The New European - - Eurofile -

PE­TER TRUDGILL on those who keep the sex in lan­guage, and those who don’t

The Hun­gar­ian word ö can mean ‘he’ ‘she’, or ‘it’. So can Es­to­nian ta and Turk­ish o – there is no in­di­ca­tion in any of th­ese pro­nouns of what the sex of the en­tity be­ing re­ferred to is, or in­deed even whether it is an an­i­mate be­ing or not. Sim­i­larly, Fin­nish

hän also means ‘he’ and ‘she’, and in modern Fin­nish se, ‘it’, is of­ten also col­lo­qui­ally used for ‘he’ and ‘she’ as well.

Un­like in th­ese lan­guages, in English we do in­di­cate the sex of hu­man be­ings (and some an­i­mals) by us­ing one of the third-per­son sin­gu­lar pro­nouns he and

she. But this is the only point in the struc­ture of the English lan­guage where sex is rel­e­vant gram­mat­i­cally: all the other English per­sonal pro­nouns – I, me, you, we, us, they, them – are gen­der neu­tral.

Other lan­guages go fur­ther than English in mark­ing nat­u­ral gen­der. French not only in­di­cates sex in its third­per­son sin­gu­lar pro­nouns, as English does, but also in the plu­ral: it has two words cor­re­spond­ing to ‘they’: ils (mas­cu­line) and elles (fem­i­nine). Mixed groups of males and fe­males are nor­mally ils. Ice­landic has mas­cu­line their, ‘they’, fem­i­nine thær – and uses neuter thau for mixed groups.

A smaller num­ber of lan­guages dis­tin­guish be­tween male and fe­male hu­man be­ings in their words for the sec­ond per­son you. This can get quite com­pli­cated. In po­lite Pol­ish dis­course, speak­ers ad­dress a man as pan, ‘you’, and a woman as pani, but they would call a close friend ty, ‘you’, re­gard­less of whether they were male or fe­male.

In Span­ish, speak­ers ad­dress a group of fe­male friends as voso­tras, ‘you (plu­ral)’, while a group of male friends would be vosotros. (Again mixed groups are gen­er­ally treated as mas­cu­line.) But you would ad­dress a friend on their own as tu, ‘you (sin­gu­lar)’, re­gard­less of their sex. And if you were be­ing for­mal, you would use usted, ‘you (sin­gu­lar)’ or

ust­edes, ‘you (plu­ral)’ for both males and fe­males.

Some lan­guages even have a gen­der dis­tinc­tion in the first-per­son plu­ral pro­noun. Span­ish is one lan­guage which has this fea­ture: noso­tras, ‘we (fe­male)’, is dis­tin­guished from nosotros, ‘we (male)’. And there are lan­guages out­side Europe, in­clud­ing Ja­pa­nese, where there are dif­fer­ent male and fe­male forms for I/me, even though in most cir­cum­stances it is gen­er­ally rather clear whether a speaker is male or fe­male.

But in a num­ber of Euro­pean lan­guages there are other ways in which speak­ers are obliged to in­di­cate their own gen­der gram­mat­i­cally. There is lit­tle of this in Ger­man, though if you wanted to say “poor me!”, the fe­male form would be “ich unglück­liche” while men would say “ich unglück­licher”.

In French this is much more com­mon: women and men are fre­quently obliged to use dif­fer­ent forms of ad­jec­tives that re­fer to them­selves. “I’m ready” is “je suis prête” for women and girls but “je suis prêt” for men and boys. It works the same in Por­tuguese: es­tou pronta (fem­i­nine) ver­sus es­tou pronto (mas­cu­line).

Of­fi­cially, the Por­tuguese word for ‘thank you’ dif­fers ac­cord­ing to the sex of the speaker: women are sup­posed to say obri­gada, while men say obri­gado. This is be­cause the word – which lit­er­ally means ‘obliged’ – is a ver­bal past par­tici­ple which be­haves in the same way as an ad­jec­tive like ‘ready’. In prac­tice, it is not un­com­mon to hear Por­tuguese-speak­ing women use the mas­cu­line form obri­gado.

In some Slavic lan­guages, past-tense verb forms also dif­fer ac­cord­ing to the gen­der of the speaker: Pol­ish males have to ren­der ‘I ar­rived’ as przy­jechałem

while fe­males are obliged to say przy­jechałam. This does not pro­vide any ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion in face-to-face con­ver­sa­tions, but it does mean that read­ers might be able tell whether some­one who is writ­ing in Pol­ish is male or fe­male. It is re­ported that young Pol­ish-speak­ing boys may have to be overtly in­structed not to copy the forms their moth­ers use when it comes to this par­tic­u­lar gram­mat­i­cal point.

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