Sex and gender in language

4 November 2013 by Alex Brown, posted in overseas science, speaking science

Dider Nordon

Didier Nordon. Click to visit his blog Scientaisies (in French)

"In Germany, a baby's a baby except they call it das Baby."

Germany recently became the first country in Europe to allow children with indeterminate sex organs to be registered on their birth certificate as neither male nor female. Over on Scientaisies, his blog on the French SciLogs network, Didier Nordon asks whether the German language itself may have been a factor in the law being passed there rather than in France (as far as I know, it hasn't been proposed in France).

Indeed, whereas the French language only recognises two genders (féminin and masculin), German has three (Femininum, Masculinum, and Neutrum). Could this make it easier for German-speakers to talk about (dare I say even conceive of or think about) intersex babies? A French speaker has to pick between talking about le garçon and la fille, and in the third person has to refer to il or elle. There is no "it". (For those of you who learned French by repeating il, elle, on for the third person singular, it's worth knowing that on is closer to "one".)

Baby in German flag

Gender-neutral German baby.(c) dpa/picture alliance via German embassy in Canada. Click for source.

Germanophones, on the other hand, have er, sie and es. What's more, the German for "the baby" is das Baby. Yes, they nicked it from English. Conveniently, the default for such borrowed words is to use the neutral gender. Exceptions tend to be those borrowed words here the German equivalent is masculine or feminine, such as der Computer, which is the Denglisch word for der Rechner (rechnen means "to count" or "to calculate"). But because there is no original German word for "baby" (!), the English term remains neutral. So in German, there is room to use gender-neutral language for an intersex baby (and, indeed, all babies - see below). Further, the German for "the child" is das Kind (plural: Kinder, as in "kindergarten").

In French, the word for "the baby" is the masculine le bébé. Even a "baby girl" is un bébé fille. Is this horrific sexism on blatant display at the heart of the French language? Are all babies considered to be masculine by default? I'm not so sure. For instance, do native French speakers perceive la table as having particularly feminine qualities? I doubt it. I think that would be pushing the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis a bit too far (The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis loosely says that everything you think and how you perceive the world is intimately tied to the words you know and the structure of your native language.)

Pronouns and patriarchy

That being said, there does exist in French the convention to use the masculine form of the third person plural, ils, for any group of people (or nouns) where at least one male (or masculine noun) is present. Only in the case of an entirely female groups do we use elles. This is the patriarchy at work.

Patriarchy comic from Sinfest

The Patriarchy: welcome to the real world... Click for complete comic at Sinfest.

Switching back to German, we find that the third person plural is sie, the same as the feminine third person singular. Using "they" to denote multiple masculine nouns is sie. Also, the formal form of the second person singular (You) is Sie. So, in German at least, feminine pronouns do turn up elsewhere than for only feminine items or groups. Is there in fact less patriarchy built into the German language? (Is that even a meaningful question? Please be forgiving, I'm exploring...)

Another thought: the German word for "girl" is Mädchen. This is the diminutive form of the "word" (it doesn't exist on its own any more) Mäd, which has the same route as "maid" and also turns up in the slang die das Mädel ("the girl"). Diminutives in German all have neutral gender, so it's das Mädchen (Mädel is also a diminutive). Other examples of diminutives include two of my favourite German words: das Kaninchen ("the rabbit") and das Meerschweinchen ("the guinea pig"). But does this mean that girls and pets are thought of as sexless in German? I doubt it.


We have to be cautious of drawing conclusions about the attitudes of speakers of particular languages based solely on the quirks of grammar. Within a given framework of perception, people can have widely varied viewpoints. these are influenced by far more than just the words they know.

Nonetheless, I think it's important that we stop assigning genders to children as a one-to-one function of genitalia and I welcome the new German law. This issue is not just true in the case of  intersex babies where it is particularly "tricky" to know whether an infant is a "boy" or a "girl". Environmental factors play such a strong role in a child's development that what it means to be a boy/man or girl/woman is highly variable, even in the vast majority of cases where sex organs are clearly male or female. Most concepts around the notions of "masculine" and "feminine" are ideas built up in culture and can be almost entirely decoupled from the biology of sex. Our use of language should reflect that distinction.

Further reading/watching:

  • For more on the important distinction between (biological) sex and (socially built) gender, see this "controversial" post by Gia Milinovich.
  • Going beyond biological sex, the video below is a concise introduction to the various spectra along which people find themselves with respect to gender, attraction, behaviour and so on.

