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How society shapes language: clashes between linguistic gender and biological sex

Ever since I was a student, I followed with great interest the debates on the effect of language on the way we perceive the world around us. A few years ago, for instance, the Dutch railways (NS) decided to replace their traditional opening message Dames en heren ‘Ladies and gentlemen’ into Beste reizigers ‘Dear travellers’ in an effort to address not only women and men, but also persons who do not identify themselves as female or male. Among other things, this debate circles around the issue of linguistic gender. Many languages, such as Dutch, but also French or German, distinguish between masculine and feminine (and neuter) nouns. In French, for instance, the noun lune ‘moon’ is feminine, whereas the noun soleil ‘sun’ is masculine.


But what determines the gender of a noun? For nouns such as ‘sun’ or ‘moon’, often there is no clear reason why one of them is masculine and the other one feminine – and interestingly, in German, it is the other way round: Sonne ‘sun’ is feminine, whereas Mond ‘moon’ is masculine. With nouns denoting human beings or animals, in contrast, there is often a correspondence between the noun’s linguistic gender and the biological sex of the person or animal depicted. For example, the noun for father in French, père, is masculine, while the noun mère ‘mother’ is feminine, thus showing a perfect match between linguistic gender and biological sex.


However, assuming that linguistic gender corresponds to biological sex can raise several problems. Even for nouns denoting a person, there is not always a perfect match between the noun’s linguistic gender and the person’s biological sex. A famous example from Dutch is the noun meisje ‘girl’. While the person denoted by meisje is always female, a girl, the gender of the noun is neuter, instead of feminine. Another example, from French, is the feminine noun sentinelle, which denotes a guard and thus typically refers to a man. Nevertheless, this noun only has a feminine form. These cases, French sentinelle and Dutch meisje, show a mismatch between linguistic gender and biological sex.


A similar mismatch between linguistic gender and biological sex existed also for many noun denoting professions. For a long period, many professions were only carried-out by men, so there was no need for feminine forms of the corresponding profession names. In the last decades, however, more and more women started to carry out such traditionally male-dominated professions, under the influence of feminisation movements. This caused the need for feminine profession names, a process that in some languages took more time than in others. While in German, the use of the feminine form Lehrerin ‘female teacher’ did not cause any problems, in French, the masculine form professeur ‘teacher’ remained in use for female teachers for a long period. Nowadays, however, more and more persons use feminine equivalents, such as professeure (originally introduced in Canadian French, from Québec). This is a good example of the influence of societal changes – in this case feminisation – on language.


Interestingly, mismatches between linguistic gender and biological sex of a specific noun may also influence other parts of speech. Even though the Dutch noun meisje ‘girl’ is neuter, speakers of Dutch often encounter sentences such as: Dat meisje, zij leest een boek ‘That girl, she reads a book’. In this example, while the noun meisje is feminine, the pronoun zij ‘she’ that is used to refer back to this neuter noun is in the feminine and not in the neuter form (which would have been het ‘it’). As different studies have shown, native speakers of Dutch in fact prefer the use of feminine zij ‘she’ over neuter het ‘it’ to refer to the neuter noun meisje ‘girl’.


Within my PhD-project, I investigate slightly different cases in French and German, which involve the same problem: a potential clash in linguistic gender between two elements. Suppose you want to talk about a group of students that you teach a French language class. Your group of students consists of women and men, which means that you would typically use a masculine plural noun, étudiants ‘students’, to denote this group in French. Now, suppose that you want to say that one of your students, the girl Marie, is the most smart student of your group. How do you say this in French? As Marie is female, to say ‘the most intelligent’ you would use the feminine form la plus intelligente. If we now combine this in one sentence to say ‘Marie is the most intelligent of my students’, this would translate into Marie est la plus intelligente des étudiants ‘Marie is the most intelligent (in the feminine form) of the students (masculine form)’. So far, so good.


However, the sentence we just formulated contains a problem: there is a clash of linguistic genders between the masculine plural noun étudiants ‘students’ denoting the group and the feminine la plus intelligente ‘the most intelligent’, referring to one specific students selected from the group, Marie. While there are no clear rules in French that indicate if such a gender clash is allowed or not, native speakers of French do have intuitions about the correctness of such clashes. The central goal of my PhD-project is to look at these intuitions to determine which factors may contribute to the acceptability of such a linguistic gender clash, not only for French, but also for German. As the results of my study show, an important factor that influences the acceptability of a gender clash within a sentence is the particular noun that is used. While the example we constructed previously involved the noun étudiants ‘students’, a similar example with another noun, such as ministre ‘minister’, may be different for native speakers. Such noun differences may be caused by societal changes, such as the one I described earlier in relation to the feminine form professeure ‘female teacher’ in French.


What can we learn from this? On the one hand, it teaches us how we can talk about a female person selected from a mixed group, as in the situation described earlier, for which no clear grammar rules exists. Interestingly, the results so far indicate that in most cases, speakers of French and German accept a gender clash, which means that they prefer to use a feminine form to denote a female. On the other hand, the results give us insight into the factors that may impact gender systems in language, which not only furthers our understanding of the language system in the human mind, but also tells us more about the influence of societal changes on language.


Thom Westveer


University: Universiteit van Amsterdam

Faculty: Faculty of humanities

Favourite drink: Red wine

Want to know more?

If you want to know more about Thom Westveers research, you can find his most recent publications here.

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