Masculin ou Féminin?



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!

18 responses

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  1. Zack wrote on ::

    Singular “they” is correct. It’s been used like that since Middle English. Please don’t propagate the myth of its incorrectness. See for instance.

  2. Colby Russell wrote on :

    We could just get rid of gender-specific pronouns altogether. It’s not like we need them; their existence causes more trouble than whatever good stuff they might bring along.

    Hofstadter, D. “Person Paper on Purity in Language”.

  3. flod wrote on ::

    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.

    That’s easier in Italian: the third plural pronouns are “gender free”.

    removing the “men” from women à la womyn, herstory instead of history, and so on.

    The only similar debate I can think of is about political roles and professions. You normally use the male version (e.g. “il presidente”), sometimes you add a female definite article when you’re talking about a woman (“la presidente”), some others create awful female versions of the male noun (“la presidentessa”). On official documents you should find only male nouns.

    Maybe is out of topic, but IMO using those altered versions to explain that you’re talking about a woman is just counterproductive: a president is still a president, I don’t care (and I shouldn’t) if it’s a woman or a man. And “history/herstory” sounds like a poor choice, unless you want to change also latin (historia) and greek (ἱστορία, istoria) where “his” means nothing 😉

  4. Janet Swisher wrote on ::

    Generic singular “they” has a long history, dating back to the dawn of modern English. It was only in the 18th and 19th centuries that self-appointed grammarians decided it was “incorrect”. If it was good enough for Shakespeare and Jane Austen, it’s good enough for me.

  5. Anonymous wrote on :

    English has a *much* easier time of this than other languages. Inanimate objects always use the “it” and “they” family of pronouns, and despite the grumblings of prescriptivist language lawyers, the “they” pronouns works quite well as third-person singular pronouns for people. This means that English doesn’t ever *need* to use gender pronouns except when talking about a person of known gender.

    By comparison, many other languages simply have no gender-neutral pronouns, not even improvised and debated ones like “they”. Furthermore, many standard language constructions in other languages necessitate assigning or assuming a gender, even when not using pronouns. I’d love to know if any other languages have solutions for those problems.

  6. Flore wrote on :

    As french is my native language (and I live in France), I’ll try to explain those strange things. French is the official language in France since 1539 for all judicial acts (êts). Before that all official texts were in latin. But of course, long before this ordinance, french was spoken by people, poets, troubadours… Grammatical rules, orthograph are now (since 1635) standardized by the ‘Académie française’ (émie_française), they write their own dictionary, they’re creating new words for new concepts/objects (sometimes forgotten as soon as created, sometimes widely used by everybody).

    As you said, there is no neuter gender, everything has to be male (M) or female (F). For the objects, it’s just something you have to know, no obvious or historical reason most of the time, sometimes synonyms have different genders : grass (F) and turf (M) and so on. In the army (F) (feminine word although it’s mostly a male world), words are male or female: war (F), brigade (F), platoon (M), patrol (F), regiment (F), artillery (F), infantry (F), cavalry (F)… Virtues are feminine words (even if the meaning is obviously male : virility, chivalry…). Among amazing words, there are 3 words which are masculine in their singular form and feminine in their plural form: love, delight, eagle (only when speaking of the roman or imperial (Napoleon) insignia). It seems that some words have also changed gender.

    For animals, there are always different names for males and females and one of these names is generally used to talk about the whole species. But that’s not always the male name. So the animals have sometimes their “traditional” gender… Rat is male but mouse is female, this could be confusing, as children often believe that mouse (F) is the lady of the rat (M)…

    The main issue is for titles/jobs, a female article (La/une) is not always sufficient to feminize a title: the word has also to be feminized (that’s the job of the académie française). It’s easy for most words : président (M) / présidente (F), directeur (M) / directrice (F)… But some jobs (mostly political) still resist to this ‘feminization’ leading to somewhat stupid expressions : ‘Madame (F) le (M) maire (M)’, ‘Madame (F) la (F) ministre (M) (better, but until 20 years ago, it was incorrect and we had to say ‘Madame (F) le (F) Ministre (F)’). That’s improving but not everywhere, especially not in the lower and upper house, where titles are not feminized (although the feminine words do exist, it’s incorrect to use them), we have to say ‘une femme député’ (a woman deputy)…

    The issue you mentioned ‘If someone has a question, _he_ should post it to the newsgroup.’ is not really an issue for us as we prefer to address directly to the group ‘Si vous avez des questions…’ by using ‘vous’ (which is both second person plural and formal second person singular)…

    France… The word itself is feminine (like Belgium and Switzerland, by the way). France is a republic (F), a democracy (F), her motto is “Liberté (F), Egalité (F), Fraternité (F)” (“Liberty, equality, fraternity (brotherhood)”), her national emblem is Marianne (a woman allegory of Liberty), her national anthem is “La marseillaise (F)”.
    But before the french revolution (F), France was a kingdom (M) and there was this salic law forbidding not only inheritance by a woman but also inheritance through a female line, this led to the Hundred Years’ War.

    French is a subtle and complicated language…

    NB: (F) indicates that the previous word is feminine in french (and (M) for masculine)

  7. Ongelmaton wrote on :

    “Also please feel free to respond in your native language if it makes it easier!”

    Jos lukija on niin taitavaa, että ymmärtää tämän tekstin, niin he ilmeisesti jo tietävät kielen, jossa sosiaallinen sukupuoli ei ole iso ongelma.

  8. Anonymous wrote on :

    German is my native tongue. Personally, I am very much annoyed by the confusion of grammatical gender with natural gender (i.e. the sex of a person). German grammatical gender is not supposed to be logical (languages in general aren’t). See

    For example “das Mädchen” (the girl) has a gender neutral article. If you were to apply logic to that, you’d have to assume girls are things. A language is something that has developed over ages and has its set of rules. Since German (and in general, French and Spanish) have a grammatical gender that is unrelated to the natural gender, using those languages according to their rules is not sexist.

    In English, French and Spanish sex does play a role has you have highlighted. In French and Spanish there is the “group of people with at least one male” is masculine thing. I am no scientist when it comes to languages but I think that’s just the default gender kicking in.

    For example the German default gender for a profession (often masculine, sometimes feminine as in “die Krankenschwester” – “the nurse”) is applicable to both sexes. Using the feminine form for a typically masculine profession (by grammatics) is more specific, to highlight the specific person is female. There is no way to specifically highlight that a person is male in that case. A “Schauspieler” (an actor) can be both male or female, but a “Schauspielerin” (an actress) can only be female.

    In some German circles something called “gendering” is applied to texts. This is an artificial extension of the language. It means combining the masculine and feminine form into one: “SchauspielerInnen” (“Schauspieler” and “Schauspielerinnen” – actors and actresses). Personally, I find this form somewhat sexist suggesting words which represent both genders (as “Schauspieler” does) need to be modified to specifically include females, as if females should be assumed to be weak and to feel excluded if their inclusion is not specifically highlighted. I think that is degrading to women.

  9. Spudd86 wrote on :

    The use of they as a gender neutral singular pronoun is NOT incorrect, nor is it particularly new. See Wikipedia here

    (Well some people may not like it, but it’s acceptable to a lot of people and has a long history of use)

  10. Spudd86 wrote on :

    (Also I’d like to add that using ‘she’ for no one in particular drives me nuts because it’s no better than using ‘he’ and isn’t either of the conventions English has had pretty much since the use of ‘one’ slipped out of favour, the conventions being use of either ‘he’ or singular ‘they’)

  11. Mic wrote on :

    I’m from Germany and we use the male forms as well as default.
    We had discussions about this before as well among our friends, both male and female and the surprising conclusion was: it doesn’t matter for any of us. The more interesting thing is: it doesn’t matter for the girls of us, but it seems it definitely does for older women, maybe people who grew up when men and women not yet had equal status. Now that there are women who grew up with no direct disadvantages it doesn’t seem to matter for them anymore if they are referred to with a male form sometimes. It’s just a turn of phrase and nothing more. At least that’s what _we_ found as conclusion. We’re aged 25-30 by the way. Will check for other comments later 😉

    Best regards

  12. Gabriela wrote on :

    In Spanish we have gender for articles and adjectives but not for numbers except number “one”. It’s the only number whose gender is concordant with the subject. In Hebrew even numbers have gender!

  13. Robert Kaiser wrote on ::

    In German, this debate has been fought to a point where even many women can’t stand women rights people any more that want to find non-gendered or equally-gendered words for everything. IMHO, it’s better to live with how history has formed a language rather then trying to rewrite it without actually changing the minds of people. I for myself find the forced change of language to be more sexist than many actual social inequalities we still have.

  14. Tony Mechelynck wrote on ::

    In Russian, the plural is genderless (adjectives, pronouns, etc. have the same form for masculine and feminine plural)… as long as no cardinal numbers are involved. After numbers 2, 3 and 4 the genitive singular replaces the nominative or accusative plural (yes, Russian, like German, Latin, and classical Greek, has declensions), and what’s more, when there are several digits to the number, the agreement is with the last word, so that “one thousand and one people” becomes “one thousand and one person”, and similarly, if the number ends in 2, 3 or 4 (but not zero or more hundred plus 12, 13 or 14 for which equivalents of “twelve”, “thirteen” and “fourteen” are used) the genitive-singular is used again. (After other plural numbers it is the genitive plural which is genderless.) This “special handling” of small unit numbers is a leftover from the “dual” number of Indo-European, which has disappeared in modern languages, but not without leaving some tracks.

  15. Tony Mechelynck wrote on ::

    Oh, and I forgot: Russian (like German, etc.) also has a “neuter” gender, but nonliving objects can be masculine, feminine or neutrer; and it treats “living” beings (including the “ferz” [cf. English “vizier”] word used only for a chess queen) differently from “nonliving” ones (including “ladya” [cf. English “nave”] an archaic word for “ship” used only nowadays for a chess rook).

  16. karl wrote on ::

    Not exactly the same issue but with similar questions

  17. Mic wrote on :

    Hi, seems my posting slipped your attention as Gabriela posting is later and already approvbed an mine isn’t. Would be nice to have it shared with the community.


  18. Dr Katya Bailor wrote on ::

    A large percentage of of the things you mention happens to be supprisingly appropriate and it makes me ponder the reason why I hadn’t looked at this with this light previously. This piece really did turn the light on for me as far as this particular subject goes. But at this time there is actually one issue I am not necessarily too cozy with and whilst I make an effort to reconcile that with the actual main theme of your position, let me observe exactly what all the rest of the subscribers have to say.Very well done.

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