Language and gender Part I : Is a football feminine?

European explorers claimed that men and women on the Carib Islands spoke entirely different languages. Talk about Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus! I have to say I am rather sceptical that there would be a tribe whose members spoke completely different languages. What the European settlers may have heard was a pidgin vernacular used by the men for trading with other tribes. Nevertheless, language and gender are a fascinating source of material for discussion. They may not be completely different, but some contemporary languages show patterns of different grammatical forms for men and women. In Japanese women say watishi for I, whereas men use the more abbreviated washi. In today’s post I am going to look at the fascinating relationship between language and gender

From the day we are born we are given names in almost all cultures, boys’ names can be distinguished from girls’. There are three typical differences:

  1. In English men’s names typically have fewer syllables,
  2. Men’s names are typically stressed on the first syllable, women’s names on the second.
  3. Women’s names tend to end in a vowel, men’s names in a consonant.

Many languages have arbitrary gender – their gender distinctions are grammatical quirks rather than directly linked to sex. A toothbrush is the masculine cepillo de dientes in Spanish, the feminine Zahnburste in German. If you look across languages you will find few overlaps in the gender that is assigned to objects.

The effects of linguistic gender on how people think have been a subject of investigation in recent years. I read about an advertising campaign sportswear featured a talking football. In the Brazilian Portuguese ad it had a woman’s voice, whereas in German it spoke with a man’s voice, reflecting the different gender of the word for football in the two languages. Can grammatical gender influence speakers’ cognitive processes when they’re speaking another language entirely? This is the question that Lena Boroditsky and her team of researchers looked at. Here is a summary of the experiment from Psychology Today:

They created a list of 24 objects that have opposite genders in Spanish and German; in each language, half of the objects were masculine and half were feminine. Speaking English and using materials written in English, the researchers asked a group of native Spanish speakers and a group of native German speakers —all of whom were proficient in English— to generate three adjectives for each item on the list.

Across the board, object gender influenced the participants’ judgments. For example, the word “key” is masculine in German and feminine in Spanish. German speakers in the study tended to describe keys as hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful. Spanish speakers, on the other hand, used words such as golden, intricate, little, lovely, and tiny when describing keys. The word “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. Sure enough, German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, strong, sturdy, and towering.

English used to have it, but gender tends to be unobtrusive in our language now. If you are meeting a friend in English you do not need to specify the gender of the person you are meeting. That is not the case with the Spanish amigo/a. Gender only affects pronouns he/she/it according to “natural” gender. We don’t make tables feminine and they could be masculine or feminine.

We do have such feminine endings as ess and ette, which came into English via French. However, these are going out of fashion now. There is something diminishing about them a kitchenette is a small kitchen. For instance, suffragette was initially coined by The Daily Mail as a derogatory term to describe the more radical and militant elements of the women’s suffrage movement. As often happens in these cases, the actual movement embraced the term. And the rest is GSCE History. Nowadays actress is still used but Hollywood prefers female actor. And nobody says authoress usherette or aviatrix. The suffix atrix, the female equivalent of ator, has been banished to the dungeon in recent years.

Where do I stand on such linguistic reforms? When it is possible, I am in favour of changing words. I think Ms as an alternative to Miss. or Mrs. is a healthy addition to the English language. Often these words will sound alien at first, but you soon get used to them. Police officer and fire fighter also make sense. But I do not like chair referring to a person. If someone says: “I had an argument with the chair before the meeting”, I may well doubt their sanity. Moreover, a language is an organism, which has grown up over hundreds of years with its imperfections. It is impossible to fix everything. We need to be aware of these biases, but we need to let them go sometimes. You never know if these stories are apocryphal, but there was said to have been a campaign by feminists to change the word HIStory to HERstory to purge it of its sexist bias. Its origins are Greek and have nothing to do with his or her.

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