By Steve Melnikoff


2010-09-03 23:15:27 8 Comments

English nouns which don't denote people or animals with natural gender do not (apart from a few rare examples) use grammatical gender. So for example, "table" is always an "it" in English, whereas it could be masculine or feminine in another language.

So, is English missing out by not using genders in this way? If so, are there sentences which cannot be translated into English without losing some of their meaning?

8 comments

@nohat 2010-09-03 23:36:59

This isn’t really an answer to the question, but I wanted to point out that grammatical gender is but one type of noun class system, and non-Indo-European languages often have completely different and far more complex systems of noun classes. One example from the Wikipedia article on noun classes,

The Dyirbal language is well known for its system of four noun classes, which tend to be divided along the following semantic lines:
I — animate objects, men
II — women, water, fire, violence
III — edible fruit and vegetables
IV — miscellaneous (includes things not classifiable in the first three)

Which brings to mind Borges’s “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’s Taxonomy”:

These ambiguities, redundancies, and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia called the Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. In its distant pages it is written that animals are divided into
(a) those that belong to the emperor;
(b) embalmed ones;
(c) those that are trained;
(d) suckling pigs;
(e) mermaids;
(f) fabulous ones;
(g) stray dogs;
(h) those that are included in this classification;
(i) those that tremble as if they were mad;
(j) innumerable ones;
(k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush;
(l) etcetera;
(m) those that have just broken the flower vase;
(n) those that at a distance resemble flies

The linguist George Lakoff discussed Borges in view of Dyirbal in his book Women, Fire and Dangerous Things:

Borges of course, deals with the fantastic. These not only are not natural human cateogires—they could not be natural human categories. But part of what makes this passage art, rather than mere fantasy, is that it comes close to the impression a Western reader gets when reading descriptions of nonwestern languages and cultures. The fact is that people around the world categorize things in ways that both boggle the Western mind and stump Western linguists and antropologists.

This brings me back to original question—what a strange idea it is to me, as a native English speaker, that one would assign gender to inanimate objects.

@Steve Melnikoff 2010-09-03 23:54:23

I totally agree with your last statement! One of the things I found hardest about learning French and German was trying to remember the genders of nouns, as the concept never made any sense to me.

@ShreevatsaR 2010-09-04 07:32:43

@Steve: See Mark Twain's hilarious "The Awful German Language".

@kiamlaluno 2010-09-04 13:15:45

Some languages has a grammar gender that is used to simplify the grammar rules. For example, the article for tavolo (table) is il because il is the article used for "masculine" nouns, and tavolo is a "masculine" noun; we then write la eco (the echo) because Eco is the name of a muse who was condemned to repeat the words said by others, and la is the "feminine" article (a muse was a woman).

@Steve Melnikoff 2010-09-04 22:35:02

@kiamlaluno: but how does making the word for "table" masculine simplify anything? Why is it masculine, as opposed to feminine? It always seemed terribly arbitrary to me, and hence hard to remember.

@kiamlaluno 2010-09-04 22:48:35

@Steve Melnikoff: The rule is about concordance of grammar gender between noun, and article; with that, I can say what the article for Euro (the currency) is, even if the word didn't exist before (lo, "masculine" article). In English, you could say that is arbitrary to add -ed to form the past participle; you could say that it is also arbitrary that some verbs are irregular.

@Marthaª 2010-10-05 18:56:03

@kiamlaluno, you haven't explained how that isn't completely and totally arbitrary. Why should currency be masculine? What about it says "male"? Does it have male organs hiding somewhere? Can it father children?

@kiamlaluno 2010-10-05 21:30:07

It is arbitrary as it is arbitrary any grammatical rule. Do you feel less arbitrary to use -ing as suffix for the gerund? Grammatical gender is not in any way related with the gender assigned to animals.

@Marthaª 2010-10-06 04:34:21

Ok, so how does grammatical gender "simplify the grammar rules"?

@Claudiu 2010-10-12 19:16:10

@kiamlaluno: some languages like German have no rhyme or reason to their genders, though. it's also interesting to note that people spoke this way before linguists ever started calling nouns masculine and feminine. I speak Romanian natively, and it just "sounds good" if you use the right gender for the word, and "sounds bad" if you don't.

@James Waldby - jwpat7 2012-02-17 01:31:58

@Marthaª, it appears kiamlaluno never got around to mentioning that Italian nouns ending in -o are masculine, and nouns ending in -a are feminine, generally. Thus it is less arbitrary for tavolo and Euro to be masculine rather than feminine nouns. For the la Eco exception, apparently we are supposed to know a muse was a woman, perhaps by analogy to the Muses, the nine goddesses of the liberal arts.

@bye 2014-03-23 11:30:54

It's a mistake, really, to equate "gender" with sex. (The word is cognate with genre, and simply means "kind" or "sort".) It happens that in some languages (notably Indo-European languages) gender classification tracks sex closely for certain classes of words, to the point that we can speak of masculine, feminine and neuter. Other languages worry about whether things are human, beast, bird, rock, and so on; some assign gender by shape. Gender is merely grammatical despite its use as a euphemism for sex (which became taboo only because it was used as a euphemism for other things).

