Motherland, fatherland, or homeland?
The mothership’s maiden voyage.
The forefather’s brotherhood.
Have you noticed how our words are littered with gender? Gender is even more pronounced in some languages that divide their nouns into masculine and feminine categories. For example, in French, la roue (wheel) is feminine while le pneu (tire) is masculine. Use of these categories often requires agreement with adjectives, verbs, and other parts of speech. So, if I want to talk about my new wheel or new tire I would write: la nouvelle roue or le nouveau pneu.
Categorizing nouns in this way is called grammatical gender. Not all languages employ such a system, but those that do are not consistent. For example, cake is feminine in Italian (la torta) but masculine in French (le gâteau). Some languages include a third neuter gender (e.g., das Märchen, or fairytale, German). Grammatical gender systems can extend beyond sex-based categories (think gender = genus = group). Polish distinguishes animate and inanimate objects, while Swahili has categories for uncountable nouns and objects manufactured by humans. The Fulfulde language spoken in Mali has 20 grammatical genders.
Sex-based and Non-sex-based Grammatical Gender Systems
What happens when a speaker of a non-gendered language encounters grammatical gender?
Learning grammatical gender can be difficult if you’re a native speaker of a non-gendered language. There might be general patterns that indicate when a word is assigned to one gender or another, but there are always exceptions. As a native English speaker, I often find myself guessing whether nouns are masculine, feminine, or neuter. Beyond memorizing the gender of every word — which I failed to accomplish during my coursework — there is no easy way for me to derive a noun’s grammatical group. Sometimes what you might expect is incorrect. The German word for girl (das Mädchen) is neuter. The Portuguese word for voluptuous woman (mulherão) is masculine. Gendered pronouns (e.g., him, her, she, he) can also be challenging if you’re a speaker of languages like Chinese, Turkish, or Korean with no or few gender markers. This is why you might hear someone say that Mr. Jones was washing her car when I saw him or Mr. Jones was washing car.
What happens to a sex-based grammatical gender system when views of gender evolve?
Sex is straightforward. Sex relates to biology and types of reproductive organs. Gender, on the other hand, is more subjective. We’ve already seen how gender delineates groups of grammatical classes, which differ by language. Gender can also distinguish the social roles we associate with “male” and “female”, which differ by culture. But there isn’t a one-to-one mapping between sex and gender.
Today, societies view gender as non-binary, more than just male and female. In the U.S. we use a variety of terms to distinguish our gender identities (e.g., cisgender, transgender, genderqueer). How then is this influencing our languages that were formed under a binary sex-based system? Consider the following news headlines:
In the first headline, the masculine gender term Latino is used to describe all students, regardless of gender. In many gendered languages, the masculine gender is the default used to discuss mixed-gender groups. In the second headline, À toutes et à tous addresses all females (toutes) and all males (tous). But what if you don’t identify with either group? Advocates of inclusive language are proposing new gender-neutral terms. In the early 2000s, the term Latinx appeared to replace Latino and Latina. In the 2010s, the Swedish pronoun hen appeared to replace the gender-specific hon and han. As more cultures reconsider their gendered terms, how will our languages change?
Want to learn more about language and gender: