the original table is also not quite adequate. There is the
problem that nouns like _papa_ "daddy", _djadja_ "uncle" are declined in
the same way as all other nouns ending in _-a_. That these latter are
feminine, does not mean that all nouns ending in -a are feminine.
The ending often permits "guessing" the gender of a Russian noun, but
not always. Thus, nouns ending (in the nominative singular) in _-tj_ or
in _-o_ can have different genders (these mainly involve inanimates).
This is also the case with nouns ending in _-a_ (but involving animates).
The gender of a noun in Russian is revealed by the gender form of
the adjective and some verb forms it governs.
In the problem of Person-Neut. nouns, the only ones I have in my immediate
recollection are those ending in _-lo_. They have a negative meaning, and
can be used in either individual or (more often) collective reference, and
are then "replaced" by either _on_ or _oni_ respectively, I believe to
remember. The table for Russian thus becomes:

 Singular-Masc.-Person: on
 -Non-Person: on
 -Fem.: ona
 -Neut-Person: on / oni (/ ono ?)
 -Non-Person: ono
 Plural: oni

The Person/Non-Person contrast in Singular-Masc. only manifests itself
in the ending of the accusative singular of nouns.

Re: Sean Witty's reply (7-557)

> Mahdi thinks wrong :)

You got that all mixed up, Sean :-)

> I am not confusing Grammar with Logic, simply asking why she thinks

Obsession of yours? Hate to have to disappoint you too then, it's a HE.

> that there should be "midhusband" in languages that have "midwife".

Cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die, but the thought never crossed my mind.
I merely wanted to indicate that in English too there are words for
female professionals for which there is no corresponding word for the
male representative of the same profession (i.e., not that it should
have, but that there's nothing unusual in its not having a macsuline
counterpart). In the case of German _Hebamme_ / English _midwife_
there is the additional paralellity in that both words are similarly
formed. For German _Amme_ "wetnurse" there is no adequate male
correspondent, just like for _wife_, which appears in _midwife_
not in the sense of "female spouse" (versus _husband_ "male spouse"),
but in that of German _Weib_ which is not quite the female correspondent
of _Mann_ (that being _Frau_). You're the one who likes to go into
logical "should-be"-s, such as (in 7-522):

> 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.

A very LOGICAL arguement indeed. But in GRAMMAR (well, the descriptive
kind at least) it is not what SHOULD be, but what IS, that counts.

> 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".

Wanna bet? Or is that another "should-be"?

> 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.

And when one talks about keeping people from committing armed robbery, this
is simply another way of saying one wishes to control what others do?

> Thus, KEEPING words out of the
> mouths of others, equates to PUTTING words into the mouths of others.

Who're you trying to kid. It's no your fault, of course, just your bad
luck perhaps that I'm from the generation that first put this sort of
mumbo-jumbo into circulation way back in the flower-power 60-s.

> Sure, she might not like being called a whore, and takes
> offense. So what?

Who's talking about liking or not liking. It's a matter of injuring,
causing lasting damage. When one can be made liable for injuries incurred
because somebody tripped over a loose tile before yone's front door, how
much more is the responsibility for mentally maiming a person for life,
for whose wellbeing one is actually responsible as parent?

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

You are insofar excused, that you claim to be a Linguist, not a psychiatrist.

Re: Jurij Lotoshko's replique:

> Re: Waruno Mahdi comment (7-537) Item 1
> >> There are very few Russian neuter nouns denoting persons...
> This assertion deserves the Nobel premium. Please, publish
> these words. It is news for me.

Aw shucks, how about _'bydlo_ and _ham'lo_ (where _'_ stands before the
stressed syllable), being pejorative references to people regarded by the
speaker as "lowly, slovenly, low-brow" and only fit for rough labour (the
former) or uncouth and coarse manners (the latter). There's another word,
which is not pejorative, and also is not used in collective reference,
but I'm not quite sure of the spelling: _dje'tjo_ (or is it _di'tjo_ ?)
"child", nor do I remember quite precisely anymore, whether the corresponding
pronoun to be used is _on_ or _ono_ (perhaps the latter?).
Um-mm, in any case, the address is: The Nobel Foundation,
Sturegatan 14, Box 5232, S-102 45 Stockholm, Sweden. :-)

- ---------------------------------------------------------------------
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 5: Re: 7.557, Disc: Grammatical gender, re: 7.522 & 7.537

Date: Tue, 16 Apr 1996 13:11:13 +0200
From: Ian Watering) (Ian Watering <>
Subject: Re: 7.557, Disc: Grammatical gender, re: 7.522 & 7.537
In the discussion on grammatical gender it has been pointed out that it is 
usually the masculine term that covers the indefinite, and that the 
masculine term is used as the "base" for the feminine. Thus prince-princess, 
conductor-conductress, lion-lioness etc. Where no such possibilities exist, 
recourse has been made to such terms as woman doctor, female bishop etc.

Exceptions to this men-first rule seem to be relatively few, pairs like 
bride-bridegroom, widow-widower. The fact that nursing and modelling have 
until recently been regarded as female professions has given us such awkward 
terms as male nurse and male model(?), though not male midwife - as yet.

We may of course deplore this state of affairs, where the language still 
reflects which sex was at one stage of greater economic consequence or value 
for the community. In the exceptional case of bride and widow, these may 
have been regarded as a greater financial burden (or boon?) and thus 
achieved a more central place in the language.
Might not this last process be at work in the world of domestic animals, 
where the female of the species gives us the term which is mostly used as 
the non-specialist common term for the sex which is most important 
economically? Most non-farmers would more likely refer to a duck, goose, cow 
or hen etc rather than the male equivalent simply because they are more 
"important" and more numerous. As for dogs and foxes, where no obvious 
economic advantages are associated with to the female animal, the masculine 
term is more common.
It's the same the whole world over, it's the rich wot gets the name!
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