On Gender in Language

As I often do at this blog, I’m going to write about something that I know virtually nothing about. Keep that in mind – and feel free to comment – if you have anything to add. But I’d like to take a brief moment to talk about language, because I find linguistics fascinating despite my amateur experience with it. I speak a couple of languages at a fluent or near fluent level, and I speak a couple at a very, very basic level, and every once in a while I notice differences between them.

In Through the Language Glass, my first (and only) foray into linguistics – and a very introductory one at that – Guy Deutscher gives a broad overview of culture’s influence on language and language’s influence on culture. I read the book a couple of years ago, and every once in a while I think back to the studies that Deutscher mentions when I notice differences between the languages I speak or study. Recently, I’ve been learning Swahili, and it reminded me of something that Deutscher wrote about German, the language I learned in high school and college. In the book Deutscher quotes anthropologist Franz Boas as writing that “[Grammar] determines those aspects of each experience that must be expressed.” He then goes on to quote linguist Roman Jakobson: “Languages differ essentially in what they must convey and not in what they may convey.” Deutscher continues:

If I say in English, “I spent yesterday evening with a neighbor,” you may well wonder whether my companion was male or female, but I have the right to tell you politely that it’s none of your business. But if we are speaking French or German or Russian, I don’t have the privilege to equivocate, because I am obliged by the language to choose between voisin or voisineNachbar or Nachbarinsosed or sossedka. So French, German, and Russian would compel me to inform you about the sex of my companion whether or not I felt it was your business. [151-2]

I found this really interesting, as I had never seen the constrictions of some languages from the gendered point of view. In Mandarin Chinese, I have very specific words for family members: my mother’s older brother has a different name than my mother’s younger brother, and their names differ from my father’s older and younger brother as well. Chinese is particularly specific when it comes to kinship terms, but broader nouns don’t carry such specificity. All neighbors are neighbors, in other words.

Fast forward a year and a half, and read this wonderful piece by Angus Johnston about the time he was asked his preferred gender pronoun at a party:

[I]t was actually a great question that I was asked that night. It was an exciting question. I’m a “he.” I’ve always thought of myself as a he, and I expect I always will. I’m a man, I’m a guy, I’m a dad, I’m a son, I’m a brother.

But in that moment, I got to choose. I was asked to choose, asked to pick whether for the duration of that conversation I wanted to be approached as a he or as something else. And I knew that whatever answer I gave, it would be honored, respected, taken seriously. And that recognition, far more than any of the rote rounds of he/she/they/ze responses I’ve seen given at the start of workshops, opened something up in me. It wasn’t a door — at least not a door I was tempted to walk through — but it was a window.

And I liked the view.

I attended a conference in February that was dominated by English graduate students, many of whom worked on queer theory. (Jack Halberstam gave the keynote, if that’s any indication of the audience). There were some situations in which I awkwardly didn’t know how to refer to people because I didn’t know what their preferred gender pronoun was. One of my hosts with whom I spent a lot of time tended to use “they” to refer to a person, and I picked up on that when I needed something to default to. At the time, though, I also reflected on how other languages deal with gender pronouns.

In Swahili, there is no “he,” no “she,” no “it.” There is only yeye. There are plenty of nouns that carry gender: there are men and women, brides and grooms. But both waiters and waitresses are wanunuzi. Your neighbor is a jirani. And you don’t have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, you have a mpenzi. And using that language everyday for fifty minutes is a window into a life under a different gender system. Obviously this doesn’t mean that it’s easier being trans* or queer in a Swahili-speaking society, but it means that living in that type of setting might be in some ways different. In Mandarin Chinese there is no difference between the third person pronouns. Whether you mean he, she, or it, you say ta. But, oddly enough, when you tried to write about him, her, and it, you would be compelled to write 他, 她, and 它. And so, in a way, talking about people may give you more privacy than writing about them if you’re interacting in Mandarin.

There’s not an argument that I’m building to, I suppose. I’m just processing how the different languages I know use gender, and how they allow speakers some freedom or privacy, but also how they constrict.


One thought on “On Gender in Language

  1. no doubt. language is a very interesting subject. you must know the exact meaning of what you say and mean or you can easily be misunderstood. I am always fascinated by languages. Good blogging subject. I enjoy reading your blogs………….keep it up.

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