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Genders in languages

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Alot
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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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Alot
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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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PostPosted: Sat 20 Jan, 2018  Reply with quote

Swedish and Dutch were the "less gendered" languages I learned, and I appreciate that. The distinction is more of gendered vs neutral as described above, rather than masculine vs feminine. So it's not actually important to know whether a gendered noun is male or female (assuming it is one or the other - I wonder if native speakers still learn if a noun is male or female?). I'm kind of awed about this now, at the thought that gender exists but the distinction isn't important.

Hi Obli, the thought of nonbinary communities makes sense, especially how you compare it to the English use of "they" and being shot down as ungrammatical. I actually came across a nonbinary community recently (English) and there were some discussions on alternative gender-neutral terms like "Renny" and other alternatives for mommy or daddy, or "nibling" for niece/nephew. It would be interesting to see how these things evolve, though I'm a bit afraid of how it would be accepted and if people would argue that there is no need for such a development.

As you mention other cultures, I also wonder what concept of gender is "natural". Obviously non binary people exist, but I still find it hard to completely understand the non binary concept.


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PostPosted: Sat 20 Jan, 2018  Reply with quote

Alot wrote:

As you mention other cultures, I also wonder what concept of gender is "natural". Obviously non binary people exist, but I still find it hard to completely understand the non binary concept.


So it's important to know that Gender and Sex are separate (not saying you don't, just establishing this so people aren't confused). Sex is the physiology someone has, gender identity is their feeling of being a man/woman/etc.

In general, we think of gender as a binary. So imagine a straight line. At one end, you have Feminine, at the other you have Masculine. People fall all over the line, so some are more masculine, some are more feminine. So using stereotypes, we might say that at the Feminine end of gender, we get painting your nails, doing make up, raising children. At the masculine end of gender, we get cars, sports, supporting a family by working, etc. But obviously some men stay at home and raise kids, paint their nails; inversely, some women love cars but hate make up, don't want to raise children, etc.

And basically that's how we think of the Male/Female binary of gender.

But what makes something masculine/feminine? Well that's defined based on our culture and society's views. Some cultures may have vastly different views of gender; hypothetically, you could have a culture where men are expected to raise children and women expected to work, where cars are feminine while the arts are considered masculine. Really, there could be any mixture of this.

Many think of blue as a boy's color, pink as a girl's. But in the early 20th century America, the reverse was in fact held to be true. Pink was energetic and represented masculinity, while blue was subdued and represented femininity. In fact, there was a bit of a miny war between these two opposing ideals of which gender was which color, and ultimately blue for boys, pink for girls won out. The origin of all this was competing marketing campaigns from early 20th century America.

And thus that straight line we talked about earlier isn't so straight. In fact, those "binary" ends are mostly (if not completely) defined by our culture. Consequently, a non-binary person has a gender that doesn't match up very well with what we think of as "binary." As pointed out, there are cultures that had third genders and various other things, probably because their idea of gender and the expectations of such were vastly different than our current culture.

So gender isn't really a line, but we as a culture generalize it to be one with masculine/feminine as the extremes, creating a binary system where you are various parts masculine/feminine.

I should note that while I've studied gender issues, my experience with non-binary is limited. This also doesn't cover gender identity, as that "feeling" of being a man, woman, or the various non-binary genders has a biological component to it, so gender is not totally a social concept. The view of gender I personally subscribe to is that gender itself is mostly a social construct, but gender identity is a biological one, and clearly the two have interplay, leading to the idea that gender must have some sort of biological component if gender identity does too.

So that was a long post, but basically I was just trying to help elucidate what Non-binary was to make it easier to understand. It's really only strange because of the way our current culture defines gender, which is as a binary, something not all cultures have done. While we "currently believe as a culture" that gender is a straight line with masculine/feminine endings, that's probably not the most accurate view of gender (I might be more inclined to picture gender as overlapping circles, where the masculine circle overlaps with the feminine, with the genderqueer, with agender, etc.).



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PostPosted: Sun 21 Jan, 2018  Reply with quote

I'm surprised Finnish hasn't been mentioned yet. We have one word for he and she, it's just "hÀn" no matter who you talk about.


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PostPosted: Sun 21 Jan, 2018  Reply with quote

Norwegian uses roughly the same gender system as Swedish. Every noun has a gender, which makes more or less sense.

The indefinite article in Norwegian has three forms: en (male) ei (female) and et (neutral). Norwegian has no definite article, instead we use an affix -en (male) -a (female) -et (neutral) This pattern is the same in every spoken Norwegian dialect, except for one!

Our oldest "official" written language form, bokmÄl, is actually adapted from Danish. This is because Norway was in an union with Denmark at the time when literacy became widespread in Norway. Danish doesn't have the same distinction between male and female gender. Because of this, old forms of bokmÄl use "en" og "-en" for both genders.