@Andreas Blass 2014-03-24 01:11:50

To amplify @bye's comment that gender need not match sex: In German, diminutive nouns are have neuter gender, even if they denote a person of definite sex. Examples: das Mädchen, das Knäblein

@Martin Marconcini 2010-09-06 10:38:18

When speaking English, I often find myself having to add female/male or even names to help the listener understand that I’m talking about a man or a woman. In English you can’t just say: “I have a new friend” because the listener has no idea if it is a male or a female (not that it always matters, but still…).

This type of confusion can be seen among new English students (that speak Spanish), as they are not sure if it’s he or she. This is a small example in a sea of situations that can arise from the lack of gender in the English language.

@Colin Fine 2010-10-05 16:38:56

But native English speakers get along well enough without making the distinction, unless they need to. Rather the way that you can hardly say anything in any European language without deciding whether you are talking about one or many; so Europeans who learn Chinese or Japanese are sometimes uncomfortable without making the distinction, while native speakers will only make the distinction if they have to.

@psmears 2011-03-16 21:51:57

@Colin Fine: I find myself doing a similar thing while attempting to speak (Egyptian) Arabic. When saying something like "I want xxx", native speakers commonly omit the pronoun. This is common to many languages ("pro-drop"), and is something I'm used to (e.g. from Latin), taking the implicit subject from the verb ending. Here, however, the verb form here is actually a participle, and so carries no implicit subject at all - the same word is used for "I/you/he want(s)" (assuming all three people are male), or "I/you/she" (if all are female). I do feel uncomfortable not putting that pronoun in...

@Owen Blacker 2011-06-04 11:32:59

I can think of a relatively dull example. I used to work for an agency that built the websites for Marks & Spencer.

Whilst I was working there, M&S introduced a new range of women's clothes called Per Una and it really used to bother me that they struggled to translate it elegantly — they generally used For One Woman, whereas I think For Her would have been a more elegant translation, personally.

@Kim 2010-10-05 17:36:55

One example from German literature that would be very hard to translate accurately is "das Mensch". It is grammatically incorrect on purpose. "Mensch" is male, not neuter. The intended meaning is that this person is a mere thing and not a real human being.

@Colin Fine 2010-10-05 16:41:52

"Cosí fan tutte" (Title of an opera by Mozart). A concise English translation is "That's what they all do" - except that this does not convey that it is all females only.

@Cees Timmerman 2014-03-18 17:26:24

"Like all fangirls."

@RegDwigнt 2010-09-03 23:53:02

Well, obviously you can't translate many things literally, as you would constantly end up with sentences such as "it gave it to it" in English, where in the source language with genders you have a perfectly clear "she gave it to him".

However, there are usually easy ways around this, the most obvious one being: kick out the pronouns and replace them with nouns. "The cat gave it to the kitten." If anything, you gain meaning by doing that (though you might waste quite a few syllables if you're translating a poem).

To me, this question sounds a lot like "How could one possibly translate from English to a language that doesn't have articles?" To which any professional translator should answer: "Without breaking a sweat".

[Disclaimer: I am a native speaker of two languages, one with genders but without articles, and one with genders and articles.]


Edit.

Here's an example I should have thought of right away. It is still not quite what you are looking for, but I'm getting closer step by step.

Imagine any TV show where several candidates compete for whatever the prize is. The host is about to announce who is going to proceed to the next round. He says, "I have good news for one of you", or "The last one to reach the final is...", or something to that extent. Now, in many languages with genders he could give a subtle hint by using either the female or the male form of "one" (un/une, einer/eine, один/одна, um/uma, etc.). In English, the equivalent would be something along the lines of "I have good news for a male candidate", or "The last one to reach the final is a female, and her name is...". Which, of course, wouldn't be anywhere as succinct, and not subtle at all. The closest you could get to that kind of hint in English would be "I have good news for you guys", or "The last one of you gals to reach the final is...", but that still doesn't quite cut it (even if we ignore for a moment that guys does not necessarily refer to males).

In fact, in order to avoid giving any hints accidentally, in those languages it is quite common for the host to say "I have good news for one or one of you", or "The last one or one to reach the final is...", where the first one is the male form, and the second one is the female form. When translating that into English, you'd just drop one of the ones, so that one or one become one — which, of course, is more succinct without losing meaning, but the original expression is not really translatable "as is".


Edit 2.

Here's yet another example.

In German, a language with grammatical genders, there is quite a lot of confusion going on whenever you want to say that Angela Merkel is the first chancellor to do something. Normally, Angela Merkel is referred to as die Bundeskanzlerin, a female form of the noun der Bundeskanzler, or "female chancellor" for short. So, naturally, the first thing you try is "Angela Merkel ist die erste Bundeskanzlerin, die X macht" ("Angela Merkel is the first female chancellor to do X"). However, that sounds kind of pointless, because Merkel is the first female chancellor ever, so no matter what she does, she can't help being the first female chancellor to do it.

