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Linguistic gender

This is my second blog entry on gender, the first being called simply "Gender", posted August 18, 2011. Unlike the first, this entry is entirely about linguistic gender. Readers who have studied one or more foreign languages are likely to be familiar with much of what I say in the early parts of this entry.

In many languages, every single noun is assigned a linguistic "gender", a word which comes from the Latin word "genus", which simply means "type". This is certainly true in the "Romance" languages, which are based on Latin. Although classical Latin itself has three genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter, the Romance languages have only two, masculine and feminine. That means that in the Romance languages, the major ones being French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian, every single noun is considered to be either masculine or feminine.

English has only a single definite article, "the", and two indefinite articles, "a", and "an". But in languages with gendered nouns, these articles have more forms, as they have to agree with the noun in gender. Just to give a specific example, the French word for "the" is "le" in front of a masculine noun, and "la" in front of a feminine noun (although both of these can be abbreviated to l' if the noun starts with a vowel). Adjectives also have a masculine and a feminine form (and sometimes a neuter form) to agree with the noun they modify.

Our tandem bikeThis agreement carries over to the pronouns representing the nouns. Consider the noun "bicycle" (my sisters gave us the one to the left as a wedding gift). In French, one word for a bicycle is "bicyclette", which is a feminine noun.

Thus an answer to the question, "Où est la bicyclette" ("Where is the bicycle") might be, "Elle est là" ("She is there"). Of course, to translate that sentence properly into English, we would translate it as, "It is there". But you might hear a native speaker of French absentmindedly say "she" when replying in English. If he does so, you know that he's thinking of the French noun "bicyclette".

To the English speaker, it appears that the French speaker is thinking of the bicycle itself as feminine. The speaker seems to be personifying the bicycle. But this is not actually the case, which you can see if you consider the fact that there's another word for bicycle in French: "vélo", short for "vélocipède". And that word is masculine. So if a French person asks, "Où est le vélo" ("Where is the bicycle?"), the response might be "Il est là" ("He is there") as opposed to "Elle est là" ("She is there").

Thus it's not the bicycle itself which is thought of as feminine, but simply the word "bicyclette". There are numerous other cases in French of things that can be described by two nouns, one of which is masculine and the other of which is feminine. An example is the French translation of "the mountain", which can be either "la Montagne" (feminine) or "le mont" (masculine).

There are also cases in French in which the same word has two meanings, depending on its gender. An example is the French translation of "the book", which is "le livre". If you change the article to the feminine article and say instead "la livre", it now means "the pound", referring to the English weight unit (0.45 kg), or to a monitary unit, the English pound sterling. Because a kilogram is very close to 2.2 pounds, in markets in France, people will often purchase "une livre" of many foods, which is taken to be half a kilogram (technically, 1.1 pounds in the English system still used in the US). Note 1 

Later in this entry, I'll mention another French word whose meaning depends upon gender. In Spanish and Italian, sometimes the feminine version of a word refers to a fruit, while the masculine version of the same word refers to the tree producing that fruit. For example, in Spanish, la manzana is an apple, while el manzano is an apple tree. In Italian, la mela is an apple, and il melo is an apple tree.

English is not a Latin-based language. Rather, English is a Germanic language, a cousin of German. German has three genders, masculine, feminine, and neuter. But these have been lost in English, in which nouns mostly only have gender if they represent people or animals which are actually of one sex or the other. You might consider the noun "ship" to be an exception, since the pronoun that replaces the word "ship" is "she", so the word "ship" can be considered to be grammatically feminine.

Thus, to an English speaker, grammatical gender in other languages can seem nonsensical. Why do we have to learn the gender of every single noun in French? It seems like a waste of effort which brings very little benefit to the language. Note 2 

English speakers who feel that gender is a waste might like to contemplate the fact that the speakers of most Asian languages feel the same way about the grammatical concept of "number" (singular and plural) in English. They think it's a silly and unnecessary grammatical distinction. As a Japanese lecturer once put it,

"In English, you speak of "one mouse". If there are two of them, you actually change the noun, and have to say "two mice". If there are three or more of them, however, the noun stays the same: two mice, three mice, four mice, a million mice. Why the big change between one and two?"

In Japanese, and in Chinese, and I think in most other Asian languages, the concept of singular and plural as applied to individual nouns does not exist. The Japanese essentially speak of "one mouse", "two mouse", "three mouse", and so on. If they want to say that there were two of them, they can simply say so ("He saw two mouse"). But each time they use the word "mouse", it's not necessary to tell the listener whether there was only one or more than one. In English, that's unavoidable. An English speaker must choose between "mouse" and "mice".

A Japanese speaker can say, "When he walked into the room he saw mouse", and the listener doesn't know how many there were. A reasonably accurate translation of the equivalent sentence in Japanese would have to be something like, "When he walked into the room he saw one or more mice". So while English grammar might be simpler than the grammar of the Romance languages, it is in at least one way more complicated than the grammar of Japanese.

I'll close with the story of an event that occurred when I was working for Kronos, and the company began selling its product in Québec, Canada, which is of course French-speaking. Our Québec office hired a woman to translate the manual of our main product, an electronic timeclock, into French. At some point, the thick manual was passed on to me for review.

A grandfather clockAs a first step, the translator had to choose a French word for the timeclock itself, and she chose the word "pendule". This is one of those words in French which has different meanings depending on whether it's masculine or feminine. As a masculine word, "le pendule" means "the pendulum", while as a feminine word, "la pendule" means "the clock". The translator had of course used the feminine form.