Over to you:

  • How many genders are there in your language?
  • Do you think that the presence of genders in language is connected to issues of sexism? Would ubiquitous gender-neutral language help?


27 Responses to “Sex and gender in language”

  1. Kata Papunen Reply | Permalink

    An interesting post! Makes me appreciate Finnish language for being gender neutral; no feminine or masculine. Well no articles at all, and our only pronoun is 'hän' and that refers to all human beings, compared e.g. to 'han' and 'hon' in Swedish or 'he' and 'she' in English.
    I have never really thought about gender and language that deeply, but it must because my own language does not make a difference between feminine and masculine, and I think it is good in a way as Finnish gives every individual the opportunity to freely associate issues with whatever gender they want or remain neutral. For example, for me a school is a school without a gender in every language, despite that in Italian I have to refer to it as a feminine thing (la scuola). It is also great that sometimes you can describe people based on their personality or qualifications without connecting it with gender, leaving the 'judgment' for the listener, by referring to the person as 'hän'.
    but overall, this is something I need to think more about.

    • Rita Roseback Reply | Permalink

      Interesting that you say that you haven’t thought about gender and language – maybe the fact that there are no gender specific pronouns in the Finnish language has also contributed to the overall high level of equality between women and men in Finland? I grew up in the Swedish-speaking part of Finland and the first language I spoke was a Swedish dialect that has retained all three genders (as opposed to two in modern Swedish) and my second language was Finnish, so I got two sides of the story. When I reflect on it, this does have an impact on how I think for example about animals. For me dogs are masculine and cats feminine, but when I put my Finnish thinking cap on, this distinction is not there.
      Another interesting thing to note here is the attempt to introduce ‘hen’ as a genderneutral personal pronoun into Swedish. It has many avid supporters, especially amongst journalists, but has not yet been picked up by the authority for the language, Svenska Akademins Ordlista.

      • Kata Papunen Reply | Permalink

        Although there are naturally several things that affect equality in Finland (e.g. men and women got the right to vote at the same time in 1906), I would say that gender neutral language helps a lot! Mostly because no one is trying to imply a certain model in your head, so you are, so to say, free to think on issues themselves rather than their gender. I come from a completely Finnish speaking family, and took my primary school in Swedish, but it hasn't affected my way of neutral thinking.
        Will be interesting to see how it develops in Sweden/Swedish! But I agree with you on the point that journalists try to use 'hen' more than some other groups.

  2. Nick Reply | Permalink

    Dutch has the same three genders as German, but masculine and feminine got merged at some point, so you never see the difference between them (I'm not aware of any grammatical point that requires you to know if a given noun is masculine or feminine) and in practice there's only two, with the definite articles "de" (masculine/feminine) and "het" (neuter). However, my Dutch dictionary has (m) or (v) after every "common gender" noun anyway. (Maybe that's in case they have to revive the difference in *cough* some hypothetical future geopolitical context.)

  3. Mededitor Reply | Permalink

    Regarding Romance languages with gendered nouns, it can be a mistake to think that, for example, German speakers would conceive of gender markers (die, der, das) as conferring physical gender per se. Linguistically, it's probable that speakers of languages with gendered nouns learn the nouns and their articles as distinct units - so they don't learn "garten" and then learn the gender (male) and then select the appropriate article. Rather, "der garten" is imbued as an entire morpheme.

    The implication of this is that "gender," in this sense, has no more relation to male, female, and neuter than dative or accusative tenses do in Latin. There have been studies conducted on this and the results are inconclusive. That's because it isn't cleanly discernible.

    For example, the singular of year in German is "das Jahr," but in the plural it's "die Jahre." The gender changes. In English, of course, the concern with gender-neutral "he" (e.g., "When the pilot boards the plane he should check his flight plan") is that this use would predispose speakers of thinking of pilots in general as being male, and this was a warranted concern. We've adjusted accordingly.

    Gender in Romance languages *can* have this effect in some cases, but demonstrably not in others. The overlap, as in the case in this item about the articles that apply to children, is a confounding variable worthy of just this sort of discussion.

    • Sebastian Reply | Permalink

      I totally agree with you that people don't learn nouns and their respective genders as separate entities. They learn the combination, or in the case of German, how to infer the gender from certain suffixes (just some examples: -chen, -lein are neuter; -ling, -er are masculine; -ung, -eit are feminine).

      German speakers don't think of gardens as male/masculine and they don't think of girls as neuter, they simply learn that it's "der Garten" and "das Mädchen". When they actually think about the physical gender, then it takes precedence over the grammatical one. As I explained elsewhere in the comments here, even though the neuter case of "das Mädchen" would require the appropriate neuter pronouns (es, sein... - it, its), people tend to go with the feminine pronouns nowadays (sie, ihr - she, her), despite not being grammatically correct.

      "Das Jahr - die Jahre". That's not a gender change, that's singular and plural. It's true that the plural article "die" is identical to the feminine one, but I wouldn't say that all plurals are therefore feminine. Because as I said before, grammatical gender in German is often indicated by certain suffixes. Nouns ending in "-er" are mostly masculine, for example, and still perceived that way in plural, where their form might not even change (example: der Rechner - die Rechner).

      • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

        Thanks for all this Sebastian. Can you say anything about so-called "weak masculine" nouns?

          • Alex Brown | Permalink

            Thanks for that link!

            I wondered if there was anything about what the German perception of the objects these nouns describe are (though on balance I'm going off the idea that there is a huge influence of grammatical gender of nperception of on-sexual objects).

  4. Barbara Krickl Reply | Permalink

    Hi, I am German but live in Australia. It always amazes me how difficult it is to use he/she because there is no neutral gender. When I arrived I often called a baby 'it' which upset many people, mainly because the baby hade been born and was a he or she. However, the child (das Kind) is neutral in German and strangely the girl is - despite its obviously female sex - das Maedchen, whereas a boy gets the male article 'der'. On the other hand 'das Maedchen' having the ending "chen" becomes neutral, like all nouns which are made diminuitive by adding 'chen'. This was often considered sexist because little boys have their own word. So it is kind of sexist, but when growing up I did not really think about it that way, until the 70s when I became interested in feminist analysis of language.
    One argument in German, which arose in the 1970s also, was the use of 'man' which is used instead of he or she in order to denote 'anyone' and is equivalent to using 'one' or more commonly in Australia 'you' in English. Using 'man' is an intricate part of German usage and as far as I am concerned I do not think of a gender, but there was a time when one was accused of being sexist because it is pronounced exactly like 'Mann' (noun for 'man') and thus considered wrong.
    I can see sexist usage of language in both English and German, however the fact that there is a third article for nouns and a third presonal pronoun ('es' ) as well as the gender neutral impersonal pronoun 'man' makes sense and often does help avoid sexist usage. Here in Australia for example instead of saying he or she, when it is unclear or if one needs to speak in general terms, it is common to say 'they'. If only there were a neutral pronoun, it would make so much more sense. And if English had declination at its disposable linguistic life would be so much better, if not less sexist.

  5. Silvan Reply | Permalink

    While I find the article interesting, I couldn't help but be surprised to read, that the german language should have borrowed the term baby from the english language without having a word for it itself. (That's what i got out of the article; if i missread, please excuse my ignorance)
    So a quick google-search led me to this site:
    While most of the response is written in german, there are two links at the end of the response from an english website about the origins of the word baby. Quite interesting actually.
    I addition, the german language already had the word "der Säugling". Again male. Do I smell a german-french conspiracy here? ;)

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      Hi Silvan,

      You have read me correctly. I should point out that my German is non-native (I'll add something to my bio page) and that what I write about it is based on my own limited experience. That being said, in 10+ years of learning and speaking German, I've only ever heard the word der Säugling used for baby animals... Also, it looks like the link you added is about former words for "baby", i.e. before das Baby became the standard.

      Thanks for stopping by!


    • elkement Reply | Permalink

      I had exactly the same thoughts as Silvan when reading about German having no equivalent of "baby". I believe you call children babies that are in German called either "Säuglinge" or "Kleinkinder" - probably similar to baby/toddler but maybe the age of transition from one to the other is different?
      I agree that both "Säugling" and "Kleinkind" are rather technical or formal in contrast to "baby" and you would find those terms in medical articles, legal texts, newspaper articles - but not so much in everyday language. These German terms also sound a bit "1950s" to me. I am probably too young to comment on the development, but I would assume "baby" really entered the German (everyday) language at the same time as "computer", thus rather at the beginning of what seems an exponentially increasing incorporation on English terms in the last century.

      • elkement Reply | Permalink

        ... and as one of my (Dutch ;-)) Twitter friends pointed out - as I have missed it when reading the article: It is "das Mädel" (in Austria rather "das Mädl"), not "die Mädel".

        • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

          Thanks, fixed.

          This got me thinking that the German word Mädelein (which I may well have just invented) might have given rise to the French name/ type of cake Madeleine. On the other hand, that's probably just me seeing patterns that aren't there - the name Madeleine is more likely the same as Magdalena, as in Mary Magdalen in the Bible.

