Gendered Pronouns

There’s a post over at Samizdata on the subject of gendered pronouns. It talks about the apparent problem of some men and women not wanting to be referred to as “he” or “she”, and yet another problem whereby some people object to a third person of unknown sex being automatically referred to as “he”. Hence, apparently, there is a need for a gender-neutral third person pronoun. I should point out that Natalie Solent, the author of the Samizdata piece, is merely discussing the issue and groping around for a possible solution rather than demanding something be done, but I’ll weigh in nonetheless.

The first thing that occurs to me is that, as with so many other present-day crises, this is something that appears to be limited to the English-speaking world. The supposed problem is that the use of “he” or “she” infers sexual attributes to the person in question which they might not like, but this might have more to do with the nature of English grammar than a desire on the part of an ancient system of Patriarchy to impose their characterisations on unwilling recipients.

English, being a highly simplified language, doesn’t have gendered nouns and so the only time you see “he” or “she” is in relation to a living creature which, until recently, must be of one of two sexes. A lot of other languages – French, German, Russian to name three – have gendered nouns whereby inanimate objects such as a book, a car, a window, and a door are referred to as “he” or “she”. In the case of Russian and German they even have nouns of a neutral gender.

Things get further complicated in French when the possessive third person pronoun takes the gender of the noun, not the person. In English we say “her book” and “his book” depending on who owns the book. In Russian it’s the same. Only in French they say “son livre” using the masculine form even if the person owning the book is a woman. Conversely, if a man owned a car you would say “sa voiture” because car is feminine.

My point is that people who grow up speaking such languages are probable more resistant to the notion that the pronoun says much about the sexual characteristics of the object in question. When a Russian says “you can park near her” referring to a hotel, nobody is going to think this is attributing sexual characteristics to the hotel, much less as a way of imposing ones traditional views of sexuality, etc. People who use these languages are more likely to see gendered pronouns as grammatical conventions and nothing more, and they probably don’t even see the oddity of things such as knives and forks having a gender in the first place.

I’d be interested to see if this controversy over gendered pronouns exists in the non-English speaking world. I am confident it doesn’t in Russia. Perhaps it does in France, but I doubt it. My guess would be that this is being driven by people who, not having the first clue about languages (including their own), are basing their entire objections on an implication that simply isn’t there.

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12 thoughts on “Gendered Pronouns

  1. I will not debase the English language by pandering to these egocentric ignorant garbage dwellers.

    I mock them at every turn by using the language in its correct form. May the rot in grammar hell.

  2. This debate certainly happens in Germany, and precisely because attributive nouns are gendered, according to the sex of the person.

    Student in English has no gender. Student in German is masculine, Studentin is feminine. And there are plurals, Studenten (m) Studentinnen (f), the m also applying to a group of mixed sex. This is apparently discriminatory against women (because men don’t have their own plural – I know).

    The spelling reform solution (not sure if it was implemented or just proposed, suffice to say you see this very rarely these days) was: StudentInnen. With a capital letter in the middle of the word.

    The current solution is to turn the noun into a so-called “substantive adjective”, which supposedly has no gender, but in this case is feminine. So “Student” becomes “Studierende” (one who studies).

    Of course the current gender wackiness is going to render even this male/female neutral solution obsolete, as we (thankfully) don’t have 57 different gender declensions, and even if we did someone would find some of them offensive.

  3. I have a certain amount of liking for languages like Finnish where both he and she (and his/hers etc) are the same.

    However one feels that one’s own language already has a solution if one wishes to use it

  4. FrancisT’s is a solution for this problem, but will fall foul of the class warriors and their battle against all things posh.

  5. This debate certainly happens in Germany, and precisely because attributive nouns are gendered, according to the sex of the person.

    Oh, thanks for that BiG.

    Student in English has no gender. Student in German is masculine, Studentin is feminine. And there are plurals, Studenten (m) Studentinnen (f), the m also applying to a group of mixed sex. This is apparently discriminatory against women (because men don’t have their own plural – I know).

    See in France the battle, insofar as one is being fought, is over the names of professions which once assumed the holder can only be male and hence there are no female equivalents, e.g. le médecin (doctor), le professeur (professor). My guess is the feminists here need to win this fight before worrying about gendered pronouns.

  6. FrancisT’s is a solution for this problem, but will fall foul of the class warriors and their battle against all things posh.

    Yup.

  7. I have a certain amount of liking for languages like Finnish…

    That’s the linguistic equivalent of saying you’re into scatology.

  8. At our house, the forthcoming child is always ‘baby’ as in ‘baby needs a cot at least when baby arrives.’

    Given that so many people now know the sex if not the gender (hah!) of their forthcoming early on in the process, we ought to use he, she or it more I suppose.

  9. @bloke in germany,

    “we (thankfully) don’t have 57 different gender declensions”.

    Those who claim there might be more than two genders should be asked to explain their logic to a classroom full of primary school children without using the word “sexuality”.

    Maybe film it and let this young lady critique it?
    https://youtu.be/FEaZyYOLUUk

  10. Don’t think they’ve got round to it yet in Spain. I could be wrong, as I live out in the boonies in darkest Galicia.

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