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In an essay for school I recently claimed the generic masculine was caused by sexism, but my teacher complained that I hadn't given a reason for this. Assuming my hypothesis is correct, how did this develop (I'm not asking about a gender system or sexism – the web has a lot on these – but on the generic masculine)? At least to me (who has always known of its existence) it's obvious that the male form would be also linguistically preferred, but I can't come up with any mechanism for this.

When I tried to search the web for it, I only found that prescriptivism (together with sexism of course) has significantly accelerated it in the English language once it already existed somewhat, but not how it started in English nor how it worked in any language that actually has a real genus system (like my native language German, or Latin).

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    Why are you assuming that your hypothesis is correct? It feels a lot like you've made up a theory that conforms to your world view, and now you've gone looking for evidence to substantiate it.
    – Brondahl
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 9:23
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    I'd also like to see some elaboration on how this is sexism, as it may help shed light on the issue at hand. In many modern Romance languages, for instance, the "masculine" is both masculine and neutral, and the feminine is just that. While this is a clear "men are default, women are different", is that sexist in the negative sense, and not just in the "differentiation based on sex" sense, and, if so, against whom? Would the logic change if women were the default and men got a special case to themselves?
    – Aos Sidhe
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 17:08
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    A datapoint you may find interesting is that Romanian seems to have feminine for default Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 15:34
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    What is generic masculine??
    – Lambie
    Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 16:43
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    You are onto something here! Turkish doesn't have the distinction of grammatical gender and therefore in Turkish society women have been treated as equals forever.</sarcasm> The notion that grammatical gender is the same as or even related to the biological sex is the actual issue. And that laypeople (in terms of linguistics) -- those voicing the "issue" extra loud -- have been allowed to take over and make up rules based on an equally made up pseudo-science in which the result is known before the research, much like in your essay and question, it seems. Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 20:47

1 Answer 1

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In many Indo-European languages, like Latin, the masculine is less "marked" than the feminine, meaning that it's the more basic or fundamental form: the one you use by default unless there's a reason to do otherwise. While sexism might play a role in this (certainly the ancient Romans weren't particularly feminist), there's also a more mundane historical reason. The feminine gender seems to have been a later development in the history of Proto-Indo-European, which made it more marked than the masculine or the neuter—in other words, the three genders were originally "animate", "inanimate", and "this special new marking for specifically-feminine things". If something wasn't specifically feminine, it didn't get the special new marking. This seems to have led to the convention that was inherited by Latin, that groups of people and generic individuals used the masculine gender.

Of course, this was thousands of years ago. The generic masculine in modern English is a recent development, as you noted: English used the non-gendered "they" for groups of people and hypothetical/non-specific individuals until prescriptive efforts arose to make it more like Latin. (You can find lots of traces of these prescriptive efforts in modern English: "don't split infinitives" and "don't strand prepositions" are similar rules imposed to make English more like Latin, which are still taught in schools but most people don't really follow.)

Other languages may have the convention for other reasons. In Proto-Afro-Asiatic, there seems to have been a two-way masculine/feminine gender distinction—but when using an adjective generically, this changed to an animate/inanimate (or sometimes concrete/abstract) split. So while "good man" would be masculine and "good woman" feminine, "some good person" would also be masculine, and "some good thing" or "quality of goodness" would be feminine. This is the system that appears in Ancient Egyptian and Akkadian, and likely also in some modern Semitic languages (though I don't know any of them in enough detail to say for sure). This leads to a "generic masculine" convention, but for fairly arbitrary reasons: repurposing their existing morphology to distinguish between "good person" and "quality of goodness".

Tl;dr this happened for different reasons in different languages; sexism may well have had something to do with it, but there are other (often-arbitrary) historical forces in play.

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    Thanks a lot for help! Now just the question remains why PIE made a new gender distinction for female.
    – zvavybir
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 17:30
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    @ErnestBredar Not entirely clear, unfortunately. One theory is that animal husbandry became increasingly important so a different grammatical marking (the "collective") got repurposed for sex distinctions. The oldest attested IE languages (the Anatolian branch) only have an animate/inanimate distinction, which is probably because m/f marking hadn't developed yet when that branch split off, but some linguists argue that the distinction existed before then and was lost in that branch.
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 15, 2023 at 17:56
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    "The generic masculine in modern English is a recent development" how recent, and do you have a citation? In your next sentence you seem to be arguing that we can see this to be the case due to the historical use of singular "they" (which appears in e.g. Shakespeare), but this seems like a non-sequitur to me, since clearly generic "he" and singular "they" can both exist in the language at the same time (as they have done throughout our lifetimes!). Efforts to ban singular "they" may be "recent" in some sense but that doesn't at all mean use of generic "he" is also recent.
    – Mark Amery
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 18:04
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    Also curious about the timing of generic "he." Commented Feb 17, 2023 at 19:28
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    @MarkAmery Great question! I'd actually recommend asking it as a new question on the site, so that it can get a full and proper answer. But my understanding is that generic "he" existed in Old English as part of the grammatical gender system; as this system disappeared, it steadily lost ground in Middle English times in favor of the North Germanic borrowing "they", but became prescribed once the original grammatical reasons for it were gone (i.e. once nouns stopped having grammatical gender).
    – Draconis
    Commented Feb 18, 2023 at 17:10

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