My problems with gender identity

Got you going, didn’t I? If so, let me reassure you that I haven’t yet begun to feel like a woman trapped in a man’s body.

He, she or it?

In fact, if that were the case, I wouldn’t use the word ‘gender’ at all, choosing ‘sex’ instead. For, unless I’m quoting someone else, I only ever apply the word ‘gender’ to a grammatical category.

That’s exactly where I have problems. For my first language, chronologically at least, was Russian, in which, as in German, even inanimate objects have three genders, masculine, feminine and neuter. My third language, French, got rid of neuter, but perversely kept the other two.

In French, inanimate objects are either masculine or feminine, which gives me nightmares. You see, Russian gets in the way. For the same objects are often different genders in the two languages, confusing me no end. I would be even more desperate if French kept the three genders of its source language, Latin. But even two are bad enough.

Thus table and chair are men in Russian but women in French. Yet fork and spoon are feminine in both languages.

Russian being a morphological language, gender is conveyed by unmistakable inflections. But most, though not all, French nouns don’t help me out that way. So how am I to know? Especially since sandwiched between those two tongues, is my English, second chronologically, first in every other respect.

English doesn’t treat objects as if they were human. All of them, with the exception of ships, are usually sexless and genderless.

Humans are, or at least used to be, known as either men or women, which is why English has kept the personal pronouns needed to differentiate between the two. Yet even human babies are sometimes linguistically neutered, as in “Will it ever shut up?” which I said the other day when someone’s baby was screaming on the bus.

As a linguist by training if not by profession, I’m fascinated by that. Why do Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages stubbornly cling to their genders, while English tosses them away contemptuously? Has it always been like that?

It hasn’t. In fact, Old English, the language of Beowulf, had the same three German genders, which, considering it was a Germanic language, is hardly surprising. Like German (and Russian), Old English added gender suffixes to all nouns, with, for example, the sun taking on the feminine article and suffix to become seo sunne.

Yet, as Old English became Middle English in the late Middle Ages, our nouns began to shed their genders. Why?

Linguists will tell you that the fault lies with those marauding Vikings who turned their own nouns into hermaphrodites by fusing masculine and feminine together, and then used their swords to educate the proto-English. Fair enough: gender loss did start in the northern areas of England that in those days were occupied (or at least often raided) by Scandinavians.

From there, the tendency spread down to the Midlands and then to the South, with Kent the last one to surrender, in the mid-14th century. The Great Vowel Shift that started in the late 15th century signalled the arrival of Modern English and the demise of gender.

That’s what the linguists will tell you, but not the philosophers. The latter will point out that England wasn’t the only place invaded by the Vikings. France and Italy suffered the same fate, and yet they wouldn’t let their genders fall into oblivion. How come they were so recalcitrant and the English weren’t?

That’s where philosophy steps in, asking awkward questions dealing with the relationship between national language and thought. Which came first, the chicken of the former or the egg of the latter? Either way, the two are so intimately and intricately connected that we may understand much about one by studying the other.

Endowing inanimate objects with gender is a case of anthropomorphism, assigning human characteristics to things. Another case of anthropomorphism is the Sistine Chapel, with its depiction of God the Father as a bearded man, but that’s a separate subject.

Anthropomorphism was the dominant feature of medieval thought, of which we are reminded mostly by fairy tales. Even in the youthful Modern period, not too far removed from the Middle Ages, Shakespeare makes a forest move in Macbeth, creating a production headache for West End theatres.

The so-called medieval realism in art and thought was, in fact, medieval anthropomorphism, largely a survival of pre-Christian paganism. Even inanimate objects were talked about in the Thomistic (and Aristotelian) categories of essence and being, which was reflected in grammatical categories, such as gender.

Now, could it be that anthropomorphism proved enduring on the Continent but moribund in England? This is no more than a wild hypothesis, but something worth pondering.

If there is a kernel of truth to it, then the English parted ways with medieval thought more decisively than, say, the French. And even the massive post-1066 influx of French into the Anglo-Saxon dialects proved powerless to stop that trend.

It fact, it was then that the English declared war on the gender category, which resulted in almost total victory three centuries later. Moving on from hypothesis to guess, could it be that the pragmatic and empirical English mind refused to accept the reality of fairy tales with their anthropomorphism?

One can just see a young Saxon asking his grandfather: “What do you mean, calling the table ‘she’, Grandpa? It’s not a woman, you know.”

That other aspect of anthropomorphism, one I touched upon in my throw-away reference to the Sistine Chapel, was a sensitive issue in the past, with much blood spilled on either side of the argument. Also much ink, for a vast library could be compiled of books written on the subject.

However, grammatical anthropomorphism is a terra incognita, at least for me. I can’t seem to find any books on it, which makes me rely on my own resources. Meagre though they may be.

4 thoughts on “My problems with gender identity”

  1. “Shakespeare makes a forest move in Macbeth, creating a production headache for West End theatres.”

    Wasn’t he using the forest as a metaphor for an army of camouflaged soldiers moving in stealth? I have forgotten my secondary education woefully so.

    And “man not born of woman”. What about that one?

  2. It’s part of the battle for control of language. Surely 99.9% of the Western world have already caved. I rarely speak of sexuality to my friends and family or the modern problems concerning it, but I try to always refer to sex and not gender. I try to explain that gender does not apply to living things, that it is a construct of language. That goes over well with rational people, but I am sure would start the woke crowd howling. Trying to get a sexually confused person (or one of the “allies”) to define “gender” is another exercise in futility. Humans have sex (two) and (unfortunately for modern man) sexual preference (I suppose one could argue for three: men, women, and both). Any more than that is just linguistic gymnastics.

    It is similar with the use of they/their when referring to a generic person of unknown sex. It is perfectly acceptable in that case to use he/his (which is the more common form) or she/her. That one started long before the modern assault.

    Just yesterday I was reading a transcript of a congressional hearing, where rules of order (mostly) still apply. Speakers wait until they are recognized, as in, “The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Florida.” At one such formality the Chair used “gentlewoman” and then repeated the phrase using “gentlelady”. Good grief! Torturing the language so as not to offend. The word “lady” will suffice. Have none of them heard a gathering addressed as “ladies and gentleman”?

    1. “The Chair recognizes the gentleman from Florida.”

      Better to say: “The representative from the [4th/5th/6th] district.” Which ever is correct.

  3. In Russian, China is masculine and Russia is feminine. That comment is more applicable to your most recent article, though.

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