6

This is a question out of gross ignorance, so I may be way off the mark here. If that's the case, the answer should be easy to provide in the negative.

My background

I'm an American, I spent the first ~29 years of my life monolingual, as most Americans do. Then I learned Spanish and some Portuguese.

My observations

In English (or perhaps in America?) is a fairly strong reaction against gender-specific pronouns when they are used to refer to people of mixed or unknown gender. This often leads to awkward grammatical constructions to avoid "favor" toward men in speech or writing, such as:

  • the singular "they"
  • using "he or she", "(s)he" or "he/she" when simply "he" would suffice from a grammatical standpoint
  • Alternating between "he" and "she" throughout a book, article, or other work
  • rewording a sentence so that no personal pronouns are used at all
  • The addition of entirely new gender-neutral pronouns

In Spanish, I have not seen any of these grammatical gymnastics. The only case I've ever seen, and it's been rare, of using a gender-neutral pronoun where a gender-specific one would make more grammatical sense is in the case of the word "amig@s" in place of "amigos."

Spanish is, of course (and in contrast to English) permeated with gender-specific nouns. It's common to refer to myself (a man) as "she" in certain contexts, and its not awkward.

Aquí hay muchas personas y yo soy la que traje la cerveza.

Roughly translates to (I have translated more literally than normal to demonstrate my point)

Here are many persons, and I am she (the one) which brought the beer.

My question

Is the reaction against gender-specific pronouns when referring to mixed or unknown genders a product of a languages' gender (or relative lack thereof)? And if so, why?

Alternately is the reaction against gender-specific pronouns primarily an Americanism, and incidental to the differences in language?

Or am I only aware of this reaction against gender-specific pronouns in the language I speak most fluently, because these subtleties are lost on me in Spanish and Portuguese where I'm less likely to pick them up?

A partial theory

I offer this theory not because I think it is likely to be substantially correct, but because it's the only theory I've thought of, and it should serve as an example of the format of an answer I'm looking for.

  • In languages that have gender for practically every noun, the issue is less visible. When one is accustomed to referring to trees, forks, cars, and houses a male or female, even though they clearly have no male or female characteristics, it seems much less unnatural to refer to oneself or ones group of friends as a gender that may or may not relate to their actual sex.
  • Further, because of the permeation of gender in these other languages, as in my example above, even men are sometimes feminized in speech and writing, so there's not a strict or obvious "male dominance" in effect to which one can react.
  • 1
    If this question is too philosophical or sociological for this site I understand. If it fits here, please help me tweak it as necessary. – Flimzy Oct 16 '14 at 13:01
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    Somehow you managed not to mention the usual solution, singular they. – snailplane Oct 16 '14 at 22:40
  • @snailboat: Thanks, question updated. I don't really consider that a reaction against masculine-favoring language as I do the others, but it still warrants mention. – Flimzy Oct 17 '14 at 0:06
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    The singular/indefinite they isn't awkward! :) – curiousdannii Oct 17 '14 at 1:51
  • @curiousdannii: Sometimes it is :) – Flimzy Oct 17 '14 at 2:56
4

That's not an unreasonable hypothesis but it when you look at the details, the gendered morphology of a language only plays a partial role in how the language expresses underlying cultural gender bias.

  1. In languages that require constant expression to gender in verbal or adjectival agreement (like Russian or Spanish), you're unlikely to come up against the issue of the epicene pronoun as you do in English. Because the pronoun does not refer to an implicit assumption about a default gender but to the agreement with the referent. So in Czech, a sequence like. "If a person likes something, he/she will buy it." will use the feminine pronoun because the word 'person' is feminine. However, you will find that men will actively avoid trying to refer to themselves in female gender. E.g. with sentences like "I am the person who said..." men would try to find different ways of saying this without having to end with a sentence that has 'I' to be the subject of a sentence with a feminine conjugation.

  2. But the issue of gendered language is not really about the pronoun. The pronoun reflects the default framing of a man being in a position of power and access to resources. So for example, the assumption that a doctor is male and therefore a sequence like "A: I went to see a doctor. B: What did he say?" reflects a male bias in the framing of the term doctor. Many languages require that professions morphologically mark gender. Therefore, in the above sequence you'd always have to say if you went to see a male or female doctor. However, this does not remove the issue of gender bias. Because in sentences like 'I should see some kind of doctor.' or 'All doctors are rich.' The default (unmarked) gender will be male. So if you said something like 'All doctors[fem] are rich.' You would be in fact stating that all women doctors (as opposed to men doctors) are rich.

