Etymology Expeditions: What's Gender Got To Do With It?

After reading The Left Hand of Darkness, I got to thinking about words and gender in the different languages I know.

In Finnish we don't have a gender-based grammatical system for nouns. Swedish nouns have gender, but it's not sex-based (en/ett), while English assigns gender on semantic grounds only (a/an). In French, nouns have gender and the division is sex-based (une/la is the feminine article, un/le the male). Then we have German, which not only has a gender-based system for nouns, but also divides them into three sexes (die is feminine, der masculine, and das neuter).

If we look more closely at the languages that have gendered and sex-based grammatical systems, what does it tell us, if anything?

Most words that refer to gender are of that gender, like "mother" in French is la mère and in German die Mutter, the same with masculine equivalents of le père/der Vater.  But even this isn't foolproof: the German das Mädchen meaning girl is of the neuter gender (this is probably because of the diminutive suffix -chen at the end). Some words can have to do with mythology, like der Mond the moon, die Sonne the sun. The goddess Sunna/Sól is the personification of the sun, while Máni is the moon god (derives from Norse mythology, you can read more here).

Then we have the words that feel a bit judgemental. Le cerveau, "the brain," is masculine, as is le livre, "book." But then we have la chemise, meaning a men's shirt. La bête, "beast," is feminine. The fact that many French words for occupations only have a masculine is a bit grating: le médecine, "doctor," for example. Does it affect how women choose their careers? It certainly contributes to stereotypes. I'm curious, any French readers here? When you hear the word "doctor," do you automatically picture a man, or are word genders invisible to you? Is this something only a person studying a foreign language notices?

 Personal pronouns are another thing that gender affects in some languages. In Finnish, we only have one pronoun for he/she, hän. English differentiates the third person singular as he/she, as does German (er/sie)  and Swedish (han/hon), but they (sie/de) is common for both, while in French we have il/elle and the third person plural ils/elles. In French, the masculine always triumphs: if you have ninety-nine women and one man, you would still call them by the masculine plural Ils.

In Finnish, the lack of gendered pronouns can sometimes lead to strange situations. You might assume the gender of the narrator in a book wrong, for example. I tend to assume my own gender if I'm not sure. I don't know if this has anything to do with my native language. It feels jarring to realise you're wrong. Perhaps this speaks about the importance of gender in society and social interaction. I can't imagine how hard it is for transgender people to get called by the wrong pronouns. It's also pretty awkward for the other person to decide which pronoun to pick. (Yeah, you should probably just ask which pronoun they prefer, but it feels like a very personal question, especially if you've just met someone.) It's like the language forces you to think about gender all the time. There have been attempts to find a third pronoun for the English language that wouldn't assume gender, like "xie," but I haven't seen it used that much. Hey, you can borrow the Finnish hän if you like. You'd get a new letter in the deal, too. If your browser doesn't show the letter ä, hän looks like han with an umlaut (two dots) over the a.

Fascinating stuff. If you want to know more, this article looked interesting.