There are over 6,000 languages in the world, and not all of them follow the same rules as English. In many languages — particularly the Latin ones such as Spanish and French — all nouns are gendered. This changes the way we think and see the world — and not necessarily in a negative way.
The concept of a gendered language can be strange, especially for native English speakers who have only ever known English since childhood. English — unlike Latin languages — refers to every noun gender-neutrally (we’ll refer to languages like these as “neutral languages”).
If you look up the definition of “gender,” you’ll see it primarily defined in the context of sex and the identity of an individual (no doubt because of the seemingly increased discussion around it in current events). However, there’s more to gender in language than just a reference to a person or how they identify themselves. Exploring the topic can reveal nuances and similarities between different cultures, as well as how the perception of the world around us can vary among ourselves.
Why Are Languages Gendered?
Many articles and reports cite the concept of gendered language stemming from ancient times when humans held rituals and beliefs centered around the natural world and the elements.
English — unlike Latin languages — refers to every noun gender-neutrally.
According to Babbel, “Efforts to reconstruct a theoretical Proto-Indo-European language, the supposedly prehistoric reconstruction of our current European languages, tend to show that animate/inanimate was the primary distinction.” Eventually, the distinction between animate and inanimate broke away, and some languages instead started to use distinctions between male and female.
Is There an Advantage to This Gendered-ness?
Though reminiscent of old traditions, gendered language continues to serve a purpose, which may be interesting to someone who only knows a neutral language. With gendered languages, things like sentence structure and descriptions of multiple things in relation to a person can get interesting, and it can convey meaning and emphasis differently.
Gendered Language Sentence Structure
Take the statement, “the woman is beautiful.” Here we have an article (the), subject noun (woman), verb (is), and adjective (beautiful). Pretty cut-and-dry. In colloquial and even modern literary English, there’s not much variation that can happen with this sentence. If the woman subject has been pre-defined (or maybe even not) the sentence can be shortened to “she is beautiful” or “she’s beautiful.” Reordering the sentence’s structure such that an adjective comes first, “beautiful the woman is” doesn’t really work. It may seem too reminiscent of Yoda, but this could be poetic if it’s shortened to “beautiful she is.”
In Spanish, the sentence can be re-ordered not just for poetic purposes, but also for functional reasons.
Meanwhile, in Spanish, the sentence can be re-ordered not just for poetic purposes, but also for functional reasons. The direct translation of our original sentence is “la mujer es hermosa.” You can reorder the sentence in many ways, and have it make sense in a conversational context, as well emphasize different parts of the sentence (like for poetic reasons). “Hermosa es la mujer,” “Es hermosa la mujer” express the same sentiment, but the adjective “beautiful” is at the forefront.
Gendered languages allow for more freedom in a sentence structure. And although this example is simple, it allows for changing the meaning of a sentence through emphasis — without sounding like Yoda.
Gendered Language Provides Clarity with Multiple Objects
However, it also allows for a little more clarity when dealing with multiple objects in a sentence. For instance, the sentence “take a pencil and write in the notebook” has two nouns. In Spanish, you’d read, “Toma un lápiz y escribe en la libreta.” In the Spanish version, the pencil is a male noun (un lápiz) and the notebook a female (la libreta).
If you then read “put it down,” there’s some ambiguity in the sentence. Given the context, you can assume that the “it” refers to the pencil, since you’ve just been told to pick it up. However, what if you’re propping up, or holding, your notebook so it’s not flat on a surface? You can’t always get away with “it” when dealing with multiple subjects in a sentence. It’s sometimes necessary to elaborate upon what “it” means. Meanwhile, in Spanish, you can say “Sueltalo” and it’s clear you’re referring to the pencil, thanks to the verb being masculine, like the pencil.
You can’t always get away with “it” when dealing with multiple subjects in a sentence in English.
This applies to verbs when in association with people as well. “La niña” (“the girl”) is feminine, “el niño” (“the boy”) is masculine. Say you have two young siblings, a boy and a girl, and the girl is taunting her younger brother. In Spanish, you would say, “dejalo en paz,” which means “leave him alone.” However, there’s no explicit reference to the boy, “him,” in the Spanish sentence. The verb is gendered masculine, and since in this situation there’s only one boy and one girl, it’s clear that this instruction is referencing the boy, without needing to be explicit about it.
