Gender in language – what is the impact on society?

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Finns, Hungarians, Estonians, Turks, Indonesians, Vietnamese and many other people are used to their genderless languages, which do not have either grammatical gender or gender pronouns. Someone who does not speak any foreign language and whose own language lacks grammatical gender could not imagine in their wildest dreams that a table, lamp or a sofa could have a gender, or that a newspaper could prohibit the use of a gender-neutral pronoun.

However, about a quarter of the world languages have grammatical gender, meaning that the nouns in these languages are divided into different classes, ie genders. Many languages distinguish between the feminine, masculine and neuter. For example, in German der Löffel (spoon) is masculine, die Gabel (fork) is feminine and das Messer (knife) is neuter.

Some languages distinguish only the feminine and masculine, others organise words as animate and inanimate. In languages that use grammatical gender, the gender assigned to words denoting inanimate objects is often random and does not rely on the object’s characteristics, the same object can be feminine, masculine or neuter in different languages. For example, in Spanish, the word ‘moon’ is feminine and ‘sun’ is masculine, while in Arabic the word ‘sun’ is feminine and ‘moon’ is masculine. In Russian, the word ‘sun’ is neuter.

Trouble with pronouns

As for the absence of gender pronouns, Finnish, Hungarian, Estonian, Turkish, Indonesian, Vietnamese and many other languages are the exception rather than the rule. The English she and he and the Swedish hon and han are just a few examples of pronouns in languages where a person’s gender is always noted when they are referred to. In contrast, these languages traditionally lack gender-neutral pronouns, which in turn creates problems – more and more people define themselves as non-binary and do not want to be referred to by a gender pronoun.

However, in order to alleviate this sensitive situation, these languages are trying to find ways to indicate gender neutrality. For example, already back in 1966, it was proposed in Sweden that the neuter pronoun hen is used instead of the pronouns hon and han. More serious implementation of this started only in 2010, and initially it caused some disruption – the word was associated with radical feminism, and in 2012, the leading Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter banned the use of the word hen in its issues.

By now, however, hen has lost much of its extremism in the eyes of the public, and Dagens Nyheter also made a truce with the word. In English, a sharp change occurred at the end of the last decade, when the plural pronoun they began to be massively adopted as a singular gender-neutral pronoun. The use of they in the singular became so popular that Merriam-Webster, the oldest dictionary publisher in the United States, chose it as its word of the year 2019.

Between the two genders

In some languages, gender is not only used to refer to others, but the speaker’s vocabulary and manner of speech also depend on the speaker’s gender. Take, for example, the indigenous Lakota people who live in North America, of whose language is currently spoken by approximately two thousand people. Lakota language does not have gender pronouns or grammatical gender, but speakers of the language must choose words depending on their gender.

For example, a female speaker uses the clitic kštó at the end of a declarative sentence, while a male speaker uses yeló. According to some speakers of the Lakota language, such a system symbolises the different roles of women and men in society. At the same time, there is a tendency for women to use the clitic yeló, traditionally reserved for men in Lakota language, in work environment, especially in areas where men have previously dominated.

Additionally, the term winkte occurs in Lakota culture, consisting of the words win (as) and kte(woman). Winkte denotes a person born into the body of a man who uses female vocabulary. In Western terms, it could denote a homosexual, non-binary or transgender person. In Lakota culture, winktes have historically been considered to be two-souled people who balance between the masculine and feminine and the natural and supernatural worlds.

Therefore, winktes often assume the role of healers, translators and mediators in Lakota society, as they are able to see the problems from several points of view. In Lakota society, the two-souled have historically been honoured, but due to the onslaught of colonialism and Christianity, different ideas began to spread. This is why homophobia and discrimination against winktes emerged also among the Lakota people.

Saying it with cherry blossoms on top

Linguists studying Japanese claim together that in Japanese, the way women and men speak are very clearly distinguished. Both the unwritten rules of society and the elementary school textbooks of Japan say that women must speak politely and gently. Nobuko Kobayashi points out that in Japan, women are expected to refer to problems indirectly rather than directly, especially when it comes to pointing to men’s mistakes in the work environment, for example. Instead of simply saying ‘something is wrong with the numbers’, it is preferred that they would say ‘I am not very good at calculating. Are you sure that this is correct?’

Kobayashi writes that the differences between women and men can also be observed at the lunch table: In Japan, a man uses the word ku-u (to eat hungrily, to devour) to refer to eating, while women’s vocabulary tends to include itadaku (to consume modestly). It also happens in translated literature that in the Japanese version, the female characters appear more feminine and polite than in the original. Gender forms

Language perpetuates stereotypes

More recently, Japanese social scientists have found that, in the long run, such gender differentiation will damage the social position of Japanese women. It takes more time and energy to say things indirectly and it deprives women of the opportunity to express themselves clearly in a critical situation.

The distinctive way of speaking also does a disservice to men, who are always expected to remain true to the masculine stereotype. Momoko Nakamura, who studies the connections between language and gender at the Kanto Gakuin University argues that the difference between men and women in language justifies and cements their different treatment at work, at home and in society in general.

As language has a huge impact on our daily lives, gender differentiation in language can have a detrimental effect on minority groups and exacerbate the use of gender norms or male-dominated language. If we look at the increasing emphasis placed on gender-related problems, people whose language lacks grammatical gender are in some ways lucky – at least when speaking in their mother tongue, they do not face the risk of using pronouns incorrectly or accidentally attracting more attention to someone’s gender than they might like.

On the other hand, it is precisely the absence of gender pronouns in one’s mother tongue that may cause someone to mix up pronouns when speaking in a foreign language – so a person whose native language does not have grammatical gender may happily refer to their father as she and to the Queen of England as he. However, both will likely forgive such a slip.


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