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.
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.
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?