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The Evolution Of Grammatical Genders: Why French Has Two Genders, German Has Three, And English Just Doesn't Care

The distinction between masculine and feminine seems perfectly normal today, but it might actually be more cultural than natural. How grammatical genders influence our worldview.

French can be a funny old language. Anyone who’s learned it will have, at some point, read a phrase like “Bernard and his sisters, have they [masculine] arrived yet?" or “Madame le Ministre" and stifled a giggle. But it’s far from trivial, if we acknowledge how language shapes our world.

British francophone journalist Alex Taylor described his despair when, as a child, he discovered that even the most neutral objects, devoid of any symbolic connotation, had a gender. He stared in vain at the table in front of him, trying to find a trace of feminine elegance.

Why these arbitrary gender assignations — and why does the masculine gender tend to have right of way?

Useful or not?

If the distinction between masculine and feminine seems perfectly normal to French speakers (and perfectly bizarre to English speakers), we would do well to remember that every language has its own peculiar approach to gender. Sometimes it doesn’t exist at all, as with the Finno-Ugric languages: these do not distinguish between masculine and feminine, but rather between animate and inanimate, as do Slavic languages. If a Hungarian or a Finn speaks of how their grandmother told stories, they speak of “it" and not “her." Basque, Estonian, Turkish, and to an extent Mandarin, all completely ignore gender.

Looking more closely, it’s easy to see why the animate/inanimate distinction preceded the masculine/feminine. Why? Quite simply because the latter was not useful, argues Antoine Meillet, one of the principle linguists of the 20th century. He cites as proof the chaos that reigned between different languages, which demonstrates that we cannot derive the gender of a word from its "real" characteristics. Why should a key be masculine in German (der Schlüssel) but feminine in French (la clé)? Another indicator is the occasional discord between “grammatical" and “natural" gender, such as the German word for a young girl, Mädchen, which is in fact neuter. (Or, to quote Mark Twain: “In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has.")

Such differences between languages are evident, but the real mystery of gender can be seen even within a language. It’s easy enough to see a symbolic link with grammatical gender in the case of, say, mother earth (la terre in French and feminine in most languages). But then how on earth does a banana (la banane) evoke a feminine figure? One might almost, ahem, consider it a rather masculine noun.

Hence why many linguists refuse to see our experience of the world reflected in grammatical gender. It can be useful for specifying a situation, but often not in a general context. Another French example: nobody gets their nose too out of joint with a phrase like “les lions chassent" (“the lions hunt"), except that it’s the lionesses who are actually doing the charging. But the Finns, with their lack of gender, have a simple solution: they simply add a “male, female, man, woman" to the noun whenever necessary.

And God created Man — and the feminine gender

Efforts to reconstruct a theoretical Proto-Indo-European language, the supposedly prehistoric reconstruction of our current European languages, tend to show that animate/inanimate was the primary distinction. This is typical of an animist vision of the world, of a time when rituals and beliefs were strongly attached to the natural elements. The distinction disappeared bit by bit, ceding place to masculine and feminine, just as monotheistic religions were replacing animistic beliefs. Whereas the feminine was strongly associated with notions of force and power in pagan times, monotheistic religions associated them with masculinity. Arent J. Wensinck and Jean Markale are among the scholars who have put forth this idea, but it remains difficult to prove.

Much more evident and retrospectively traceable is the gradual dominance of the male gender. In Greek and Latin, the Rule of Proximity decided grammatical accord. (Basically, this says that the verb is governed by the element nearest to it, e.g. in the sentence “There was neither ice-cream nor chocolates at the party." You can say “was" instead of “were" here because ice-cream is singular. Got it? Never mind.) Under this logic, a Frenchman could write “ces phénomènes et créatures dangereuses" — as a Quebecois can, incidentally — but unfortunately under modern French grammatical rules, he can’t. In 1675 the delicate ears of l’Abbé Bouhours were so affronted by this offense to the noble masculine gender — if both masculine and feminine were present, surely the adjective could not decline to the feminine! — that from that day forth, the masculine gender ruled the French roost.

Gender, a history of culture

So it seems that grammatical gender is not primarily linked to our experience of the world. Neither does it seem to be born of a true communicative need. It is instead a story of historical evolution, influenced by grammar, certainly, but above all by culture.

The linguistic diversity of the world bears witness to the fact that grammatical gender is not universally perceived in the same way. Quite the contrary. Between Finnish and Hungarian which have no genders, German that juggles three and English that retains gender for people and lumps everything else into the ubiquitous “it" category, everyone’s got their own unique take. But tastes change. Swedish has proved that far from being eternal, the structure of a language is quite capable of evolving in tandem with social norms. In 1966 the neutral personal pronoun “hen" was introduced, ostensibly to deal with asexual concepts or objects, yet perhaps also, indirectly, to emancipate the language from too binary a vision of the world.

“Language… is quite simply fascist," said Roland Barthes, a sentence that asserts the real, concrete power of language, sweeping aside the argument that a debate over grammatical gender is merely trivial. Yet if gender is not born out of real life experience, it nevertheless shapes our vision of the world: isn’t it time we reconsidered the ideological values of how we use gender?

As for whether Shakespeare would have seen the moon as masculine or feminine… the mystery remains.

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