LINGUIST List 7.419

Wed Mar 20 1996

Disc: Grammatical gender and feminism

Editor for this issue: Ljuba Veselinova <>


  • Alexis Manaster Ramer, Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan
  • Yishai Tobin, Gender switch
  • Michael Newman, Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan
  • Waruno Mahdi, Re: 7.395, Discussion: Grammatical gender and feminism

    Message 1: Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan

    Date: Thu, 14 Mar 1996 18:48:38 EST
    From: Alexis Manaster Ramer <amrCS.Wayne.EDU>
    Subject: Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan
    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. 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. 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. Alexis Manaster Ramer

    Message 2: Gender switch

    Date: Fri, 15 Mar 1996 09:00:11 +0300
    From: Yishai Tobin <>
    Subject: Gender switch

    This is indirectly related to the discussions of grammatical gender and feminimism that has been on the net recently. It seems, and this has been verified by my students, that the following phenomenon is taking root in Israeli speech, particularly among the young. Hebrew, as you probably know, has masc. and fem. gender marking not only for nouns, pronouns and adjectives but for verb tense morphology and numerals. Anyway, it seems that young men will address female friends and girlfriends using masculine pronouns and morphology as a sign of intimacy. Not only that, students have reported that they have witnessed the same phenomenon taking place in conversations between two close women friends addressing each other with masc. forms. I was not aware of this phenomenon but all my students were. One even mentioned that her boyfriend addresses her with masc. forms very frequently and switches to the fem. ones when they are arguing or disagreeing with each other. She also says that his entire family has noticed with and talked about it with them on several occasions. I would be interested in hearing about similar phenomena of gender switch as well and am aware of it, of course, in the gay community both as a sign of intimacy as well as its perjorative use.

    Professor Yishai Tobin Department of Foreign Literatures & Linguistics & Department of Behavioral Sciences Ben-Gurion University of the Negev P. O. Box 653 84 105 Be'er Sheva Israel

    fax: + - 972-7-472907 / + - 972-7-472932 office: + - 972-7-472047 home: + - 972-7-277950


    Message 3: Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan

    Date: Fri, 15 Mar 1996 09:57:04 EST
    From: Michael Newman <>
    Subject: Re: 7.395, Qs: Grammatical gender&feminism, Acronyms, Catalan
    With regards to Alan King's post on gender, it seems to me that there are two issues that, though they are related on a social level, need to be distinguished on a linguistic one.

    First,what feminists and fellow-travelers (pardon the expression) are concerned with is reference to people that looks like reference exclusively to males. This is strictly speaking a question of language use. It does not necessarily implicate the linguistic system. The second is is a complication that comes about when the system is implicated. The problem is that in some languages, particularly almost all IE ones, sex reference is (i) imperfectly mapped into grammatical gender (or vice versa) and (ii) the masculine gender is the unmarked one.

    The distinction can be seen comparing English with Spanish. In English there is only reference to sex, either lexically through words like son/daughter, derivationally through suffixes like -ess, through compounding "Irishman/woman," or pronominally, through 3s pronouns. There is no gender is simply that there are no grammatically determined agreement patterns, the way there are, say, for number. Thus, in English reference to sex is relatively straightforward, though, of course, not straighforward enough for the person who is determined to avoid sex-reference when using 3p pronouns. Also, there has been a tendency to eliminate sex-reference in derivational and compound forms. Intuitively, (I have no evidence) I think this is probably in part spontaneous and in part political. For example, forms such as "Scotsman" and so on sound more obsolete than sexist. Other forms such as poetess, hostess, waitress and so on have also disappeared or are disappearing, probably on sexist grounds. Negress and Jewess are offensive more on a racial than sexist level as is certainly the case of Chinaman/Chinawoman. (Unfortunately, that wierd English tendency to try to import foreign morphology has landed us with such clumsy terms as Latino/Latina, which go in precisely the opposite direction.) Now, note that the solution is towards neutralization either with the erstwhile male-reference form or a neologism. The male form is the chosen because it is the base form; (but what's happend with 'widow'?)

    Now, in gender languages the marking of sex is pervasive and at time grammatically demanded. As a joke, I used to tell Spanish friends that they should take make the plural "alumnos y alumnas," into "alumnes" This was received with horror, even as a joke. You cannot legislate grammar. Yet the status quo is not pretty if you want to evenhanded in reference. Once when translating with an Argentine lesbian feminist, my friend decided she had had enough with female invisibility and started "os/as"-ing and even "as/os"-ing all over the place. After the 5th "as/os" she gave up and we went back to the grammatical though sexist "-os" throughout. Aesthetics won out over fairness. The only hope is to wait for a process of vowel neutralization to kick in, something that, given the 1000 years or more of relative vowel stability in Spanish, may not be expected any time soon.

