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Language and Gender: Socio-Cultural Domination Perception

People often say: “You are what you eat”. However, from the linguistic point of view, it could be transformed as “you are what you speak” because a person can be a product of their native language. Language is a completely human achievement and the main indicator of being human. Appreciating the role of language in building mental lives allows people to understand better the very nature of humanity.

Although gender is just a set of rules that determine how to combine words and how they change, gender influences human thoughts and the style of speaking because speakers of gendered languages cannot but notice these grammatical issues and, as a result, language becomes more detailed, but sometimes also more complicated.

Several decades ago, linguists supposed that language’s peculiarities could influence the cognitive function of its speakers. In the 1930s, these suppositions were supported by works of American linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf. Edward Sapir investigated how culture and language affected each other (Sapir, 1921). This sphere of linguistic interests was shared with his student Benjamin Lee Whorf. Whorf supported the idea that because of linguistic differences people that spoke different languages conceptualized the world in a different way (Whorf, 1956). Together they developed the principle of linguistic relativity that is now widely known as “Sapir-Whorf” hypothesis. Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that language is not just a tool for reproducing ideas, but it is also a creator of ideas, as well as it shapes and guides the process of reality perception (Boroditsky, 2011). The principle of linguistic relativity produces the idea that the structure of a language influences the ways in which speakers perceive their world.The concept of linguistic relativity is closely linked to grammatical and natural gender.

The focus of the present paper is on gender as understood from the linguistic viewpoint. Hence, the following definition will be used in this context: “Linguistic theory distinguishes between grammatical and natural gender, regarding the former as structural or formal phenomena, and the latter as semantic or content phenomena.” (Farris, 1988).

Speakers of different languages іindeed think in a different way and that even categories of grammar can seriously affect the way peoplе see the world. 20% of languages in the world have this distinction of gender in the noun. Several languages have grammatical gender and distinguish feminine, neutral, and masculine genders. Latin, Arabic, and Spanish languages can be taken as an example. In Latin, the noun man is masculine, woman is feminine, and gold is neutral. Words that denote rivers and winds are always masculine: Moenus, Aprilis. Words denoting countries and islands are feminine: Phoenicia, Sicilia. Neuter nouns often have the –um ending: argentum, fatum. There are nouns in Latin that do not have natural gender as they are inanimate, but they still have the grammatical gender: navi (fem.) – boat. To understand Latin, one should memorize each noun’s gender because there are no strict rules of determining gender.

In Arabiс, there are two genders: masculine and feminine, while there is no neutral gender. Each animate or inanimate object is either masculine or feminine. The true masculinе and feminine noun categories refer to living beings. Figurative masculine and feminine categories include inanimate objects. Some words can be feminine or masculine depending on the situation: friend – zamiіl (masc.) – zamiilа (fem.) In Arabic, feminine nouns often have the –a(t) ending.

Nouns in Spanish can be masculine or feminine: la mesa(fem.), el libro (masc.). Masculine nouns often end in –o and –n: el trabajo, el buzon. Feminine nouns’ endings mostly are –a,-d, -ionla informacion, la ventana, la libertad. Of course, there are few exceptions to every rule; so, it is better to learn nouns and their genders.

Other languages, which divide nouns due to their natural gendеr as femalе or malе, are called languages with a natural gender system. Among these languages are English and Chinesе.

Though modern English is not heavily complicated by gender, Old English distinguished three genders, like German, for example. Gender did not depend on meaning of the word or sex and often was illogical. Just like in German, some inanimate nouns were feminine and masculine instead of being neutral. In modern English, noun agreement with adjective can sometimes appear: when someone uses adjective “handsome” to describe a female or “pretty” to describe a male, the listener notices this is an unusual gender use. In English, speakers still tend to use nouns when natural gender can be easily defined instead of their gender-neutral alternatives: wife and husband are used in everyday life more often than a not so common spouseKid and сhild are less common than frequently used nouns son and daughtеr. For singular reference, mother and father are more preferable than pаrent.

In many natural gender languages, gender can be displayed in personal pronouns of the 3rd person singular. In English, there are two groups: the group of animate creatures and the group of inanimate objects. Animate things that are alive beings are referred to due to their natural gender. For example, a womаn is feminine, a man is masculine, a child and a friend – are feminine or masculine (it depends), etc. Objects that are not alive are referred to as “it”: the sun – neutral, a country – neutral, a tablе – neutral, a platе – neutral, etc. Animals are on the edge between animate and inanimate as they can either be ‘it’ or ‘he/she’, depending on whether or not people have an emotionаl background with the аnimal and would know its gender or even refer to it by name. Hence, a pet dog is never “it”, but always “he/she”, while a stray dog would be “it”. The same thing is about babies. From the beginning, a newborn child is called baby (neutral). It is often written on birth announcement cards “It’s a …”. Later, when a baby grows up, it becomes a boy (masc.) or a gіrl (fem.).

Chinese nouns are not divided into gender groups and they do not have special markers or endings to denote gender. Chinese does not even have an agreement between a personal pronoun, which indicates gender, and a verb. In this sense, Chinese is simpler than English.

Grammatical gender like many other grammatical concepts such as number and tense could be abolished as it is not an obligatory category in a language and billions of people easily survive and communicate without it. The grammar of most Asіan languages such as Chinese and Japanesе easily survives without gender. There are languages that refer to lifeless objects as males and females and give living beings a grammatical gender unrelated to their sex, for example, for a German speaker a girl, das Mädchеn, is neutral. This noun is preceded by a definite article of neutral gender, while a turnip, die Rübе, is more feminine than the previous noun.

Nouns of languages from the same linguistic group usually tend to have the same gender as they may have inherited their gender from the original word in a parent language. In the Romance languages, the noun sun is masculine because it originates from the Latin noun sol, which is also masculine. At the same time, the noun moоn is feminine because it is derived from Latin noun luna that is feminine. If to compare this information with what there is in German, then, vice versa, die Sonnе (sun) is feminine and der Mond (moon) is masculine.

Languages that belong to the same language family and have grammatical genders divide words into masculine, feminine, and neutral gender groups in completely different ways. In Indo-European family’s languages, nouns usually have feminine, masculine, and neutral genders. Latin has three genders, but in French and Spanish neutral gender has almost disappeared.

In gendered languages, there are several ways to identify male and female living beings. There may exist completely different words for denoting male and female animals of the same species: rooster/hen, селезень/утка (duck), cheval/jument (horse). Nouns may also take an ending that denotes the female animal: tiger/tigress, lapin/lapine (rabit), perro/perra (dog). A special word that denotes male and female animals could be added to a noun: she-bear, jirafa macho, dinosaurio hembra, vulpes masculina (he-fox).

Grammatical gender is usually not connected with sex. For example, in Spanish, the word el chico(boy) is masculine and la chica (girl) is feminine as it is expected. This is what linguists call natural gender. There are rules that help to define gender of a word, but they are not always accurate and have multiple exceptions. For example, in German, nouns ending in -ung are feminine and car brand names are masculine. Words with diminutive suffixes -lein and -chen are neutral; thus, grammatical genders of Mädchen (girl) and Fräulein (young woman) are neutral. This difference is not determined by any rules and may vary in different cultures and grammatical genders. The ancient Roman culture considered the Sun to be masculine and the Moon to be feminine (the same thing as in French, Spanish, and Italian), but the Germans (and speakers of other languages of the Germanic group) express the opposite belief. When a person starts learning a new language, it is important to regard gender as a part of the noun and memorize it accordingly in order to use the language correctly.

Grammatical gender is something that is difficult to understand. It does not always coincide with natural gender. It is a property of each language. The same noun could be of different genders in different languages. There is the following question: if the noun is, for example, feminine, does this fact make speakers of a given language think of it like about something more “female”? Some experiments have proved that it does. For instance, native speakers of Spanish and German describe such noun as bridgе differently. Genders of these words are opposite in the two languages. As a result, German native speakers, for whom die Brücke is feminine, describe the noun bridge as something that has feminine traits, using such adjectives as delicate, thin, elegant. Native speakers of Spanish, for whom bridge (el puente) is masculine, describe this noun with adjectives big, fortified, high that are more suitable for someone male. This experiment has showed that native speakers tend to attribute male and female qualities to nouns due to their linguistic gender in their native language. Nouns that denote inanimate things do not have natural gender, which is why it is not the object itself that influences perceptions, but words that describe this object. Grammatical categories, such as gender in this case, influence the human way of thinking. People imagine gender of given items in accordance with their grammatical gender in language. German speakers see the noun bridge as something that is more feminine and slender rather than masculine and, vice versa, the Spanish see the same noun as more masculine and solid. If so, than abstract nouns might be visualized in accordance with their grammatical gender. In this case, it is possible that painters, sculptors, and artists describe wisdom, justice, love, death, etc. while considering their grammatical gender.

The theory that grammatical gender explains why an abstract entity is depicted as male or female in a piece of art is not a surprise and was quite widespread in the sphere of art in the 20th century (Paxson, 1998). To see the effect of language, there is no need to make some special experiments; people can see these effects with their own eyes in an art gallery. Gombrich (2011) states that most pieces of art from the Renaissance period describe feminine images. This could be explained by the fact that the majority of abstract nouns are grammatically feminine, for example, VictoryJustice, and Fortune (Gombrich, 2001).

