Volume 11, No. 2 
April 2007

Gabe Bokor
  Translation Journal

Nuts & Bolts


Gender and Language

by Gabe Bokor


f your mother tongue fails to assign a gender to inanimate (or even animate) objects, you cannot help but wonder why, for example, Germans assign three different genders to the three basic eating utensils: fork (die Gabel, fem.), knife (das Messer, neut.), and spoon (der Löffel, masc.). Or, in Mark Twain's words, why "[i]n German, a young lady [das Mädchen—neuter] has no sex, while a turnip [die Rübe—feminine] does." Of course, German is not the only language that considers lifeless objects boys or girls or assigns living beings a grammatical gender unrelated to their sex. In Irish, for example, cailín "girl" is masculine, while stail "stallion" is feminine.

Grammatical gender is not a logical necessity in a language.
Most Western languages have some form of distinction between masculine and feminine nouns, with some of them adding neuter for good measure. Interestingly, the two non-Indo-European language groups of Europe—Finno-Ugric (Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian) and Basque—have no grammatical genders. English has almost lost them when referring to inanimate objects, with the exception of the feminine sometimes used for vessels and other means of transportation (Fill 'er up!). However, it has preserved the three pronouns for the three genders (he, she, it), which the Finno-Ugric languages and Basque lack.

Even those languages that do have grammatical genders define and use masculine-feminine-neuter in widely different ways. German, together with Greek and the Slavic languages, has preserved all three grammatical genders. In those languages, men are (usually, but not always) masculine, females are feminine, and inanimate objects may be masculine, feminine, or neuter. Animals may have a masculine and a feminine form, which, however, do not always indicate their sex. Of the two Russian words for horse—конь (kon') and лошадь (loshad'), the first one (masc.) is more likely to be used for a racehorse or a battle horse, while the second one (fem.) would apply to a traction animal. Кот (kot, masc.) is the usual word for cat, while кошка (koshka, fem.) is the diminutive, not necessarily applied to the female animal. Of the two words for dog—собака (sobaka, fem.) and пес (pios, masc.), the first one is the one normally used for man's best friend, while the second one more or less corresponds to the English "hound."

A language has different resources to distinguish the male from the female of a species. It may use completely different words for them such as bull/cow, петух/курица, cochon/truie; it may simply add a feminine ending to denote the female animal: lion/lioness, chat/chatte, gato/gata. It may also add a word for maleness or femaleness: she-bear, cebra macho, guepardo-hembra.

The major Romance languages have dropped the neuter gender of Latin; in this process, most neuter Latin nouns became masculine. Exception: caput cabeza/cabeça. Romanian is the only one among the Romance languages that has a "neuter" gender for nouns, but it is so called only for lack of a better word: "neuter" nouns behave as masculine in the singular and as feminine in the plural. Romanian has the definite article in the form of a suffix (a feature it shares with Bulgarian and the Scandinavian languages), which also indicates a noun's gender: un om, omul, doi oameni, oamenii (one man, the man, two men, the men—masc.); o fată, fata, două fete, fetele (one girl, the girl, two girls, the girls—fem.); un corp, corpul, două corpuri, corpurile (one body, the body, two bodies, the bodies—neut.).

The Scandinavian languages have no grammatical masculine or feminine (except for pronouns), but one gender for both (called "common gender" or "non-neuter—"uter" in Swedish) and neuter. Animate beings are usually "non-neuter," while inanimate objects may be either neuter or non-neuter.

In some languages a noun's ending provides at least a hint about its possible gender. In most Romance and Slavic languages, feminine nouns usually end in -a. The ending -o or -e denotes neuter gender in the Slavic languages. However, exceptions abound. In Russian, some words ending in -a or -ya are masculine: мужчина (muzhchina = man), папа (papa = father or papa), дядя (dyadya = uncle), or neuter: дитя (ditiya = child), семя (semya = seed). Masculine nouns ending in -a are flexed as if they were feminine; neuter nouns ending in -a have an irregular declension. Кофе (kofe = coffee) is masculine despite its -e ending. The gender of some proper names, for example Ukrainian family names ending in -enko such as Черненко (Chernenko), follows the sex of their bearers. These nouns are not flexed.