People who wanted to give an "upper class" impression started to imitate this in their speech. Some people still speak like this, especially older people in the Oslo region, but it sounds old fashioned to most of us now.



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PostPosted: Sat 03 Feb, 2018  Reply with quote

HeadInTheClouds wrote:
So it's important to know that Gender and Sex are separate (not saying you don't, just establishing this so people aren't confused). Sex is the physiology someone has, gender identity is their feeling of being a man/woman/etc.

I do know this, but I think when I first learned that, it was in the context of transgender, and still fell into the binary concept of gender. I also wouldn't define gender by preferences or any of those cultural stereotypes. A woman can like cars, dress like a man, etc, and still identify as a woman, and likewise a man can paint nails, wear make up and still identify as a man. Rather gender is just what a person identifies as, however this seems pretty vague and confusing.

I also wonder if a transgender person was born into a culture that accepted non-binary genders like male-females and female-males, if they would still have the need to change their body, or if they would be completely happy as-is just being themselves.

Letaali wrote:
I'm surprised Finnish hasn't been mentioned yet. We have one word for he and she, it's just "hÀn" no matter who you talk about.

Good that you've mentioned it now, it actually made me happy to learn that. Unfortunately Finnish wasn't one of the languages I'd started learning, and I just assumed it was also similar to Swedish and Norweigan due to the proximity of the countries, but now I see it's a completely different family.

Siiw wrote:
This pattern is the same in every spoken Norwegian dialect, except for one!

This is interesting. I haven't learned Norwegian either, but I did read from the Swedish thread that it was similar to Swedish. Didn't know that there was a different dialect. It seems odd though that BokmÄl is the version being offered on Duolingo if it's considered old fashioned.


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PostPosted: Sat 03 Feb, 2018  Reply with quote

Writing BokmÄl isn't considered old fashioned. It is our most common style of spelling. It has evolved over time, and the most conservative form is rarely seen anymore. *Speaking* it like it is written is, especially the conservative form. siiw


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PostPosted: Sun 04 Feb, 2018  Reply with quote

@Alot

Quote:
Rather gender is just what a person identifies as, however this seems pretty vague and confusing.


Well that's why that's called gender identity, and when you think about it, it is confusing. What makes us feel like a man/woman/non-binary gender? No clue honestly, but this is still separate from Gender. Gender is better perceived as how society is viewing gender and what's expected of people based off of their gender presentation. Whereas gender was more rigid previously, over the years it's become more fluid (so that women can work or men can take care of the kids; if you look at some countries, you can still see some very rigid gender roles enforced by their laws). And in this sense, many cis (and some trans) individuals want to make everything binary when it comes to what they think of or expect of gender, but in reality there's clearly more to gender than two rigid poles. But it's easier for people not familiar with non-binary to imagine everything as somehow male or somehow female and not somehow third or more category of gender.

Quote:
I also wonder if a transgender person was born into a culture that accepted non-binary genders like male-females and female-males, if they would still have the need to change their body, or if they would be completely happy as-is just being themselves.


If a transgender individual feels the need to change their body, then that would be irrelevant to their non-binary status. Many non-binary individuals may choose to undergo certain hormone treatments that are different from that of a binary trans person for instance. When your body feels wrong, it feels wrong. This is one of the reasons why sex/gender distinction is so important, as this kind of confusion will happen. There is physical dysphoria, and even with acceptance of non-binary, this would not change the fact that the individual in question has a mismatch between their body and their sex. Physical and gender dysphoria should be separated, as while they most often occur together, they are not the exact same thing either (the physical dysphoria is centered around your body not matching your gender, while the gender dysphoria is centered around how you or society see yourself as your actual gender). Theoretically (speaking in terms of binary because it's easier, but you can just apply a non-binary gender to the examples and it still works the same), a transwoman may just want a female body but be perfectly comfortable with being a man in day to day life, while another transwoman may want to be seen as a woman, but isn't comfortable with the idea of hormones, breasts, etc. and would rather use things like breastforms to compensate. Even if people accepted non-binary more, this still doesn't change the fact that the first transwoman simply wants a different body. At best, the transwomen in these two examples would feel less pressured to do either a social transition (in the case of the former) or a physical transition (as in the case of the latter), something that may currently be forced on them even if they didn't want it (namely in the case of the former, though friends, family, or unethical doctors in the case of the latter). Most typical transwomen will be a mixture of both, to where some want SRS and some don't, some want mild hormone treatment, others want the full dose, etc.