When people look at somе known examples of pieces of аrt, they usually do not think how abstract entities such as dеath, sіn, or time that are described. Then, how does an author decide whether justice or time should be depicted as a male or a female? It has been discovered that in the majority of such personifications whether a male or female image is chosen is determined by the grammatical gender of the word in the author’s native language. Hence, for example, German painters are more likely to paint death as a man, whereas French and Spanish painters are more likely to paint death as a woman. In French and Spanish, noun death is feminine and in German it is masculine.

Famous Russian linguist Roman Jacobson said that in Slavic languages the noun day was grammatically masculine and night was feminine. In Russian poetry, night and day are often described as lovers (Jacobson, n.d.).

Language can affect how quickly children understand if they are male or female. For example, Hebrew distinguishes genders, Finnish does not, and English is somewhere in the middle. Children growing up in a Hebrew-speaking environment begin to understand their sexual identity about a year earlier than Finnish-speaking children do (Boroditsky, 2011).

In fact, English does not have a clear and rational system for grammatical gender. Many native English speakers think that there is no need to complicate the language by using gender with nouns. This will simplify the process of learning new languages and communication. However, the truth is that, for instance, Spanish and German will never abolish gender as a grammatical category. For these languages, gender system is useful as it helps to keep flexibility of word order within the sentence. These languages should not be considered as just tools for a quick and effective communication as they have gone through a long way of development and cannot follow the rules of mere logic. Without genders, these languages will not sound so natural and their speakers will lose a part of their cultural identity.

Languages that distinguish genders and natural gender languages behave differently when it is necessary to keep them non-sexist and to approach the idea of political correctness. Languages that divide nouns into genders are considered to be more unequal and sexist. Not only human way of thinking shapes language, but also language determines the way people think. To prove this idea, scientists have decided to make an experiment: three groups of students read abstracts in English, Spanish, and French. As it has been stated above in the paper, English is a less gender specific language, while Romance languages are more gendered ones. After looking through the text, students answered questions about what they had read. In comparison with students who read the text in English, Spanish and French groups answered the questions with a higher level of sexism (Pappas, 2012). In English, unlike many gendered languages, it is possible to avoid the overuse of gender-specific pronoun he, not to use the noun man in the meaning of all people, and to create gender-neutral sentences. It is possible to take the example of a habitual use of pronoun he without having any reason for this: This semester I will live with a new roommate. I hope he will be friendly. In this sentence, he is used though the roommate may also be a female. To make the sentence more gender neutral, it will be better to say: This semester I will have a new roommate who I hope is friendly. In French, masculine gender is used more often and speakers cannot omit personal pronoun ils (3rd person). This pronoun is plural and may refer to he and she, but still it is masculine.

One of the problems that is successfully solved in many gendered languages is the problem of creating nouns that denote jobs. German differentiates between masculine and feminine genders of nouns that refer to jobs. Feminine nouns are derived from the masculine form and created by means of adding the ending: Arzt – Ärztin,  Übersetzer -Übersetzerin. In French, endings –e, -trice, and -euse mark feminine nouns: directeur-directrice, travailleur – travailleuse, employe – employee. In Spanish, feminine nouns are created by adding -enne, and –eavocat – avocate, pharmacien – pharmacienne.

The problem of grammatical gender in languages is closely connected with sexism and political correctness in countries. People in Pakistan and Yemen speak mostly gendered languages. This could be one of the reasons why these countries occupy the last place in the list of gender equality. Accordingly, Iceland and Finland are the most gender-equal counties. This may be explained be the fact that people in these counties speak natural gender languages.

People should not evaluate one language thinking that what their native language has or has not is the only correct variant. If a Spanish native speaker thought that the use of phrasal verbs in English could be unnecessary and too complicated because verb and preposition can be easily substituted by a new single verb, that idea would be considered as illogical by English speakers.

Every language is unique and all languages have some complicated rules for learning and understanding. Someone may find it difficult to learn so many English phrasal verbs. However, it is an obstacle (like genders in German) that every learner should overcome. If some people consider grammatical gender to be a sign of a sexist culture, it is their problem, but not the problem of the language. Speakers of gendered languages can easily understand the difference between sex and gender.

In a conclusion, people’s native language makes them different in the way of expressing their thoughts and reality perception. Human interpretation of the world is defined by language. Since languages vary around the world, each group of language speakers must have a distinct worldview (Slobin, 1996). While scientists headed by Sapir and Whorf take the idea that language has a great impact on thought and others state that language could not be affected by thought, information from the paper shows that language does affect thought and perception of the world, but language does not rule over thought or reality.

At a glance, grammatical gender is merely a number of rules that determine word changes after combining them together. However, some linguists state that gender influences the people’s perception. This grammatical category plays a significant role in acknowledging the human nature. People speaking different languages see every aspect of life from a different angle. Every language has its own characteristic way of expressing thoughts. Differences in grammar structures make people change the way they underline certain points and words can have different meanings, which even subconsciously influences associations speakers have with them. As a result, an important issue of language speaking is to realize these personality peculiarities and be comfortable with them.

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