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How Gender Shows up in Language

Happy Pride! This time last year, we published an article about the language of allyship that included a brief discussion of the history of the singular they in English. As this year’s Pride Month wraps up, we’re coming back to the theme of gender and language for a look at how languages around the world incorporate gender and are influenced by the concept of gender in turn.

What is Grammatical Gender?

In English, so-called grammatical gender—vocabulary with clear gender marking—shows up in a few limited contexts. One example is in our pronouns, and specifically in the third-person singular pronouns, she, he and they. Another example is vocabulary words that imply gender. These include familial relationships like mother and father, professional designations like actor and actress, and titles like Mr. and Mrs. There are many examples of this kind of gendered vocabulary, and in recent decades, contemporary language has tended to move away from using the female versions, calling women actors rather than actresses, and referring to flight attendants rather than stewardesses. There has also been a decline in the use of gendered titles in English over the decades, including Mrs., Mr., and Miss, with only a small uptick for Ms. where it displaced other female titles. 

This shift away from overtly gendered language is likely the result of several demographic and political movements. Some changes came as the result of feminist language reform, which sought to remove language that presumed vocabulary marked as male as the normal or neutral form of a word, and particularly to create gender-neutral terms for positions of authority. This movement gave us chairperson and spokesperson as replacements for chairman and spokesman. It also advocated for the adoption of Ms. as a female title that was not dependent on marital status, bringing it into parity with Mr. 

Other language changes have been the result of demographic changes. The number of Americans who openly identify as LGBT+ has grown over time. Despite many setbacks and continued hardships, this group has steadily won victories in pursuit of rights and recognition, and in doing so, has highlighted the need for more inclusive language. This has led to many language innovations, including the adoption of neopronouns. We encourage our readers to check out last year’s Deepgram Pride post: The Language of LGBT+ Inclusion and Allyship, for tips on making your language more inclusive of LGBT+ people.

What about Languages Other than English?

So far though, we have focused on English. You might be surprised to learn that in comparison to many other major world languages, English has barely any grammatical gender marking at all. Let’s take a whirlwind tour of how other languages incorporate information about gender into their vocabulary.

Students of Romance languages like Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Italian will be familiar with the two-gender system that extends to all nouns. Nouns that refer to people or animals of a particular gender often align with the expected grammatical gender. To take some examples from Spanish, la hermana “the sister” is a feminine noun, whereas el hermano, “the brother” is its masculine counterpart. But this system extends to all nouns, not just nouns referring to living things, which means that language learners need to remember that el puente “the bridge” is masculine, while la casa “the house” is feminine. When people of different genders are spoken of together as a group, the group defaults to masculine, such that a group of amigas and amigos – female and male friends – are referred to collectively as amigos

But let’s not stop at Romance languages. Some languages have even more complex gender marking. Learners familiar with Latin, Ancient Greek, German, or any of the Slavic languages will have encountered no fewer than three genders: masculine, feminine, and neutral. As we saw in the examples from Spanish above, this framework applies to inanimate objects that have no inherent “gender” in the way living things do. Confusingly, the rules in these languages sometimes produce unexpected gender marking even for living things. In German, the word for “girl” das Mädchen, is neutral. Surprising? The reason has to do with how the word is formed. The -chen ending is a diminutive suffix: a variation of a word that emphasizes its small size or precious quality. The addition of -chen changes the gender of a base word to neutral. Mädchen was originally a diminutive form of the now-archaic feminine word die Magd, the German cognate of English “maiden.” But over time, the diminutive, neutral form das Mädchen completely replaced die Magd as the word for “girl.”

Speakers, not Nouns

So far, all of our example languages have focused on how nouns are marked with gender—but some languages go even further than that. Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew conjugate verbs in ways that must agree with the gender of the person doing the action. Furthermore, because these languages have feminine and masculine forms of the second person pronoun “you,” there may be multiple ways to express certain actions depending on the gender of who is involved. In Hebrew, for example, there are four ways to say “I love you”: one each for a woman speaking to a woman, a woman speaking to a man, a man speaking to a man, and a man speaking to a woman. 

Some languages classify nouns into categories that don’t resemble “gender,” along the lines of the mostly-European languages described so far. Some languages, including Native American languages such as Blackfoot and Ojibwe, divide nouns into the categories of animate and inanimate. Other languages, such as Hungarian, Turkish, and Mongolian, have no grammatical gender as such but categorize nouns according to whether they feature “front of mouth sounds” or “back of mouth sounds”—a phenomenon known as vowel harmony. Meanwhile, languages including Chinese, Japanese, and Swahili have complex noun classification systems with dozens of categories, often grouped by shape, size, and other descriptive features. Learners of Chinese often encounter these categories first through the concept measure wordsshí zhǐ māo means “ten cats,” shí zhāng zhuōzi means “ten rivers,” and shí zhī qiānbǐ  means “ten pencils.” The words zhǐ, zhāng, and zhī are simply counter words (or noun classifiers) that describe animals, flat objects like tables, and cylindrical objects like pencils, respectively. Swahili, Japanese, and many other languages have developed noun classification systems along these lines.

Moving Towards Gender-Neutral Language

In recent years, there has been the beginning of a language reform movement to create gender-neutral forms for Romance languages. The result of one such movement was the creation of the term Latinx (pronounced “latin-ex”) as a non-gendered version of Latinos among some Spanish speakers in the United States. Nonetheless, recent studies indicate that adoption of Latinx is limited to academic and social justice contexts. Speakers of Romance languages—as well as many other languages—have developed gender-neutral pronouns and other strategies for language reform where gender marking is perceived as a political issue.

While these changes are derided by some, the noun classification systems like those of Swahili, Japanese, and Chinese shed light on an important aspect of the “gender”-based classification systems described above in the context of European and Middle Eastern languages: namely, that the relationship between a noun and its “gender” is arbitrary. Returning to the Spanish examples, there is nothing inherently feminine about la casa “the house” and nothing inherently masculine about el puente “the bridge.” And there’s no reason that languages can’t develop new ways of communicating that are less tied to gender.

Wrapping Up

Some day, some brilliant person may prove or disprove the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis—an achievement which would share linguistics, anthropology, and cognitive science to their core—and in doing so, show a definitive relationship between linguistic categories and our perception of the world. Until then, it is enough simply to acknowledge that the words we use have social meaning in that they have the power to include or exclude certain groups of people as well as set coded expectations about the role of gender in society. This Pride, we’re taking the opportunity to think about how gender influences language, and we hope you’ll continue to think about how gender shows up in your own speech too.

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