A recent comment on the WoMoz mailing list brought up the issue of English speakers using a default gender when referring to things where the gender is unknown. This got me thinking. It’s an old conversation, one I can remember as a child being raised by feminists. In English, the “correct” default gender is male, example: If someone has a question, he should post it to the newsgroup. Nowadays we try and avoid it by using they, albeit incorrectly. You see it in other places, some more extreme or more widely adopted than others: removing the “men” from women à la womyn, herstory instead of history, and so on.
As a Canadian I grew up an English speaker who was keenly aware of other languages that force you to assign gender to practically everything. It’s always an interesting lesson in French class; how do you know if the chair is a boy or a girl? I remember my class not understanding why all groups with a male member were ils, even if it was 1 man among thousands of women. Our diplomatically innocent minds would have used the gender that represented the majority in the group – 5 women and 4 men would be elles and 5 men with 4 women would be ils.
I’m very curious how the gender in language debate plays out in other cultures. Does it mimic the English debates? Is it a more complex debate because gender appears in so many places in the language? Or does using gender towards objects make people less sensitive to perceiving these language ticks as sexist?
I really am very curious! Maybe the experience is entirely different depending on the country and not just the language. Please reply here, or even on the WoMoz mailing list if you have experiences with these debates. Also please feel free to respond in your native language if it makes it easier!