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The invisible female in language

...on serious topics that don't fit anywhere else at present.
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grammar king
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Joined: March 14th, 2008, 2:42 am

The invisible female in language

#1 Post by grammar king » February 10th, 2010, 12:10 am

This briefly came up in another thread and I thought it might be something you might be interested in (probably not, thinking ahead) so this is a bit of an informative post, not really expecting much of a discussion. I'm certainly no expert but it's something that came up at A Level English Language and that I've noticed in various romance languages too.

The invisible female in language is when, even though they are supposedly included in the meaning of a sentence, women are excluded by the language used. The most prominent example of this kind of thing are things like "a police officer should always wear his uniform whilst on duty". Now there's also the fact that with certain occupations most people would assume that the person was a man, but aside from that, it's present in the language itself. Most people wouldn't know this, but strictly speaking the 'his' in that sentence may refer to either a male or a female police officer. That's called the 'generic he'.

Now that seems strange, but that's because in English we've made ourselves a couple of ways of avoiding such a situation. What we'd normally see is "police officers should always wear their uniforms whilst on duty", pluralising the subject so that the masculine 'his' turns into a neutral 'their'. But that's not always possible. Take for example when you're talking about one specific person, but you don't know what sex they are:

"I'm from Birmingham."
"Oh really? My friend lived in Birmingham for a while."

Now if the first speaker wanted to ask a follow up-question, such as to ask if the friend liked it there for example, they would either have to guess what sex the friend is, say "he or she", or use an awkward sounding question like "Did your friend like it?" What people do instead of that is to refer to the person as 'they' even though it's only one person (I did it at the end of the last paragraph, for example). That's called the 'singular they' and pedantically it's gramatically incorrect. What we could do with in an ideal world is a neutral singular pronoun, something like 'it' but that can be used to describe people.

Another thing I've noticed people do (particularly lecturers) is to alternate between 'he' and 'she'. Not so much in the friend example but say you're setting up a hypothetical situation, you just use 'he' for one example, and 'she' for the next.

Now onto romance languages. In some ways they don't have the same problem, in Spanish for example if you were talking about a specific friend, you would know what sex they were because of the difference between 'amigo' and 'amiga'. The same is true of occupations, most are changeable depending if it's a male or female (for example 'peluquero' and 'peluquera' for hairdresser), so you know the difference. Some words, however, don't change, for example the word "Belga" means Belgian, but it could be masculine or feminine despite ending in 'a'. In that case you would have to rely on the article (ie. 'the' or 'a') used before it. "Un belga" would be a Belgian man, whilst "una belga" would be a Belgian woman. It's the same with a police officer, they're called a 'policia' regardless of sex.

There are rare exceptions though. In Spanish the adjective 'my' is the same regardless of the gender of what it's describing. So it would be impossible to tell the difference between "my policeman" and "my policewoman" (just because I'm struggling to think of a better example). In Portuguese that's not a problem, because their word for 'my' changes with the gender, 'o meu' for masculine and 'a minha' for feminine.

Romance languages, given that they do have genders, do have other problems though. If you want to refer to a mixed-sex group of people, there is no neutral word for 'they'. In Spanish it's 'ellas' for a group of all females, but for a group of all males or a mixed group, it's 'ellos'. Women are excluded pretty explicitly in the language used, and it's an example that comes up much more often than the inisible female in English. For example in my Spanish class at university, there would typically be 10 girls and me, and yet the teacher would still refer to us collectively as 'chicos' (boys). When I went to Spain I was interested in how they get around this. When it's written down, more and more people are now using 'chic@s' as a neutral way of referring to a mixed group. Not in anything formal but especially amongst the liberal younger generation and on things like adverts for bedrooms or something. Obviously that doesn't work in spoken language though.

Just in case someone was interested.

Hundovir
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Re: The invisible female in language

#2 Post by Hundovir » February 10th, 2010, 6:06 pm

Excellent stuff. You would probably enjoy Douglas Hofstadter's "A Person Paper on Purity in Language ":

http://www.cs.virginia.edu/~evans/cs655 ... urity.html

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Val
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Re: The invisible female in language

#3 Post by Val » February 10th, 2010, 7:25 pm

Or try Dale Spender's book 'Man made language'. Dated but still valid.

Manuel
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Re: The invisible female in language

#4 Post by Manuel » February 10th, 2010, 8:26 pm

It is interesting that we don't really have a word for a singular human being in our language without it being referenced to their gender. If you've ever heard anyone try to get round the issue by repeatedly using "he or she", well it can become a little tiresome. I suppose we could say "the person", or " the human". Sounds everso formal.

Nick
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Re: The invisible female in language

#5 Post by Nick » February 10th, 2010, 8:44 pm

Interesting international perspective, GK. Maybe a solution will evolve in time. Talking of language, I really enjoyed "Made in America", a history of American English by Bill Bryson. And it must be remembered that language is a bit on an evolvutionary mess anyway. Never mind the spelling. :wink:

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grammar king
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Re: The invisible female in language

#6 Post by grammar king » February 10th, 2010, 9:58 pm

I'll have to read it. I wrote a 4000 word investigation on the effect of Spanish on American English a few years ago. Mighty interesting stuff.

Marian
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Re: The invisible female in language

#7 Post by Marian » February 11th, 2010, 2:22 am

What I find fascinating about language is how it translates into (or effects) actual behaviour.
Transformative fire...

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jaywhat
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Re: The invisible female in language

#8 Post by jaywhat » February 11th, 2010, 6:03 am

I normally have no problem with using 'they' or their' as a singular pronoun if I want to have it gender neutral although I know it is not happily accepted by all.
What I do find strange is that when playing Scrabble on Facebook the message will come up 'John has taken their turn'.

Nick
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Re: The invisible female in language

#9 Post by Nick » February 11th, 2010, 6:50 am

grammar king wrote:I'll have to read it. I wrote a 4000 word investigation on the effect of Spanish on American English a few years ago. Mighty interesting stuff.
You must, GK! On the face of it,a book about a whole load of words sounds dry and seems difficult to keep moving smoothly, but Bryson manages it really well. Do let me know what you think of it!

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grammar king
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Re: The invisible female in language

#10 Post by grammar king » February 11th, 2010, 8:15 pm

Nick wrote:
grammar king wrote:I'll have to read it. I wrote a 4000 word investigation on the effect of Spanish on American English a few years ago. Mighty interesting stuff.
You must, GK! On the face of it,a book about a whole load of words sounds dry and seems difficult to keep moving smoothly, but Bryson manages it really well. Do let me know what you think of it!
Oh I wouldn't find anything like that dull. I did a course in Spain called Lexicography (that's a course about Spanish dictionaries and the theory behind them) and I really like it.

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Gurdur
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Re: The invisible female in language

#11 Post by Gurdur » March 3rd, 2010, 8:36 am

Apparently Czech has male- and female- specified plural genders and pronouns. Think on that for a nightmare. At least the English plural pronoun is neutral.

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grammar king
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Re: The invisible female in language

#12 Post by grammar king » March 5th, 2010, 6:40 pm

Yeah that's the same in most languages with genders.

Fia
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Re: The invisible female in language

#13 Post by Fia » March 5th, 2010, 9:28 pm

My lovely Hungarian ex-lodger used 'he' as gender neutral, which confused me no end for a while, until I realised and explained we have 'she' too. Which wasn't easy, as I'm not a linguist, to my shame :redface: She told me that Hungarian is a particularly individual European language which has different roots than any other...

I would also wholeheartedly endorse Bill Bryson's "Made in America". A jolly good read :D

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