    Another solution is to use the feminine form as unmarked, at least at times, along the lines of default "she" in English that appears in academic articles and conference presentations. I know of a case where this was done in Catalan on during a doctoral defense in linguistics. The candidate passed. So maybe there's hope after all.

    Michael Newman

    Message 4: Re: 7.395, Discussion: Grammatical gender and feminism

    Date: Fri, 15 Mar 1996 22:34:37 +0100
    From: Waruno Mahdi <>
    Subject: Re: 7.395, Discussion: Grammatical gender and feminism
    On Thu, 14 Mar 1996, Alan R. King wrote: > Very rarely, I have seen an orthographic usage (presumably with no > spoken equivalent) consisting of employing the character to > represent a/o, so (e) would be spelt as in (e'): > > e'. tods ls otrs alumns implicads

    > I don't know if anyone has looked into the grammatical implications of this > convention, but it certainly looks... well, politically correct.

    A similar artificial (and not "officially" established, but nevertheless more widespread than -a in Spanish) procedure also exists in German, where one writes (note the capitalised "I" in the suffix):

    Wegen Krankheit mussten drei IngenieurInnen ersetzt werden.

    to mean:

    Wegen Krankheit mussten drei Ingenieure und Ingenieurinnen ersetzt werden.

    "Three male and female engineers had to be replaced due to illness"

    > Now comes my question. I have a native language (English) in which > the main (if not quite the only) linguistic difficulty for feminists > and pro-feminists (among whom I think I wish to include myself) is the > handling of third-person singular pronouns, which is troublesome > enough, as anyone who has tried to write in a consistently > "non-sexist" way knows for her/himself. So we're very lucky that, in > English, engineers are engineers and students are students, > irrespective of sex. Indeed, if we could only somehow eliminate the > gender distinction from that one darned pronominal contrast, it would > be almost plain sailing.

    The stress, of course, must be on "almost", note: actor/actress, heir/heiress, prince/princess etc. But as for the (implied) question itself, I find it important first of all to distinguish between grammatical gender and biological sex. They are without doubt massively interconnected, but nevertheless represent distinct categories. In German, diminutives are always neuter, as a result of which the words Maedchen "girl", Fraeulein "Miss, young lady" are not feminine, but neuter:

    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. Something similar we find in English with the word "child":

    How old is the child? It is five.

    The automatic assumption of masculinity does not hold here.

    Even in the context of biological sex, the existence of gender-distinct personal pronouns has not only negative aspects, but also positive ones. The cause against sexism is aimed against injustices based on inequal rights of persons according to sex, but I don't understand it to be aimed at eliminating what the French call "la difference". The world would otherwise become a dreary place indeed to live in. Is it not quite natural, that language tends to retain means by which to express those distinctions which contribute to livening up life? Perhaps that is one reason why gender distinction in English has persisted in nouns such as actor/actress, prince/princess, being associated with distinct emotional or symbolic connotations for the male and for the female speaker/listener/reader.

    This is perhaps also the reason why -- in spite of well-meant efforts to reduce gender-specific features in language -- one nevertheless comes accross seemingly needless instances of their retention or even innovation. Ships in English are usually referred to as "she" rather than "it". It is perhaps not by coincidence, that the bow of wooden ships were decorated with a (usually bare-breasted) female figurine, and only rarely with a male one. I understand that psychologists have connected this with the association in the male (sailor's) mind of "home/haven/fate" with a woman.

    In German, the female correspondent to male Polizist "policeman" is Polizistin "policewomen", but when the police in this country began employing female police with the specific task of writing out parking tickets, the emotional conflict in (male) drivers between anger at the ticket, and galantry towards the persons writing them, expressed itself linguistically in the creation of a new word for female police officer: Politesse, for which there is no masculine correspondent. The German police, at least with regard to its understanding of psychology of male drivers (more prone to wrong parking than the female of the species), has obviously proven here to be better than its reputation. 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.

    With regard 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); (2) 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. Wouldn't the contrary be like the elimination of purged politicians from official photographs as practiced by certain regimes? Apart from that, the relationship between means of expression and content in language, and between that and reality, is much more complex than language reformers are often aware of, and too energetic efforts on their part have sometimes shown alarming similarities with Newspeak in Orwell's "1984". This is not, however, to imply that the previous discusser may have had anything even distantly similar to such sombre developments in mind.

    Waruno Mahdi tel: +49 30 8413 5408 Faradayweg 4-6 fax: +49 30 8413 3155 14195 Berlin email: Germany WWW: