Gender in the English Language

Gender in the English Language: The Missing Piece

The world has lots of different languages and in many ways, these languages are diverse. And even though translation is a real, legitimate process for taking ideas formulated in one language and expressing them in another language, the phenomenon of knowledge being “lost in translation” is also real. When ideas are lost in translation, the version of the story in the second language is missing details or layers of significance that were present in the original. One reason why translations are somewhat ineffective in conveying details is because languages differ from each other in important ways. Sometimes it is a simple as Language A having a word for a thing whereas Language B lacks a word for that thing. But sometimes the problem is more complex. Gender is an issue that creates more complex problems in translation.

For a quick overview of gender in language, it is instructive to compare Spanish (Español) with English. I am using Spanish because I suspect it is a language with which many of my readers are familiar. Words can be masculine or feminine in Spanish. A word may have two very similar forms but they just differ in gender. For instance amigo is a friend who is a male while amiga is a friend who is a female. Another way Spanish uses gender is in pairing articles and nouns. So “el pan” is “the bread” and is masculine while “la fruta” is “the fruit” and is feminine.

In English, gender works differently from how it works in Spanish. Some teachers say English “lacks gender” and although this is partially true, it is not entirely true. In English, we do not characterize bread as masculine or feminine. You could say bread is neuter, or even better, genderless. But English, in the historical past, DID distinguish between feminine and masculine nouns and to this day, there are traces of gender in English.

Some English words DO have gender. Often, these words have French origins.

actor = male dramatic performer

actress* = female dramatic performer

fiance = engaged male

fiancee = engaged female

blond = fair-haired man

blonde = fair-haired woman

If you make an error with one of these gendered nouns, most people won’t notice. Brad Pitt is both an actor and a blond. Calling him a “blonde” isn’t so bad, but calling him an “actress” is. If you use “fiance” and “fiancee” interchangeably, only the most persnickety grammarians will call you out on it.

As a point of reflection, consider the possibility that are levels of nuance English is essentially incapable of achieving because of its lack of gender. For example, if I say “it’s red” in English, I can’t tell at all what that “it” is. But if I say, “es rojo” in Spanish, I know that red object must be a masculine word. Certainly, English has other ways of conveying nuances. One is the brute force of its vocabulary. English has, by far, the largest vocabulary of any common language. Think of the synonyms of a verb like “say.” You can “exclaim,” “demand,” “tell,” “imply,” “suggest,” “order,” “answer” and many others. Word choice fills in a lot of the meaning that other languages convey by other means.

*Some contemporary female performers prefer to be called “actors” and reject the term “actress.” This may be motivated by the perception that distinguishing between actors and actresses lead to discrimination that hurts females in the profession.

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One Response to Gender in the English Language

  1. Written Chinese has gone in the opposite direction, from non-gendered to gendered pronouns, though this hasn’t affected the spoken language.

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