Certain suffixes are typical of one or another gender. -keit or -heit in German, -ость (-ost') in Russian, -ción/-ção/-tion/-zione/-ţiune in the Romance languages (Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Romanian, respectively) denote feminine nouns. The diminutive suffixes -chen, -lein in German make any noun neuter. Words of Greek origin ending in -ma, -pa, -ta (sistema, mapa/mappa, planeta) are masculine in Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian, although the -a ending by itself would otherwise be indicative of the feminine gender. Endings in -o are usually masculine (exceptions: Port. a tribo, many words ending in -ão such as mão, mansão, Sp. la mano, Sp./Port. la/a virago).

Even in closely related languages, as they drifted apart from their common origins, nouns often changed sex. "Medlem" (member) is neuter in Norwegian (as is the German "Mitglied," whence it comes) while it is non-neuter in Swedish and Danish. The Spanish ending -aje (coraje, pasaje) is usually masculine, as are its French and Italian cognates -age/-aggio (courage/coraggio, passage/passaggio), while the corresponding Portuguese suffix -agem (coragem, passagem) is feminine. Some Spanish words, however, that have cognates ending in -age in French and -agem in Portuguese have changed to a feminine form: imagen, ventaja (Fr. image, avantage, Port. imagem, vantagem). On the other hand, nouns ending in -umbre are feminine in Spanish, while their Portuguese cognates ending in -ume are masculine (Sp. la muchedumbre, Port. o azedume).

El puente (Sp., masc. bridge—Fr. le pont, It. il ponte) became a ponte (Port., fem.), while o leite (Port., masc.) became la leche (Sp., fem.) (Fr. le lait, It. il latte, both masc.). El árbol (Sp., masc.), a árvore (Port., fem.), o sangue (Port., masc.), la sangre (Sp., fem.), o mel (Port., masc.) la miel (Sp. fem.). Some real-world males have become grammatical females: a sentinela (Port. the sentinel), a testemunha (Port. the witness). La víctima (Sp.)/a vítima (Port.) is feminine even if the victim was a male. A pessoa/la persona/la personne is also feminine. A French child (enfant) is masculine, unless the speaker wishes to emphasize its femaleness, in which case it becomes feminine, but a Portuguese or Brazilian child (criança) is always feminine. Spanish and Italian make a distinction between a male child and a female child by giving the words different endings (niño, bambino/niña, bambina). In Romanian, child is masculine (copil), as it was in Latin (puer).

Some Spanish and Portuguese nouns have different genders in different countries: sartén, lentes, mar are masculine in Latin America and feminine in Spain. Avestruz, caudal, and componente are masculine in Brazil, but feminine in Portugal.

Some languages show a bias for the masculine gender. The plural of the masculine form of many Spanish and Portuguese words is used when both sexes are meant: padres/pais—parents, tíos/tios—uncle(s) and aunt(s), hermanos/irmãos—siblings. English nouns, even those denoting persons, are often bisexual: writer, translator, teacher may refer to either male or female professionals. German, as well as the Slavic and Romance languages, on the other hand, expressly specify the gender if the meaning (or political correctness) requires it: Schreiber/Schreiberin, Übersetzer/Übersetzerin, Lehrer/Lehrerin. When the English noun ends in -man, the feminine may change to -woman (businessman/businesswoman) or a gender-neutral, often artificial, word is used (chairman/chair/chairperson). German has the masculine Geschäftsmann for businessman, the feminine Geschäftsfrau for businesswoman and the gender-neutral plural Geschäftsleute for businesspeople.

While it sounds natural to an English-speaking person to make a distinction between he, she, and it, or to a or Spanish-speaking person to refer to his or her dining table (mesa) as a female, but his or her office desk (escritorio) as a male, the grammar of most Oriental languages such as Chinese and Japanese is sexless. Grammatical gender, like many other grammatical concepts such as singular-plural, definite-indefinite, or past-present, is not a logical necessity in a language, and billions of people easily survive and communicate without it.