  3. There are many other ways in which these languages express bias through defaulting to masculine gender. For example, in Czech the past tense plural agreement is male by default unless you are talking about an all female group. All it takes is one man in a group and the agreement switches to male. Another example in Czech is the use of feminine nouns when referring to men in a negative way.

  4. The ubiquitous marking of gender causes all sorts of other issues with which the speakers of these languages have to deal on a daily basis. For example, if the language (like Czech or Russian) expresses gender in the verbal agreement, a woman talking to man will have to work harder to switch between the genders when talking about hypotheticals.

  5. Because of the nature of gender and morphological agreement, many of the solutions proposed for English would be difficult to implement. For example, in English you can deal with the default assumption of gender relatively simply. For example: "The doctor will need to be good if he or she wants to succeed." But in a language with rich gender morphology, you would have to say something like: "The doctor[fem] or doctor[masc] will need to be good[fem] or good[masc] if he or she wants to be successful[fem] or successful[masc]. So the imposition on the speaker is much greater.

So there are many factors that come into play when trying to explain why languages like these do not lend themselves to reforms designed to even out the gender prejudice similar to those in English.

But morphology and noun gender are not the only (and perhaps not even the main) reason why many of the cultures which speak these kinds of languages do not deal with the issue. The reasons are primarily cultural, historical and political. For example an easy reform for many Slavic languages would be to stop inflecting women's surnames with -ova (which implies possession by the male - e.g. Nováková implies implies Novák's). There are very many good linguistic tools for a language like Russian or Czech to deal with nouns without gender marking by simply not inflecting them. Yet, nobody has advocated that and when I tried to at least not put the -ova morpheme at the end of foreign female names of my translations, my (female) editor insisted on putting them there. The fact that there's little appetite for radical or even small scale action is due to the lack of a history of feminist movements dealing with language and also active anti-feminist campaigns (often supported by women) in these countries. The issue is complex and far outside the scope of this SE. However, it does speak to the close linkage between politics and claims about the 'nature' of this language or another.

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  • Pure curiousity, if you add "-ova" to female foreign names in translation, how do you render "George Eliot" (a woman using an intentionally male name)? Is it a matter of taste whether to "play along" by maintaining the male character of the name as originally intended, or to state what we all now know, that Eliot was a woman? Or is it more obvious than that, at least to your editor, which is the only correct option? – Steve Jessop May 5 '15 at 18:44
  • Well, there seems to be some variation even within texts. Some, like this Wikipedia article cs.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eliot use Eliot when talking about her name but Eliotová when talking about her actions when agreement would come to play a role. But elsewhere, she is just straight up Eliotová like in this author profile: nakladatelstvicas.cz/autor/george-eliotova. Looking at translations, she is listed as Eliotová only on some - going by a quick look at the Czech national library catalog. Interesting! – Dominik Lukes May 6 '15 at 20:20
  • +1 for "The doctor[fem] or doctor[masc] will need to be good[fem] or good[masc] if he or she wants to be successful[fem] or successful[masc]". I had to laugh at the idea a lot! – Honza Zidek Jan 31 '19 at 12:27
3

The 'singular' or indefinite they has been a part of the English language since at least Chacuer (writing in 1395). In some dialects other neutral pronouns such as ou and a were used.

The neutral use of he was prescribed by eighteenth and nineteenth century grammarians. As is often the case, I think these prescriptivists were wrong and unhelpful. By teaching people to shun the indefinite they and use he this way they created an artificial gender non-neutrality, which the political correctness movement of the 20th century then fought against.

My guess would be that because political correctness is not limited to English, if this conflict is not a part of other languages it is because they did not have prescriptivists perverting their languages.

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0

In Russian.

  • We usually use masculine with interrogatives

  • We usually use the gender of specific noun by which we refer to the people: human(masculine), person(feminine), client(masculine) etc.

  • Sometimes we use он/она (he/she).

  • The most difficult case is not when the gender is unknown, but when it is mixed (transgender people and the like). In this case we really in trouble. Some people may use neutral gender in this case jockingly, but this use is prejorative because neuter gender usually means inanimate things.

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