Hopefully I haven't lost you in that wall of text. But basically, if there were more acceptance of non-binary individuals, then I think three things would hold true for people transitioning: 1) Many more people who are trans would be likely to transition, as they may simply be slightly embarrassed/ashamed and not having to match a specific binary identity may help them make the first step (though these people would eventually transition fully as they are binary; it's just that not having to fully commit to one of the binaries, in a sense, might make people more comfortable with taking the first step, such as thinking they are gender-fluid before realizing they're binary). 2) Non-Binary individuals would physically transition far more frequently, as many may be scared to seek treatment for fear of being told they have to fit into the binary and that they can't transition into their non-binary selves. 3) Many transgender individuals may choose to not socially or physically transition as much as may be expected, perhaps taking things at a more comfortable pace than what is normally expected of them (such as HRT & SRS without social transition, or with minimal social transition).



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PostPosted: Sun 04 Feb, 2018  Reply with quote

I do not find this as any sort of an issue with anyone and especially not for the sake of the people who do not feel binary enough to choose either side on their daily routines.

In Serbian language you may well enough use the first person and remain completely neutral, and when referring to someone use the 2nd person and refer to them in a more formal and polite way. I'm pretty sure that this is the same thing in pretty much all languages since everyone have

- He
- She
- You

The only possible/plausible issue arises when a person refers to someone who considers himself/herself a non-binary person, in which case a common practice would be to simply call them by their chosen name and use the pronouns according to their chosen name. This is the most common practice.

What is definitely not a common practice is to hope that thousands of years of the history and language will somehow change to accompany and pamper the feelings of some people who feel that they're not part of the general system simply because it's currently politically manifested as the actuality and fueled by sensationalism governed by the major media and pushed forward by the propaganda which diminishes historical, biological and societal norms to appear as more understanding. I'm very glad that Europe and especially the Slavic countries are not at all going to actualize any changes to the history and linguistics just because someone's not feeling comfortable enough with the pronouns.


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PostPosted: Sun 04 Feb, 2018  Reply with quote

@HITC,

Thinking of it in terms of three dimensions helps make it clearer to me. I also tried searching a bit more after reading your response, and found this article that further goes into the three dimensions (body, identity, and expression).

HeadInTheClouds wrote:
If a transgender individual feels the need to change their body, then that would be irrelevant to their non-binary status.

I think I also agree with you there now, dysphoria being something separate from cultural effects.

The article also mentioned a bit about language:
genderspectrum wrote:
Naming our gender can be a complex and evolving matter. Because we are provided with limited language for gender, it may take a person quite some time to discover, or create, the language that best communicates their gender.

I guess that's the main effect of it, how rigid or how easily we are able to define and express ourselves.

-

Apsuanshar wrote:
I do not find this as any sort of an issue with anyone and especially not for the sake of the people who do not feel binary enough to choose either side on their daily routines.

I do feel alone in feeling this discomfort, which is probably a result of over thinking things.

Most languages do seem to have that pattern for pronouns - gender neutral first and second person, and he/she for third person. Generally, having gendered adjectives (which also applied to the first and second person) bothered me the most, with third person gendered pronouns being secondary, but workable, as you've described.

Apsuanshar wrote:
What is definitely not a common practice is to hope that thousands of years of the history and language will somehow change

I don't really hope for things to change, especially if it would cause more conflict or resentment. I can kind of relate with your sentiment actually, since I personally prefer traditional Chinese to simplified, having originally learned the former.

-

On a side note, most of my distress on this topic came from starting Memrise for languages with gendered adjectives. The exercises were more conversational and had things like "I'm tired (said by a man)" or "you're hungry (said to a woman)". Sticking to Duolingo with its random sentences felt better and I was able to go back to appreciating the peculiarities of each language.


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PostPosted: Sun 04 Feb, 2018  Reply with quote

Well, I think the last thing I really want to address here is that he/she is not actually a distinction that occurs in many languages, this stems from Indo-European and mostly European languages, which happen to rely heavily on male/female gender overall. Other language families don't do this, and in fact I believe the majority of languages don't. There's a website that actually has all of this data compiled to see what gender systems in languages (male/female, animate/inanimate) is most popular throughout the world's languages, but I've seem to forgot the actual website (if I remember it, I'll link it later). But basically what I'm trying to say is that because European languages are so over represented due to having the most speakers, we assume things they do represent most languages when in fact they are only a tiny sliver of the 6000+ languages that currently exist in our world.

Thus the 3rd person male/female gender problem (he/she) is, in fact, not a problem in many languages anyways. And I don't think trying to force language change will ever go over well, there are many cases were people have tried and failed (though cases in the case of marketing in the USA for example where they have succeeded), but language is here to describe humans and what we experience/observe. When it begins to fall short of that, we must naturally adapt with our language, and if there is not a complete outright rejection of non-binary individuals but rather acceptance, then things will naturally change in the language. Though it isn't probably because of non-binary individuals themselves, you can see this actively in English as "they" becomes a 3rd person singular/plural gender neutral pronoun, and personally I believe this trend is likely to continue until it is technically grammatical.



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