Sunday, February 12, 2006

The gender of words.

The French language has this peculiar structure of attributing gender to just about everything. A simple apple is no longer just an apple, it's "une pomme" in the feminine sense rather than "un pomme" in a masculine form. Who ever decided that an apple should be feminine rather than masculine goes back to a time long ago and hold no logic whatsoever. Who are we to argue the roots of a language that has evolved for thousands of years like everything else, right?. When referring to some animal form like a dog, it usually take a specific gender name like "un chien" and "une chienne" for a male and female dog respectively. The same holds true for humans, "un homme" and "une femme" are grammatically correct in their gender assignment.

The same gender attribution is also found in Spanish, Italian, German and many other Indo-European languages. If you think the French have a hard language to learn with two genders, German, which has 3, is a bit more complex. Then, wait until you learn Swahili. They have 6 distinct gender distribution in their nouns (at this point it is more a "noun class" than a gender). If you really feel like you need a challenge, the Bantu family of languages (Africa) have a total of 22 distinct noun classes with some languages using as many as 16-18 on a daily basis. Have fun ladies. (

The feminist community should also have a ball knowing that the words vagina, ovaries and breasts, in French "un vagin, un ovaire, un sein" respectively, are all masculine in the grammatical sense. Transgendered people might even find it confusing that a beard, "une barbe", is feminine. I will not even comment on the need to change the gender of a noun, in special cases where it is used in its plural form or changing the ending of adjectives according to the gender of the noun they are referring to. All this may sound very confusing at first if you were never exposed to the French language either in school or in everyday life, but you get the hang of it I guess.

But the topic here is not to discuss the intricacies of French language or the genderless aspect of the English language, even after thinking that a word like "hung" has very little feminine attributes. For many years, the information age has eased the concept of people communicating in written form with one another. What used to be pen, paper, envelope, stamp and a week long travel to get to its intended recipient is now an electronic letter, a much easier and widely used form of communication. Being quick and easy, people write and exchange more.

Words alone are but the tip of the iceberg here. Everyone who has writing ability will exert a specific writing style, building phrases, paragraphs and text to convey the message they wish to deliver. The question I asked myself a while back was a bit troubling for me in a sense that, tossing aside the vocabulary a person may use, can gender identity come across the writing style used by a person? Do men write like men and woman write in a more feminine way?

Since my mother tongue is French, I often have to analyze phrase construct more than the average English speaking person and as a result often discerned how some people do represent their gender very well in their writings. Are the words that we use, the phrases, the thoughts we are expressing, capable of communicating some form of gender identity? Maybe, to some degree at least but that could be just my personal opinion at the lack of empirical data. Well, I rarely saw a female writing a phrase like : "Hey, I think u r cute, hit me up and w'll chat". Yeap, that's definitively a male identity. Case closed. Hummm…well, is it really? Are we analyzing the poor grammar or the message’s representation of a male trying to express his need to conquer? If it is about grammar alone, could a female with the same level of intellect write the same way? Frankly, I never was exposed to this dilemma before and found it quite intriguing.

What we have to say often reflect our moods too, blurring further more the distinction of what could be called a gender oriented writing style. I often saw genetic woman write in a manly authoritative form. Does it mean that the actual circumstances brought the masculinity out and affected their style?. And what about the female working her way through the ladder of male dominated corporate organizations. They do express a more direct, authoritative and logical line of thought that is, for the most part, more prevalent of male identity.

I have read from many sources that a genderless approach is always preferable for an author of fiction and novel. Trying to instanciate an opposite gender line of thought on certain characters can be an exceedingly difficult task.

Simply Googling "gender of words" will bring some fascinating topics of language and grammatical definitions, gender definition and even a set of interesting discussions on gender identity from very different backgrounds. (artistic, religious, psychology, etc…)

Are we to think that we all write in a rather genderless form dictated solely by our level of intellect and the context at hand, possibly superimposing emotions and inner feelings on top? If I had to speak only for myself, I can’t differentiate when the male or the female part writes specifically. My mind is only one deep inside, even if the physical manifestation of this transformation is temporal.

As you can see, I am asking lots of questions. Words and their use is obviously not my forte in life but I was astonished by the dichotomy in the evidence, and the lack of, gender identification in the way people express themselves in written form. I am but a student here.

Love and Hugz,



Michele Angelique said...

Thank you Arianne for this thought-provoking article, "The Gender of Words". You raise many interesting points about our use of languages and the gender conveyed by our writing. I think it's fascinating that the German language includes 3 genders, which I understand to be male, female and "neuter" (neutral). I can't imagine trying to comprehend Swahili or the other African languages you mention which have 6-22 gender variants! It's quite mind-boggling really.

While I do not yet speak the French language, I understand you to be saying that gender is ascribed to every noun. I've always questioned who originally decided that a "beard" is feminine, and "vagina/ovaries/breasts" were masculine? What are the origins of these attributions? Is there any rhyme, reason or pattern in the associations? And who decides the gender of new words as the language evolves? I wonder what affect these linguistic gender associations have on the perceptions of little children learning French as their first language? I don't have the answers. Like you, I am a student here.

One of the main questions you pose is whether we our present gender through writing. I say, absolutely yes. A person's writing style depends on mindset, purpose and/or audience. I have a masculine tone to my business writing, and a more cordial, feminine style when conversing with girlfriends. For business, I prefer to state facts, deliver concise information, pinpoint the bottom line -- without excess interpersonal dialogue. Among sisters, I will engage in meaningful depth of detail, random musings, and light hearted chats.

I have at least 2 distinct writing styles, both of which are truly me, just different sides of me. These sides could be labeled as "male/female", "business/pleasure", "formal/relaxed", "yang/yin". Whatever the definition, these polarities are both legitimate aspects of me. Having both sides (genders, if you will) to draw upon in my writing enables me to be more adaptable and communicate with a wider range of people and situations.

One of the things I’ve always found remarkable about all of my GenderEvolve sisters and so many others in the Trans community, is the authentic femininity presented. You are representing far more than just a "feminine image". Through your writings, you are expressing and conducting yourselves as "feminine beings". It is clear by your writing style that the femininity in you runs much deeper than wigs and lipstick. To me, every one of my sisters conveys the feminine spirit through her writing, and biological gender is a non-issue next to such authentic substance of character.

While we are fortunate the English language does not attribute gender nearly as much as French, German or Swahili, I think there is some room for improvement. For example, him/her, he/she, his/hers, are stumbling blocks because oftentimes people are unsure which to use in differing situations. These little words cause confusion and social anxiety. It sure would be nice to have a few new words to replace these. Any ideas?

Again, thank you Arianne for introducing this relevant topic to our discussions.

Much love,

joel said...

Along these lines, consider this: Starbucks Coffee Shops play a version of The Rolling Stones 'Satisfaction" done acoustic guitar by a woman. I may have grown up hearing Jagger sing it but this opens a new realm of meaning!