But I had a problem with her word choice. Being derived from "pendulum", this word for clock evokes a mental picture of an old-fashioned grandfather clock, with a long pendulum under the clock dial swinging back and forth. Our product, a timeclock used by workers to punch in and out in a factory, was a high-tech product containing a microprocessor. I didn't think the image of a pendulum-based grandfather clock was particularly appropriate. I didn't know why the translator had made this choice. I decided to switch to a different word, "horloge", a word that also has the general meaning "clock".

The translator had done something else that I found awkward. As you know, in English, there are many words referring to people which have both masculine and feminine forms, such as "actor", and "actress". But many words have only one form, and can be used to refer both to men and women. An example is the word "employee".

But in French, many more words have separate masculine and feminine forms. Not infrequently, a masculine form is changed to a feminine form just by adding an "e" at the end. That's the case with the word "employé" ("employee"): a masculine employee is "un employé", while a feminine employee is "une employée".

And in gendered languages, as I noted at the top, the gender of a noun needs to be reflected in the definite or indefinite article in front of the noun, and in any adjectives modifying the noun. Thus in French, a newly hired male employee would be referred to as "un nouveau employé", while a newly hired female employee would be referred to as "une nouvelle employée".

The translator of the manual seemed to want to emphasize that an employee might be either a man or a woman. Thus she wrote for a new employee, "un(e) nouveau(lle) employé(e)". The letters in parentheses were to emphasize that either form might be appropriate.

It's similar to our dilemma in English of not having a genderless singular pronoun that can be used for people. Thus in much writing referring to people of unknown gender, many English writers use the phrase "he or she". We do in fact have a singular pronoun in English which is neither masculine nor feminine, that pronoun being "it". But it's not a genderless pronoun, but rather specifically a neuter pronoun, and it can't be applied to people. Note 3

Back to the manual - the trouble was, these parenthetic endings, to my eyes, cluttered up the document. It struck me that there were better ways of handling this, such as making a statement at the beginning to the effect that when referring to people, the masculine case should be taken to apply to either a man or a woman.

I was free to edit the manual, and I wanted to clean it up by getting rid of these parenthetical endings. But it occurred to me that Québec is known for having laws regarding usage of the French language. Mostly, these laws deal with the relative presentation of information in French vs. English. For example, all signs in store windows at the time had to have French on top and English on the bottom, and there were restrictions on the relative sizes of the lettering in the two languages. I'm not up to date on what the language laws say these days.

Thus, before making any changes, I telephoned the head of our office in Québec. When I asked about the two-gender references to employees (all the little extra endings in parentheses), I was treated to a tirade about the translator having inserted her own feminist point of view into the document. He told me I would be violating no Canadian law, and I was free to remove all the little parenthesized items if I wished, and he rather hoped I would do so. I did.

In editing the document to change "pendule" to "horloge", I distinctly recall having to change the gender of the word. This is strange, because both "pendule" and "horloge" are feminine. Trying to think back to this episode, which occured some time in the eighties, I think that the translator had used "pendule" in the masculine. That would have been an error, because that means pendulum, and not clock, and she was a native (Québec) speaker of French, but if I'm remembering correctly, that's what she had done. Note 4

When I edited the document, globally changing a word turned out to be a lot harder in a French document than it is in an English document. It was easy enough in my text editor to search for the word "pendule", and change it everywhere to "horloge". But as I noted above, I was also changing the gender, which is reflected in every attached article and adjective.

Thus if the document referred to a clock attached to a data communications line, I might have to change "le pendule attaché" to "l'horloge attachée", changing both the article (le to l') and the following adjective (attaché to attachée). Thus while the changes to the noun itself were easily done by a global search-and-replace, many of the other changes had to be done manually, laboriously changing every single occurrence in the document.

I didn't frequently use my foreign language ability in my job, but this was one case in which I did.

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© 2012 Lawrence J. Krakauer   Click here to send me e-mail.
Originally posted November 8, 2012, and corrected November 11

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Footnotes (click [return to text] to go back to the footnote link)

Note 1:   The French word "la livre" for the unit of weight comes from the Latin "libra". Although in English we use the Germanic word "pound", note that we still abbreviate it "lb."  [return to text]

Note 2:   In Spanish and Italian, it's frequently easy to tell the gender of the noun by looking at its ending. Most nouns that end in "o" are masculine, while most nouns that end in "a" are feminine (although by no means all of them). But this is not the case in French, a language in which most genders simply have to be memorized.

There actually is a table, available on the Internet, which lets you guess the gender of a noun based on its ending. But there are so many different endings that have to be learned that it's hardly worthwhile.

The table is called Le Truc de Genres ("The Trick of Genders") - click on that link to see it. The second paragraph is given on the page in both French and English, but the first paragraph on the page is not so translated. It says:

"For the students of French whose mother tongue is English, memorizing the gender of each noun that one learns is very annoying. I noted that the majority of nouns which end in certain letters are of uniform gender. With an Excel spreadsheet, I've done a study of more than 18,000 nouns of the French language in order to find the most useful endings for predicting the gender of a noun. You will find the results below."   [return to text]

Note 3:   English does, of course, have a genderless pronoun that can be used for people: it's "they" (or "their" for the possessive version). The trouble is, it's plural, so logically it shouldn't be used for a singular person. Nevertheless, "their" in particular is often so used. I don't want to open that can of worms here, but you might take a look at the Anti-pedantry page - the singular use of "their" has a long history in English.   [return to text]

Note 4:   Writing this entry, I initially got confused and convinced myself (even with a dictionary in front of me) that "horloge" is masculine - it is not. A French friend, Bernard Combe, caught the error (Merci, Bernard!). He also pointed out the common use of "une livre" (taken to be half a kilogram) when buying foods in French markets.  [return to text]

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