In order to avoid that pointlessness, journalists sometimes use the male form of chancellor: "Angela Merkel is der erste Bundeskanzler...". Grammatically, this is probably the most sensible thing to do. However, to many Germans this sounds strange, and even funny, much like saying "Angela Merkel is the first man to do X".

In order to avoid that confusion, some political commentators bring the adjective weiblich ("female") into the equation: "Angela Merkel ist der erste weibliche Kanzler, der X macht". However, this brings us right back to where we started ("Merkel is the first female chancellor to do X"), in addition to introducing yet another bit of humor, because the sentence now reads much like "Merkel is the first female man to do X".

As if that weren't enough already, some political commentators completely overdo it by using both the adjective "female" and the female noun, as in "Angela Merkel ist die erste weibliche Bundeskanzlerin, die..." ("Merkel is the first female female chancellor to..."). This, of course, is the most stupid thing they could possibly do, but it's also the funniest, since it sounds much like "Angela Merkel is the first female woman to do X".

I am fairly confident I could come up with lots of similar examples in other languages with grammatical genders (say, French or Russian). By not having genders, English completely avoids that type of confusion, but it also misses out on all the humor associated with it.

@Steve Melnikoff 2010-09-03 23:56:48

Sorry if I wasn't clear. What I was aiming at is if there are examples of sentences where the gender conveys some meaning which cannot be expressed in English as succinctly.

@RegDwigнt 2010-09-04 00:07:02

@Steve: you were perfectly clear, it's just that you caught me off guard and I don't seem to be able to come up with any examples right now. But they certainly do exist, as do examples of English sentences where an article conveys some meaning which cannot be expressed quite as succinctly in a language without articles.

@ShreevatsaR 2010-09-06 10:41:16

+1 for the great examples, even though they are all in the wrong direction (they're examples where English is better) :-)

@Bruno Reis 2012-10-24 08:19:12

Brilliant answer!

@E.P. 2014-03-24 15:14:13

How about "We have a winner, and her name is..." for a hint-dropping example?

@Seamus 2010-09-04 20:33:51

There's a joke in French that it's pretty much impossible to translate into English because of this problem:

So one guy says to another "Regard, le mouche". The other guy replies "C'est la mouche". The first guy turns, impressed: "You've got good eyes."

OK. It's not a great loss to the English language, but still...

@Peter Eisentraut 2010-09-04 21:05:29

Isn't the first "mouche" a verb?

@Seamus 2010-09-04 22:07:03

No. "Look at the fly", basically. Is "mouche" even a French verb?

@RegDwigнt 2010-09-06 12:28:38

"Mouche" is a form of the verb "moucher". The fly is "la mouche".

@Seamus 2010-09-06 13:43:07

That is the joke. Jeez... The second guy corrects him...

@Claudiu 2010-10-12 19:11:55

lol, pretty punny

@Urbycoz 2012-08-15 07:21:10

But why did the first guy start talking English at the end? :-P

@Michel Fioc 2017-04-13 10:13:14

It should be "Regarde" (imperative), not "Regard" (noun).

@e.James 2010-09-04 04:49:36

This article gives a number of possible answers:

In 1994, the city of Buchholz had to put up with this reproach from the local newspaper, the Oldenburgische Volkszeitung. The 34,000 inhabitants of this small community had resolved that, henceforth, all official documents would use only the feminine grammatical form. The mayor Joachim Schleif became the butt of the media’s language hysteria

[...]

Again and again, grotesque new locutions were used so as to make gender-sensitive language ridiculous. Now Mitglieder (members) and Mitgliederinnen( [“members” in the feminine grammatical form) appeared at meetings, Grüninnen (member of the Green party in the feminine grammatical form; something like “she-Green”) pursued a sustainable politics, and suddenly one spoke even of Menschinnen (feminine grammatical form of the generic noun for “human beings”), Bürgerinnensteigen (pun, using the feminine grammatical form for the German word for “pavement”) Nichtraucherinnenabteilen (“non-smoking compartment” in the feminine grammatical form), Amtsmänninnen (“office-holder” in the feminine grammatical form) and Erstsemestlerinnen (“freshwomen”).

In these cases, the feminine grammatical gender is used improperly in order to create humor. In the native language, where the correct gender is obvious, the humor is obvious. In English, the joke requires additional explanation.

@Peter Eisentraut 2010-09-04 21:00:47

While quite funny, this isn't a matter of grammatical gender.

@e.James 2010-09-05 07:42:37

Ah, do I have the wrong notion of what grammatical gender is? That's entirely possible. Is there a short definition? Wikipedia is rather vague on the topic.

@Claudiu 2010-10-12 19:18:41

this is a matter of political correctness being taken to ridiculous extremes. in English we have some of this, and some writers use "she" to refer to a generic person instead of "he" (we also have spellings of women like "womyn" to not have the "man"/"men" in it). in German since gender is a part of the grammar, though, it seems like you can take it to much further extremes.

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