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Genders in languages

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Genders in languages
PostPosted: Mon 18 Dec, 2017  Reply with quote

Since joining ld4all, I've started learning some languages for fun and out of interest, and the "genderedness" of many languages struck me.

(Tl;dr, genders in languages kind of bother me. I wonder if it subtly influences sexism and I wonder how non-binary people deal with all the importance put on gender.)

Grammatical gender

The first thing that stood out was grammatical gender, something absent in any of the languages I already knew (e.g. English). I first encountered this when learning Spanish and it was a big culture shock, but easy enough to get accustomed to. I did wonder why things like ties and razors were feminine when traditionally used by males, but it's easy enough to accept as a concept separate from actual gender.

Imbalance in gender rules

What kind of bothered me was how some rules were imbalanced, usually placing more distinction on masculine gendered nouns.

In Chinese, for example, there are three different terms for uncle, but only two for aunt. Father's-side uncles are differentiated between those older than the father and those younger the ones father, something not done for mother's-side uncles or aunts for either side.

In Polish, masculine genders are divided into masculine personal (people), masculine animate (e.g. animals), and masculine inanimate (objects). For feminine nouns, there's only one group. Polish also has two words for they, one which is used for any group which includes at least one male, and another for any group with no male (i.e. Groups with only female and/or neuter). Other languages also have similar concepts of "they". I found this kind of insulting to women, as if saying there was no distinction between women and animals or objects.

Again, I guess it's easy enough to accept as a separate concept from actual gender, but still it kind of bothers me. I also wonder if it subtly affects the way people think regarding actual genders.

Gender distinction

Third, I was bothered with gender distinction, something which does exist in English, with stuff like actor vs actress, and most prominent, he/she pronouns. It makes me kind of uncomfortable why different terms have to be used. Especially when using the female terms, it feels unnatural, like the term was invented for the sole purpose of giving distinction that this person is a female.

It surprised me to realize that English was actually the least gendered compared to other European languages. Learning that a simple phrase like "I'm tired" had to be said differently if you were a man vs if you were a woman struck me to the point of feeling discouraged about continuing to learn the language. Even Asian languages like Japanese or Korean have some aspects like this, though I don't know yet to what extent. It makes me wonder how non-binary people deal with everyday speaking. Or do they just naturally choose one? Does it work the same as English in that the masculine term becomes the default?

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PostPosted: Tue 19 Dec, 2017  Reply with quote

There's actually a lot of interesting info on this stuff in linguistics, I'm sure you could find some good books on the subject. My memory of linguistics is rusty at the moment, but many of these things aren't nearly as sexist as they may seem. In particular, grammatical gender is often more of a "sorting" system from what I recall, and helps mark certain discourse syntax in language. In fact, "gender" in languages like Spanish is better termed as Noun Classes. Many languages have Noun Classes, the biggest one aside from Gender being Animate/Inanimate (actually might be more languages than this). The European languages, in general, are more heavily focused on that type of Gender marking. Just take a look at Navajo. I believe that one has some crazy amount of Noun Classes (which are what Gender is in languages like Spanish, where the word's inflection changes based off the gender).

I believe they have shown that gender in languages that assign it like Spanish, such as to tables or tvs, does affect speaker perceptions of something being more masculine or feminine, but I'm not a 100% sure on that, and I don't believe it's very significant.

For gender referring to family terms, such as your Chinese example, I would speculate this does come from a patriarchal view of society. You likely see such distinctions because they were considered important enough, but this may not also be the case. Language change can be kind of odd and leave remnants of things that you would otherwise not expect (such as marked case in English, who vs whom, I vs Me).

As for the gender distinction in English, I think a lot of the masculine terms were originally gender neutral, and then people started adding feminine inflections to them. For instance, at least in my opinion as an English speaker, you could refer to both men and women as actors, but only women as actresses. In fact, from when and where I grew up, aside from feminist talks and the like, it has never been unusual to use "male" terms for both men and women, it's more like a gender neutral word, vs the feminine ones that are specifically only for women. English has also responded to the need for a gender neutral pronoun, as "they" has been adopted in the singular by most English speakers as a gender neutral third person pronoun. It isn't "officially" this yet, but it's definitely on it's way, if not already part of the language. My experience with non-binary individuals is that they either prefer "they" or they like your to switch between "he" or "she" depending on mood/context. There are others who may want some other form of pronoun, but I think for the most part this covers many of them. I've even seen some want "it" used, though "it" implies something is inanimate, and thus considered demeaning by many. Thus, we may eventually see "it" become an acceptable gender neutral animate pronoun in English, but I would speculate it won't because of "they" and it's popular usage.