Gendered Language Evolved from Perception
With the distinction in language evolving from animate vs. inanimate to male vs. female, the “genders” were assigned to nouns likely based on their proximity to traditional male and female characteristics.
Take, for instance, the sun and the moon. In many mythologies like Egyptian, Incan, and Greek, the god of the sun is male, and the goddess of the moon is female. Similarly, in Spanish “el sol” indicates that the sun is male and “la luna” (yes, I’m named after the moon) indicates that the moon is female. There’s no definitive answer why that is — because it comes down to perception. It’s likely these cultures initially perceived most men to be stronger, more aggressive, and commanding than most women. Conversely, maybe women were perceived to be more attractive, since you can stare at the moon for a while, but can’t even look at the sun for very long. Additionally, the moon was seen as a guide; a map in the sky with stars as its markers. While men would hunt and go to war, women would nurture and teach the next generation.
In many mythologies, the god of the sun is male, and the goddess of the moon is female.
However, this isn’t the case across the board, 100% of the time. In Japanese culture, the roles are reversed. The goddess of the sun is female, and the god of the moon is her brother. However, in contemporary Japanese, it’s interesting to see that names related to the sun or the moon aren’t female and male necessarily. The Kanji for “sun” is 太陽 (“taiyō”), and that first character, 太 “tai” means big and strong. Meanwhile, “moon” is written as 月(“tsuki”). In my findings, the Kanji is associated with the moon, but also the word “month.” This makes sense seeing as the passing of the moon indicated the passing of a day, and eventually months. I’m not fluent in Japanese, so a lot of this is speculation. But interestingly, names associated with the sun and moon are largely unisex, but there are more female names associated with the moon.
This is one small example, and it’s easy to speculate deeply on this since it’s a natural dichotomy, integral to ancient cultures. They lived their daily lives according to the sun and moon, and seeing the different purposes or what it meant when one was present can give us insight into how they felt about each, as well.
It goes even further, when looking at nouns that are gendered in ways we wouldn’t expect. In Spanish, “el fuego” means “the fire,” and it’s a masculine noun. However, an individual flame, “la llama” is feminine. It could be, in the past, speakers of the language that would become Spanish saw fire as potentially more dangerous, harder to control. Meanwhile, flames are more manageable, tame, and they also make up a fire. Without flames, you can’t have a fire. It could be that we can see how the two genders are integral. If, in Spanish, you removed all female nouns, you’d have no descriptors that make up many (or any) male nouns.
Can Gendered Language Change Perception?
Maybe so. It’s hard to tell in a modern world where we’re very distant from nature compared to cultures of the past. Back then, gender in language came about by the distinctions in nature and the characteristics those objects in nature had. If generally speaking we can agree there are traditional femininity and traditional masculinity, a gendered noun can evoke feelings of one or the other, and reinforce — or potentially change — perception.
Gender in language came about by the distinctions in nature and the characteristics those objects in nature had.
Looking at how other cultures gender their nouns could help influence or give a different perspective, as English speakers. For instance, some people could see a pistol as scary, life-threatening, or dangerous. In Spanish, “la pistola” is female. Maybe thinking of a pistol as feminine could — for lack of better phrasing — humanize it. Maybe a firearm doesn’t equal death, but instead preserves life. A frying pan, “el sartén” can make a hearty meal — and this is a male noun. Maybe realizing that can remove any misconception that cooking is just for women (aside from the fact that cooking should transcend gender roles, as everyone needs to eat to live).
Language evolved so that we could better communicate with each other and describe the world around us. The way we perceived the world (and that varies depending on where you’re from) influenced language, so looking at things like gender in the context of language can reveal a lot more to us than we realize. In turn, looking at gendered language, when English is non-gendered, can remind us that there’s a reason there are traditionally two genders. They were a natural dichotomy, fitting together like puzzle pieces, existing in the same world to build each other up.
Additionally, what consumer media tells us about the two genders isn’t always true, or it’s at least diluted. It’s not as easy as female meaning fussy and delicate, or male meaning proud and macho. To remove gender from language would be to dilute the very way many people see the world.