Now it might seem absurd to question the language system of millions of people, but there is, I hope, reason behind the madness. Hear me out.
Before going any further, however, it should be made clear that there are three main language systems used in the world today:
- Gendered (e.g. Romance languages) – animate and inanimate objects are divided into different genders (commonly two, but sometimes more).
- Natural gender (e.g. English) – only pronouns used to express the gender of animate beings.
- Genderless (e.g. Turkish, Finnish) – no distinction between genders in nouns, i.e. hän refers to ‘he’ and ‘she’ in Finnish.
The fact that people get by perfectly well speaking genderless and natural gender languages suggests that gendering nouns is not necessary. Sure, in some cases, gender adds clarity in that it can draw a distinction between two nouns. For example, ‘The jar [m] fell into the bowl [f], and it [m] broke’. However, the argument for clarity requires the nouns in question to be of different genders, and therefore proves a weak argument for a system which might do more harm than good.
In a fascinating article, cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky explains how languages provide their speakers with ‘cognitive toolkits’. In other words, the way that a language is constructed and the vocabulary it uses can shape how a speaker thinks and acts. We are told how the effect of Kuuk Thaayorre (a language spoken by Aboriginal Australians) is to increase its speakers’ ability to orientate themselves, and how certain languages make it easier for their speakers’ to learn things than do other languages. If language shapes the mind as Boroditsky claims, then how might gendered languages shape the minds of its speakers?
Grammatical gender might seem pretty harmless. After all, what has grammatical gender got to do with natural gender? Well, it turns out that grammatical gender has a residual effect which alters speakers’ perceptions of objects. We can see the grammatical gender of a noun creeping into people’s perceptions when, for example, comparing the personified depiction of Death in Germany and Russia. In Germany, Death (German Tod, masculine) is imagined as a man, whereas in Russia Death (Russian smert, feminine) is visualised as a woman. Grammatical gender finds its way into Russian folklore, for example, when cutlery falls to the ground: if a knife (masculine) is dropped a male guest is expected to come, if a fork (feminine) falls, a female guest will come knocking. These examples may seem inconsequential, but they demonstrate how something as technical as grammar can have an impact beyond the sphere of its primary purpose.
And there are studies which suggest that the social effect of grammatical gender might not be so inconsequential after all. A study carried out in 2011 found a link between gendered languages and gender inequality. The researchers compared 111 countries’ level of gender equality (using data from the 2009 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report) with their respective language systems. The researchers write:
…countries that speak gendered languages evidence less gender equality than countries that speak natural gender or genderless languages–especially in terms of gender differences in economic participation—even when other factors that could influence variations in gender equality (e.g., religious tradition, system of government) are taken into account.
The extent to which things are gendered and how this is arranged varies from language to language. But there are certain languages and dialects that seem to me, at least, to be fundamentally sexist. Take, for example, the Polish dialect in which a female is referred to in the neuter form until she gets married, at which point she is accepted into the feminine category. Thus grammatical gender reinforces the idea that an unmarried woman is worthless. This is a very specific example, but there are numerous languages in which the masculine case is used for male humans and divine entities, with everything else comprising the feminine category. In several Slavic languages (such as Bulgarian, Russian, and Ukrainian), animacy is a separate category for the masculine. Growing up with such a language system, one might be forgiven for viewing the female as ‘other’ – lifeless even.
In writing this I’m not suggesting a worldwide upheaval of language. Not yet anyway. But what I hope is to encourage people to think about the language which they use day on day, and consider how it might be affecting the way they think. Language is so intrinsic to our lives; it would be foolish to use it uncritically.
Boroditsky, L. (2009) How does our language shape the way we think? In M. Brockman (Ed.), What’s next? Dispatches on the future of science (pp. 116–129). New York: Vintage.
Colville, G. (1991) Gender. Cambridge University Press.
Jakobson (1966) 6). On linguistic aspects of translation. In R. A. Brower (Ed.), On translation (pp. 232–239). New York: Oxford University Press.
Prewitt-Freilino J. L., Andrew Caswell, T. and Laakso, E. K. (2011) The Gendering of Language: A Comparison of Gender Equality in Countries with Gendered, Natural Gender, and Genderless Languages
 Prewitt-Freilino J. L., Andrew Caswell, T. and Laakso, E. K. (2011) 278.