Clarifying one particular gender conversation

This post has been percolating in my head since the Worldcon 75 in Helsinki last August. My initial idea was quite a bit more ambitious — I have a note here which reads “Gender: cause or effect?” — but what was going to be the introductory section is probably the only part of it that I have something reasonable to write about.

Gender was, not surprisingly, an important thread in the conversation at Worldcon 75. There was even a panel (which I didn’t manage to attend) talking about how you deal with it in languages that don’t “have” gender, like Finnish, Turkish, and Chinese. But that made me want to write a little bit to try to clarify this discussion, because I think the words we use to talk about this particular aspect often make things more confusing rather than less. So this post is going to explore two questions: What do we mean when we say “gender” in the context of language, and what does it mean to say that a language “has” or “doesn’t have” it?

I should point out that I am coming at this from the perspective of an interested amateur, not a professional linguist by any means — but an amateur who has at least had the experience of trying to learn both French and Finnish. So don’t take any of what follows as gospel, but rather, a jumping-off point for further research if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

So what is “gender”, anyway? In linguistics, “gender” is a specialized form of what is more generally called “noun classification” — it’s just a historic fact that some languages (most but not all of them) divide their nouns up into categories. We generally reserve the term “gender” to refer specifically to those noun-classification systems that align more or less with the binary (masculine-feminine) or ternary (masculine-feminine-neuter) systems seen in Indo-European and Semitic languages (like English, Greek, and Hebrew), as opposed to those with a larger number of categories like the Bantu languages of Africa. It’s important to distinguish gender as a grammatical category from gender as a semantic category: because the “gender binary” is a near-universal part of human experience, all languages have words with semantic gender, words like “man”, “woman”, “father”, “daughter”, and so on (although not all languages have the same set — French distinguishes between male and female cousins, for example, whereas English does not). But even in languages with very strong grammatical gender, it’s by no means given that this will align with the semantic gender — as witness German, where many words that are semantically female (or at least feminine) are grammatically neuter or sometimes even masculine. (Historical linguists tell us that this is because the Indo-European three-gender system had collapsed to two genders before Germanic languages re-developed the modern neuter.)

So what then does it mean to say that a language “has” or “doesn’t have” grammatical gender (or indeed noun classification)? Grammar, roughly speaking, is how words fit together to form phrases and other multi-word structures, and also about how words refer to other words in context. For gender to be part of a language’s grammar, it must have some observable consequence on which words, or word forms, are allowed together in a sentence, or can be used to refer to the same thing. The most relevant property to look at is what English teachers usually call “agreement”, and linguists often call “concord”: the property that words that refer to the same thing must all come from the same class or be otherwise marked in the same way. English makes these considerations much less clear, because English has only the fractured remnants of its historic three-gender system, observable only in pronoun agreement, and not universally even then. But the Romance languages — those descended from Latin, like French, Spanish, and Romanian — all have a robust two-gender system (masculine and feminine) with mandatory concord for pronouns, determiners, adjectives, and participles. Semitic languages go one better: verbs agree in gender with their subjects. Unlike in English, Romance languages have gendered third-person plural pronouns: a group of portes (doors) in French are elles, but a group of stylos (pens), or indeed a group of mixed-gender objects, are ils.

Because of how English historically developed, acquiring pronouns from Old Norse and losing most of its inflectional system as England was invaded alternately from the north and from the south, we have no gender agreement for adjectives or articles any more (except, for a very few writers and the editors of The New Yorker, a very small set of adjectives borrowed from French: naïf/naïve, blond/blonde, brunet/brunette being the principal ones). English does continue to have two forms of gender concord for pronouns: the third-person singular he/she/it, which do not precisely correspond with the historic genders used in Old English or West Germanic, and a simple sentient/non-sentient system seen in the interrogative pronouns who/what and the relative pronouns who/which. (I don’t include “singular they” here because it acts grammatically identical to the third-person plural in all other respects — compare the much earlier “singular you”, which also takes a plural verb form.)

So what about those putative “genderless” languages? The only one that I have any direct knowledge of is Finnish, but I understand that all of the Uralic languages are the same in the most important way: there is no gender concord for adjectives or participles. These languages have no articles, so there is nothing to agree with there. But with pronouns it gets a bit more interesting. Finnish arguably has a two-gender system for personal pronouns: the sentient hän (singular)/he (plural), and the non-sentient se/ne. But (and it’s a big “but”), in regular spoken conversational Finnish (as opposed to newscaster or teach-to-confused-foreign-teenagers Finnish) these two categories are collapsed — to the “non-sentient” se/ne. I never learned the language well enough to express complex structures, but I suspect that there may be similar behavior in some of the relative pronouns. Away from Finnish, I know that there are languages that don’t have pronouns at all, but I don’t know how that set intersects with other means of marking gender or noun classification.

Another interesting part of this conversation here, albeit one that I’m not all that well prepared to discuss, is the question of languages with mandatory gender marking for names. As English users, we are accustomed to the idea that a personal name is just an arbitrary user-chosen token, and might at least in theory refer to any gender. Indeed, numerous names are gender-neutral or have, in living memory, actually changed their default gender. (“Robin” is perhaps the poster child here: previously a diminutive form of “Robert”, today most Robins are female and not a diminutive for anything.) That said, we are still familiar with gender-marked names, whether it’s “Alexander”/”Alexandra” (sharing the gender-neutral hypocoristics “Alex” and “Sandy”!) or “Robert”/”Roberta”. Numerous other pairs of names exist in the repertoire used by English speakers to name their children and their fictional characters. Some other cultures take this to an extreme, however: most or all names in Slavic languages, for example, are gender-marked — both given and family names, not to mention patronymics. Similarly, the patro/matronymics used in Icelandic names have mandatory gender marking, because (as with the Slavic patronymics) they contain an element that means either “son” or “daughter”, regardless of whether they use the father’s or mother’s name as the base.

One of the reasons this specifically came up at Worldcon 75, aside from the panel that I mentioned, is that because Finnish doesn’t have masculine or feminine nouns or pronouns, Finns sometimes have difficulty remembering the correct forms to use when speaking in English or other languages that do make such a distinction. This doesn’t mean that they are confused about the semantic gender of people (they can certainly distinguish miehet and naiset, after all), but rather, that the association of semantic and grammatical gender is weaker when speaking in a second (or third) language when one’s ambient tongue doesn’t make the same distinction. The Worldcon program included a note explaining this and asking attendees to be understanding if their hosts chose the wrong pronoun. (Which is perhaps the best case of all for those badge flags given out at cons indicating the holder’s desired pronoun.) It’s especially an issue for invented or nonce pronouns: it’s probably unreasonable to expect anyone other than the in-group of native speakers who adopted them to actually use or even make sense of them. Those who use such pronouns should take care to check their privilege (as speakers of a global hegemonic language) when dealing with non-native speakers, especially those whose native pronoun system doesn’t correspond to the English one.

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