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Gender in Language: A Conversation with Jesse

July 21, 2006

We were in Seattle, sitting around my son’s table after a sumptuous meal.

“Kate, I have a question for you about languages,” declared Jesse, a Canadian and a sensitive law student (yes, they really do exist).

“What kind of question?” I asked.

“Well, I just don’t get this thing about sex in some languages.”

“You mean like in ‘A Fish Called Wanda?’” I laughed.

“No, no! I mean languages like Spanish, where everything is male or female. It’s so hard to keep track of it all.  Why do they do that?”

“Oh, you mean gender,” I replied.

“Sure, whatever.”

“Actually,” I went on, “I don’t think they think of it in terms of male and female. I know words in Spanish for certain body parts that you would think must be ‘male,’ but are ‘female,’ and vice versa.

I bet if you asked a Spanish speaker why, he would probably just give you a quizzical look. It would be like someone asking you why a table is called a ‘table.’ It just is.”

Jesse contemplated this for a moment, then said, “Okay, but I’m still curious about why a language has gender in the first place. I mean, where did it come from?”

“To tell the truth,” I answered, “I really don’t know. Tell you what. Give me a day or two to think about it. Maybe I can come up with a plausible lie.”

Two days later, Jesse came over to my son’s house to do some painting.

“Hey, Jesse, I have an idea, but don’t take it as gospel. It’s only a theory backed up by zilch,” I said.

“Let’s hear it.”

“I think it’s due to animism.”

“Say what?”

“Animism,” I repeated. “It’s a funny coincidence, but I’ve been doing some reading about it. Apparently, so-called ‘primitive’ tribes that developed in an environment where food and water were plentiful and survival was relatively easy tended to be animistic. That is, they had a great variety of natural gods and goddesses and believed that everything in nature was alive and in cooperation. You know, the Druids worshipped trees; Native Americans had animal gods.

“In contrast, tribes that lived in a hostile environment like the desert didn’t feel so at one with nature. So they developed beliefs in one all-powerful god, often a punishing one. This, in fact, is where Judaism and Christianity and, for that matter, Islam come from. In fact, according to some theorists, our non-animistic orientation is one of the reasons we are now destroying our environment.”

“Interesting, if a bit out there, but what’s your point?” Jesse asked.

“My point is that if you are a ‘primitive’ living in the jungle or the woods, and you feel that everything around you is a living entity just like you, it’s only natural that you would assign an identity to these things, a name, a sex, a gender.”

“So they were thinking in terms of the sex of an object.”

“‘Were’ is the right word,” I said. “What I think is that after centuries, as these tribes developed into the ‘civilized’ countries and their languages developed into the modern languages, the original reason for assigning gender was lost while the grammatical device of gender was retained.

Languages, on the other hand, that developed out of the languages of non-animistic peoples, lacked this feature.”

“Hmm. That makes sense.”

“Sure, it sounds good and all,” I said.

“However, my experience is that we can make a lot of things sound good, but this doesn’t make them true. Besides, there are inconsistencies. The Egyptians had lots of animal gods… I don’t know. It seems like every time we try to separate things human into distinct categories, we fall flat on our faces. It would take a lot of rigorous research to test it out – or a chat with a person who had already done all the research.”

“In the meantime, I can’t imagine a better explanation,” Jesse said. “If it’s not true, it ought to be.”

The above conversation took place some eight months ago.

Jesse, this follow-up is for you.

Back in Costa Rica, I did some more thinking. I recalled how in a translation of a third century Aramaic text, Jesus constantly makes comments such as: “I tell you truly, you are one with the Earthly Mother; she is in you, and you in her.”

These kinds of ideas also make an appearance in other biblical documents. Probably, then, Aramaic, the language of Jesus, made use of gender.

Not having any way of checking out Aramaic, I decided that modern Arabic might be a good indicator for my theory. I called a professor of Arabic at the University of Costa Rica.

“Oh yes,” he replied, “Arabic is, in fact, just like Spanish in regards to gender.”

I guess that routs my desert-tribe theory, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the theory of animism is completely off base.

Are there any linguistic historians out there? If you know something about the evolution of gender in languages or simply have an opinion, please write me, whoever you are or wherever you may be.

I need an answer for Jesse.

 

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