Should language have gender?

Image: Sleeping Hermaphroditus, Louvre; Roman copy of a Hellenistic original. Source

I have a feeling that most of the mistakes I make in French and German have to do with not knowing or not remembering the gender of a noun, and thus the associated changes that have to be made in articles and adjectives.

I think that underlying my continued failure is a certain stubborn resistance to being forced to care about the so-called “gender” of things (shoes, houses, trees) and ideas (peace, intelligence, reality) for which gender is completely irrelevant. In English, we don’t bother with such trivialities, and get by just fine with only one version of the word “the.” Having three versions as in French is bad enough, but why a language would need to sprout eight+ varieties, as in German, is beyond me.

The Hermetic androgyne; representing the stages of the alchemical Work in One. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

This shows no sign of changing, alas, but other rules which have to do with human beings, for whom gender is not merely an abstract concept, are in flux. When I first started learning French and traveled to France in my late teens, we were taught to use the masculine form for  a plural group of mixed gender. Simple, if somewhat sexist.

Now, upon moving to Europe, I find that everything in which both men and women might possibly be involved has to be expressed twice, with both masculine and feminine forms, to include everyone. Bienvenue à toutes et à tous!

The inclusivity is nice, but the language is so clumsy and longwinded. Couldn’t we come up with a better solution?

English does not have this particular problem with unspecified mixed groups, but it does have a problem with singular human beings. It’s clear that we need to be wary of privileging one gender over another, and to honor the experience of gender fluidity, not being so fixed and rigid in our binary concept of the human being. That means making some changes in how we speak.

Androgyne holding snake and chalice. 1416-1419 Das Buch der Heiligen Dreifaltigkeit. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

But the emergent solution of the “singular they” is one that makes me cringe. It just sounds so odd to me to refer to a single person with “they are.” But I suppose I’ll get used to it. I’m not an ultra-purist who thinks that there is a version of language that must be set in stone as “correct.” Language develops as people use it and create new accepted meanings, and this is one that is being created right now.

It’s that “are” which creates the clash for me, even though the same thing must have happened long ago when English lost the separate singular form for “you.” To say “you are” and mean one person, doesn’t feel strange to me, of course — though in German and French this is another complication, along with the formal form that we also thankfully shed at some point.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if our language had masculine and feminine pronouns with a simple vowel change (e.g. hob, heb) and if we could add a third, gender neutral pronoun (hab?) to these, keeping the clarity of the singular verb?

Eventually, the way we are going, maybe the third-person singular verb will be eliminated in English and we won’t have to conjugate verbs at all. Will it provide a welcome freedom from outdated concepts? Or will it make for more confusing sentences and less clarity of thought? We’ll find out.

What do you think about gender in languages and the changes we’re seeing now? Do you know of another language that has a different solution for gender neutrality?

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4 thoughts on “Should language have gender?

  1. I believe there are some non-Euro languages that don’t have super-complex rules about gender, but I don’t know them myself. Danish is pretty easy and only has two, which I believe are technically described as masculine and neuter, but IME nobody thinks of them as having *gender* — you’ve just got two kinds of nouns, et and en. Et hus — a house, en bog — a book. And you can use ‘man’ in the way that posh English people once used ‘one’ and we now use a generic ‘you’ — a neutral pronoun that just means person. (Fun fact: ‘man’ used to mean person in English too. A male was a wereman and a female was a wifman, and they eventually got ground down to man and woman.)

    It’s my understanding that the only reason we don’t still have a bunch of gendered nouns in English is because of the waves of invasion — all the people coming in and being bad at learning the new language ground away a lot of grammatical detail, while also giving us lots of new words to describe things with.

    All the articles and prepositions nearly killed me when I studied German, so I switched to Russian, and it’s even worse there.

  2. We forget that “you” (which we blithely use for singular and plural purposes with little confusion*) was originally the plural form, and that thou, thee, thy, thine was the correct form when addressing one singular. “You singular” was reserved for thy betters — lords and ladies , judges and bishops, the monarchs and, of course, parents — much as vous is in French.

    But this is all part of why language usage is so interesting in terms of historical context, of nuance, of differentiation, and so on. But it is complex, there’s no doubt!

    * Y’all is one way to distinguish plural from singular, I suppose … but only if one wants to sound affected if not originally from southern states.

    1. Yes, we lost the “thee and thou” which is in some ways a pity but in other ways makes things much easier. I like Jean’s explanation about how the waves of invasion helped to break down those complexities (not that it was fun for the people being invaded).

      I think “y’all” can actually be used as a singular address. It’s one of those words that has lost its original meaning. I am not a Southerner though, so it’s not my call.

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