Does the language have a gender?

Last Updated April 26, 2017

The very word “gender” alone can heat up a debate. We are not sociologists, psychologists or sexologists – we are language specialists. And that is this article is going to be devoted to the gender in the language.

For Polish people it is natural to assign a gender to objects or abstract concepts, as in our language they are always classified as masculine, feminine or neuter. The situation is different for example in English, in which everything has an unspecified gender, i.e. neuter. Assigning a gender to objects is one of the biggest challenges faced by a native English speaker learning a new language, and one of the most interesting linguistic issues raised by anthropologists, sociologists and linguists.

Why there are genders in the language?

A gender is assigned to nouns which do not have it at all. Usually a gender is defined based on their physical characteristics, but what is important in this respect are also beliefs, legends, traditions or the meaning or significance of a given phenomenon or object to the community. For example, in the Alamblak language spoken in Papua New Guinea, all objects with an elongated, slender and narrow shape are masculine, while in the Zande language spoken in Africa, there are four grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, animate and inanimate, but depending on various beliefs and the role played by a given concept in the society, inanimate objects can have an animate grammatical gender.

Does it really matter?

As mentioned in previous articles, the language we speak affects very strongly the way we perceive reality. But a stick has always two ends – the place where we grew up and how we were raised also have a significant impact on the way we speak. As regards the gender in the language, speakers of dialects in which nouns are assigned genders find it much easier and faster to assign a given gender to objects and abstract concepts.

In the course of research into these issues, a number of experiments were performed. One of them involved speakers of Spanish and German (genders are used in both languages), who were presented a dozen words in English (i.e. a language which does not specify the gender). Interestingly, the selected words had different genders assigned in Spanish and in German. And so, the word “key” (in Spanish: la llave, in German: Der Schlüssel), the Spanish were more likely to choose attributes such as “small”, “golden”, “nice”, while the Germans – “heavy”, “metal”, „useful”. Can you also see some patterns here?

Language researchers also indicate that children speaking languages differentiating genders become faster aware of their own gender and can also define and identify differences between males and females. On the other hand, some sociologists and sexologists believe that genderism of the language can deepen sexism and gender inequality.

Sexist language?

Referring to the allegation that the language enhances sexist behavior, it is not difficult to find numerous examples supporting it. For instance the names of professions: many of them are masculine. What is more, many of them do not even have feminine counterparts or have ones which sound awkward. However, if we look at this problem from the historical perspective, we can quickly notice that the language – just like the society – evolves. In the past, only men worked professionally, so it was difficult to find a female doctor or lawyer. As women started doing these professional, relevant names started to be coined. And the longer they exist in the consciousness of language users, the more natural they seem. Neologization, i.e. redefining new concepts, creating them based on existing ones, takes place.

Every now and then, however, “feminine” word formation patterns cause controversies. For example in Polish, a female medical doctor is called “lekarka” which is derived from “lekarz” – a male medical doctor, yet it is not correct to refer analogically to a female driver as “kierownica” (a derivative form of “kierowca” – a male driver). Linguists are not unanimous here: some of them persistently use feminine suffixes, while others believe that relevant standards and common sense should prevail while coining new words.

Masculinity not so much masculine

Finally, let’s have a look at some examples showing that the grammatical gender does not always correspond to the actual gender:

mulherão in Portuguese means a sensual and attractive woman, and yet this noun is masculine
– in the Ket language spoken in Siberia, all objects and ideas important to the community are masculine, those less important – feminine
– “masculinity” – in Polish, Spanish, German, Russian, Hindi and Latin, is feminine.

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