Also, to add on to the discussion of gender, there are a few languages that you may be curious about. For instance, Japanese women used to have to use a different writing system than men (this is why there is both Katakana & Hiragana if I recall correctly). There are also aboriginal languages where the women have their own version of the language they have to speak (and I think one of them even has an additional form for speaking with mother in laws, but I'm not sure on that one).

Overall, a lot of the heavy focus on Gender from a grammatical perspective is clustered in the Indo-European languages, and particularly in the more popular European languages. This does not mean it doesn't occur elsewhere, just that it's heavily focused in a small sample of the world's languages that just happen to be some of the most spoken languages.

Also, and this is super important, I'm very rusty on all of this. But look into some linguistic textbooks on gender, or even investigate conlanging a bit. It's covered quite in depth, and you can even ask some questions on the conlanaging forums about how gender works in certain languages, why it's there, etc.

Language is extremely complex and beautiful, and why there are certainly effects from gender in language, their origins can be surprising when investigated and may actually serve a different purpose than what you imagine.

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PostPosted: Sun 24 Dec, 2017  Reply with quote

Thanks for your reply smile

I guess I feel unnaturally bothered by genderendess in languages, like most people don't even think about it. It took some time for me to separate it as something mostly grammatical.

With English, I think I also learned masculine terms as a default for being gender neutral, like using "man" for "human" and "he" as a pronoun for "one". I also use "they" if I don't know someone's gender or prefer to keep it ambiguous, unless it makes the sentences confusing (in which case I succumb to using "he" or "she", or try to rephrase the sentence all together).

On non-binary, I was wondering more about other languages. I once tried out a new vocabulary word only to be corrected by a native speaker for using the wrong gendered verb. I want to be grammatically correct, but I also want to be able to be gender neutral, which seems impossible in romance languages for example, unless they also accept the masculine or feminine terms to be gender neutral.

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PostPosted: Sun 14 Jan, 2018  Reply with quote

In Swedish we don't really have any "gender" forms - at least not in the sense that we call them masculine or feminine forms, although those kinds of forms did exist in old Swedish.
What we have instead are forms called utrum and neutrum, which determine things like how to say "a"/"an" and what the definite form will look like.
Simply put, nouns that belong to the utrum form use the count word "en" ("en bok" = "a book", "en person" = "a person" etc), whereas those that belong to the neutrum form use "ett" ("ett hus" = "a house", "ett fönster" = "a window" etc).
The N and T nature of those count words will also be reflected in the definite forms (Swedish uses suffixes to show definite forms instead of a word like "the"), so "the book" will become "boken", "the house" will become "huset" and so on.
But for some reason the definite plural form of neutrum nouns uses "-en", so "the houses" will become "husen", and "the windows" will become "fönstren" ("fönster-" changes to "fönstr-" to make the word easier to pronounce), which is a bit confusing and inconsistent.
It's kind of a mess, and pretty much requires memorisation, but there are some clues that are fairly useful, like for example most animate objects and words that end with
"-a" tend to be utrum nouns (most of the time), and nouns that remain unchanged in the indefinite plural form are mostly neutrum nouns.

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Re: Genders in languages
PostPosted: Mon 15 Jan, 2018  Reply with quote

hi Alot! its a good question. most languages have nonbinary communities online somewhere who are deeply discussing the challenges of their own language but its hard to find because its not translated and not necessarily mainstream. i would guess that in every language the solutions nonbinary speakers find will be shot down as "ungrammatical" by their fellow speakers just as many english speakers call "they" ungrammatical, sometimes innocently but sometimes with the intention of stifling nonconforming language and expression.

although japan has a thriving non gender conforming subculture so you might have some luck there. i would guess french is also likely to have at least some serious nonbinary linguistic criticism in english translation.

there are some native cultures in the americas where gender was never considered binary to begin with and have very interesting sets of pronouns smile unfortunately theres so few speakers remaining of many of these languages that living speakers much less a living nonbinary community of speakers is difficult to find meh

let us know if you find anything interesting :D

and thanks for the info on swedish Laurelindo! its interesting to see an example of different forms that doesnt rely on gender. i get that categorizing words is useful to the brain but gender seems like a strange thing to pick. cool that its not universal. now im curious what other ways of categorizing words a language could use!

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