On a human level, gender identity is a complex matter, involving numerous variables, differing perceptions, and, in many cases, an effort to defy outside assumptions. In spite of the more enlightened attitudes on gender present in 2019, old institutions still cling to outdated notions and expectations, and even language itself cleaves to un-nuanced concepts of masculinity and femininity.
Understanding the relationship between formal grammar and gendered language proves helpful in a wide range of situations, from professional communication to personal correspondence. Read on for a guide to grammatical gender, how it varies from language to language, and the results and consequences of these linguistic constructs.
Grammatical gender, explained
Oxford Research Encyclopedias define grammatical gender as follows: “In the languages that have grammatical gender—according to a representative typological sample, almost half of the languages in the world—it is a property that separates nouns into classes. These classes are often meaningful and often linked to biological sex, which is why many languages are said to have a “masculine” and a “feminine” gender.”
Essentially, certain languages designate nouns into “masculine” or “feminine” categories, which then inform the verbs, adjectives, and articles used in association with these subjects.
The use of grammatical gender in language can serve a few purposes: some literal, some more figurative.
To people, in general
In some cases, linguistic gendering relates to physical gender assignments; for instance, “the girl” in Spanish is “la niña”, using the feminine “la” prior to the noun.
In many languages, gendered speech extends beyond living beings who have the potential to truly identify with a specific gender and applies to inanimate objects as well. Often, the gender of certain items can vary from language to language; Psychology Today points out the word “key” as a particularly interesting example.
They mention that the German word for “key” has masculine coding, while the Spanish word for the same object is feminine. In an effort to explain why the “gender” of a key differs between the two languages, Psychology Today cites a 2002 study in which researchers asked German speakers and Spanish speakers to name adjectives that they associate with the “key” subject. German speakers came back with words like hard, heavy, jagged, metal, and useful, while Spanish speakers replied with golden, intricate, little, lovely, and tiny.
The implicit gender concepts surrounding those adjectives may relate to the initial reasoning for each language’s gender choice for a “key,” but Psychology Today points out that the gendered articles could actually inform the perception of the object, depending on which language you speak.
The idea of gender neutrality in language takes different forms depending on the specific language’s structure. Traditionally gendered languages like French, Italian, Swedish and German still tend to refer to inanimate objects (or days of the week or job titles) with gendered nouns and articles, but also utilize gender-neutral phrasing on a growing basis (often in response to critiques from gender-equality advocates). These efforts are increasing in momentum throughout the world; for instance, many European, African and Asian languages use masculine-gendered terms as defaults, but activists continue to push for neutrality.
Grammatical gender in different languages
Very few languages can claim total exception from gendered terminology. However, the tendencies are more deeply ingrained in certain cultures.
Which languages are grammatically gendered and which are not?
- Romance Languages
Languages derived from Latin (like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and French) are significantly gendered. The vast majority of nouns take on a gender when referenced in speech and writing; for instance, in French, “masculine” nouns are discussed using masculine articles (“le”, “un”), while “feminine” nouns are prefaced with “la” or “une”.
- Germanic Languages
In German, Swedish, Danish, and other Germanic tongues, nouns fall into one of three categories: masculine, feminine, or “neuter” (or gender-neutral). Variations exist depending on the specific gender, and gender-neutrality advocates in Germanic nations are pushing for an eradication of coded language whenever possible.
- Slavic Languages
As with Germanic languages, the grammatical rules in Slavic languages incorporate three genders. Their use varies depending on the situation; for example, Russian job titles always have a gender designation, based on the assigned gender of the person holding the position.
- Asian Languages
Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other Asian languages do not utilize grammatical gender. However, these languages regularly use classifiers and modifiers for nouns, which can inform plurality and gender alike.
How many genders are in the English language?
While English doesn’t incorporate as strictly-regimented rules around gender as languages like French, Spanish and Russian, four noun genders do exist within English grammatical structures. These four genders are:
Neutral (used for objects and proper nouns with no gender, like days of the week)
Common (used for members of a species/group with no gender specification, like “friend”, “client”, or “student”.
Consequences of gendered language
While it’s easy to dismiss grammatical gender as a mere linguistic quirk that’s too firmly entrenched in tradition to dismantle, the use of gendered terminology in job titles and discussions of power dynamics can prove problematic.
Gender, language and politics
As women, transgender individuals and gender-nonconforming people seek ways to break into positions of power and influence, they often find themselves faced with subtle forms of discrimination that seep into their cultures through less-than-obvious means. One such mean is language itself. In English, for instance, job titles with “feminine” grammatical structures often carry less respect and authority than their “masculine” counterparts. Consider “stewardess”, “waitress”, “midwife” and “saleswoman”.
Luckily, the efforts of gender-neutrality advocates are receiving more attention than ever nowadays. For instance, in Sweden, activists have recently received mainstream attention for their attempts to remove gender-specific pronouns from the language altogether. Also, in the United States, many companies are eschewing the “chairman” title when referring to the heads of their boards of directors, instead using gender-neutral terms like “chairperson” or simply “chair”. These shifts may seem minor, but their effects on sociocultural perception will have wide-reaching results for future generations of non-cisgendered workers, politicians and leaders.