Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gender: real and grammatical

Dave (a.k.a. Meindzai) directed me to this terrific NPR article, and asked me if I had any experience with the idea of grammatical gender interacting with real gender.

Oh, yes, indeed.

In case you haven't gone over to the article, I'll give you an idea of what it says: people who have grammatical gender in their languages will tend to describe nouns in ways that give them characteristics associated with actual physical genders.

I once read a study (and I wish I could now remember which one) that said that young children who spoke languages with grammatical gender were able to identify their own gender earlier than those who didn't. And, no surprise, children who were asked to assign voices to cartoon characters of objects would give male voices to the grammatically male objects, and female voices to the grammatically female objects. This was not the case with English-speaking kids who haven't had to develop such awareness.

Your native language fundamentally influences how you characterize objects and their relations to one another. For example, a picture is "on" the wall in English, but "up (op)" the wall in Dutch. If you ask friends who speak other languages, you'll be surprised how many tiny subtle differences you'll find.

It might be fascinating to consider putting this distinction, or some other seemingly arbitrary grammatical distinction, into a story. I'm guessing you could get cool misunderstandings, or even disasters similar to that resulting from English vs. metric measurement. I remember hearing that a famous linguist got his inspiration from the idea that words had power over thought, such as when people labeled gasoline cans as "empty" and people were negligent around them, believing they were safe when in fact the gasoline vapor made them far more dangerous around sparks than when they were full.

Feel free to comment, Dave (or anyone else!), if you'd like to further the discussion.


  1. I only have experience with Indo-European languages, having studied at various times Latin, Old English, Russian, French and Irish. As a Medievalist, of course, I also read Middle English. Can't recall offhand about irish, but all the other languages mentioned have grammatical gender. Even Middle English, though clearly in a transitional state and varying markedly from the early to the late period, retains gender, though by the end of the ME period this can be regarded as vestigial. In other words, it is my experience that Modern English is highly unusual in its lack of grammatical gender.

    Even so, vestages remain. The word 'child' is nutor in most languages, and it is not altogether uncommon still to hear the pronoun 'it' applied to 'child' in modern English. Also, ships and often machines in general are commonly referred to as 'she,' as are countries.

    Donno as I have a point here beyond that Modern English is definitely not the norm in the matter of grammatical gender. Also, if you study a foreign language, you very soon get used to the concept.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts Juliette! Also for your comment Catreona.

    For your typical English speaking American (me) learning a gendered language of course it's very weird to find that, for example, my (male) book is sitting on my (female) table. But I am curious in what way adding that dimension might enrich my experience of the world around me. I don't identify strongly with my gender on a consious level, but have whatever latent biases have been burned into my psyche over the years.

    I could see story potential in a culture that is as dogmatic about it's gender assignments to objects as we are about our gender assignments to human beings.

    More interesting (and thus far, fictitious) scenarios may include cultures with more than two genders, asexual cultures, and interactions between those cultures. Probably more of a backdrop than a whole story there.

    -Dave K

  3. I also saw a comment on the Analog board from Tom Ligon who noted that the characteristics associated with physical gender might vary widely for different species. Spiders or praying mantises for example would have very different ideas of females from human males.

  4. What about how some cultures tend to separate males and females to some form. From what some of my friends have told me, in orthodox judaism, they believe that men and women are not allowed to touch in public. Also during marriages they separate the men from the women into different rooms (and I believe in the muslim religion they do this for all gatherings). I may be off on the details, but what I'm getting at is the concept.

    What if this carries over into objects as well? Some set of arbitrary rules that men and women follow are atributed to objects with gender assignments as well. You can't place a book on a table because they are opposite genders. Something like that.

    I dunno, just a crazy thought I had while reading this post.

  5. Dave,

    First, please be careful to draw the distinction between male and female on the one hand and masculine and feminine on the other hand. Biological gender, sex, is male and female. Grammatical gender is masculine and feminine. Your book, masculine, is on your table, feminine. Do not inject biology into grammar.

    Second, a number of languages, i.e. Latin, Russian, Old English, have three genders. These are, as one might expect, masculine, feminine and neutor.

    I take it you're studying French, which has two genders, masculine and feminine. Believe me, it's not a big deal. Just go with it. As you learn vocab, you learn the gender of each noun and thus which pronouns to use with it. In my experience, gender in French is nowhere near as much of a PITA as the various accent marks. After a while, you'll barely even notice grammatical gender any more.

  6. Indeed, Juliette, in the animal world some females eat their mates. This wouldn't be a bad thing for some human males to remember. *smirk*

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  8. Please go easy on Dave, Catreona. Quite a few languages have only two genders, and the terminology doesn't obstruct his point. I think it is indeed an interesting backdrop for a story but probably not an entire story in itself.

    Colin, you have an intriguing idea there but it would certainly present a lot of problems if separation were the norm. The assignment of nouns to masculine or feminine gender is largely arbitrary (though things with natural gender tend to keep it). On the other hand, you can find other objects referred to as male and female in, in the area of plumbing spigots, for example. So if separation weren't the only possible option for masculine and feminine things, you could have a situation where various possible relations were influenced by grammar. In execution it would have to be made practical and plausible.

  9. Have to bring up the fact that, while there are many Indo-European languages with two or three genders, there are many other languages out there with different types of classifications which still behave very similarly. For example: (taken from Wikipedia, that bastion of academic excellence :)) Ojibwe classifies nouns as 'animate' or 'inanimate' (which are still arbitrary to a small extent); and Swahili has eight, nine, fifteen or sixteen diferent classes, depending on which Linguist you talk to.

  10. Definitely, Anon. Thank you for sharing your knowledge of Ojibwe and Swahili.

    Languages have many ways of making classifications and distinctions of this sort. Animate and inanimate remind me of Japanese - not that Japanese classifies nouns in this way, but it does have two different verbs "to be," one for animals and people, and one for inanimate objects. Japanese also has a long list of numeral suffixes which must match the type of nouns being counted: -hiki for small animals, -ko for small round things like eggs, -hon for cylindrical things, -mai for round flat things like plates and pizzas, etc.

    It's amazing how many classification systems there are out there.

  11. Hmmm. I hoped my comment went through *before* my computer crashed the other evening. Obviously, it didn't.

    Collin, your idea sounds most interesting, wild in fact. To pull it off, though, you'd need extremely detailed understanding of both your language and your culture. The two would have to be built up in tandum, it seems to me. The result would be fascinating to read; but, man, I wouldn't have the patience to construct that world!

    As to your other point: Yes, very conservative Jews and very conservative Muslems segregate men and women in many activities. Some old fashioned, conservative Christian sects (Conservative Friends, that is to say Quakers come to mind) still separate men and women during worship. A fictional culture that enforced sex segregation would not be wholly alian to the reader, then, but it would probably feel rather old fashioned.

  12. I'm working with a language I created that has genders of child, sibling/peer, and parent. I'd never thought of the way that people characterize objects is influenced by the gender assignment. Now, I'm a little befuddled as to how to dive into that, but very interesting proposition that.

  13. So, am I right in concluding that you are using generational "genders?" That *is* an interesting prospect. Are you thinking you'd like to start a general discussion on that topic? Because it would be fun. There would definitely be larger implications for such a "gender" system in terms of the categorization of objects, etc. since many things can be perceived as falling into generational categories.