        • elkement Reply | Permalink

          I think I have read "Mädelein" or "Mädlein" in old fairy tales or Goethe or other dated texts. Since you can add -lein to anything in German it has to be correct. Your theory sounds plausible - but how did the cakes get their names?

  6. Florian Reply | Permalink

    As a German native speaker, I am surprised that you heard word "Säugling" being used for baby animals. This sounds pretty weird to me, actually. Säugling is the original German word for baby, which, unlike its English counterpart, is usually ONLY applied to humans. It is still used today, mostly in a more formal context, e.g. in a newspaper report about a car crash where a baby was involved, or in composite words like "Säuglingsnahrung" (baby food). But you wouldn't use it in a normal conversation today, partly because it is derived from the word "saugen" (to suck, referring to breast feeding) and because it just doesn't sound as cute as "Baby".

    • Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

      I might be misremembering my biology lessons from three years ago. Isn't it derived from Säugetier ("mammal")?
      I'm quite happy to be corrected on this. THanks!

      • Sebastian Reply | Permalink

        Florian is right that the original German word for baby is "Säugling". It derives from the verb "säugen" (to suckle, lactate) which itself comes from "saugen". "Säugetier" is obviously related, but not the root.

        Also, I wouldn't read too much into grammatical genders. While they originally may have been based on biological ones, there isn't any real connection there anymore. I never even thought about German third person plural "sie" being just like third person singular feminine, for example, before your article made me aware of it.

        It is often pointed out that "girls are neutrum in the German language" - "das Mädchen". Luckily you explained that this is because of the diminutive suffix. Certain suffixes invoke certain grammatical genders, it's as simple as that (and also the reason why it's "der Säugling": all -lings are masculine); biology or "real life" doesn't have much to do with it.

        It might be interesting to point out that concerning "Mädchen", the grammatical gender is often subverted in colloquial speech. Nowadays it's common to hear native speakers say "Das Mädchen dort, ihr Name ist Anna" (That girl there, her name is Anna) instead of the proper "Das Mädchen dort, sein Name ist Anna" (That girl there, its name is Anna).
        That's most likely due to the fact that even though the grammatical gender of Mädchen is neutrum, girls are of course perceived as feminine and hence the feminine pronouns are preferred. It doesn't help that many declinations of the German neutrum are actually identical with the masculine forms, as is the case here with the possessive pronoun "sein" (his/its).

  7. Didier Nordon Reply | Permalink

    Cher Alex,
    Merci de votre post perspicace: j'ai effectivement lu avec intérêt, autrefois, la thèse de Sapir Whorf, et je continue d'être intéressé par sa conception du langage.
    Didier Nordon

  8. Tannice Reply | Permalink

    Reread the article, but read every instance of DAS BABY out loud in an Arnie voice. It makes it that extra bit brilliant.

  9. Hannah Little Reply | Permalink

    Interesting... I think historical attitudes to gender have probably influenced the structure of some languages (though I'm not an expert, I might do a search on this because there's almost certainly a body of literature on it). However, I don't like the idea of blaming linguistic structure for our attitudes and actions because I feel people should feel accountable for educating themselves and others about gender and sex. And we're certainly capable of overcoming biases.

    My only other point is about where you say: "do native French speakers perceive la table as having particularly feminine qualities? I doubt it."

    There has been work done ( which shows that the use of gender can influence speakers' perception of objects which aren't obviously gendered. The above paper shows that the fact that “bridge” is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish can make speakers describe bridges differently. German speakers described bridges as beautiful, elegant, fragile, pretty, and slender, while Spanish speakers said they were big, dangerous, strong, sturdy, and towering. Which is crazy.

    There's also this from dinosaur comics: "Of COURSE my table is a woman! That's what she identifies as whenever I'm not home and all my furniture comes alive."

  10. Max Nunnemaker Reply | Permalink

    If we're ever going to end gender and race discrimination, we're going to have to stop discriminating in terms of gender and race. It's silly to identify ourselves, and each other, and everything else, in terms of gender or race. Consider that unless we're planning to have sex with someone, or we're trying to make a baby with them, neither of which happen very often, gender is irrelevant. And what's race got to do with anything? In 2014, let's resolve to identify ourselves, and each other, in terms of something other than gender or race, something sensible, like shoe-size. Think about it. If your shoes don't fit, you'll know it right away, and all day long. And if we start to take each other’s shoe size too seriously, we can move on to identifying ourselves, and each other, in terms of our preference for crunchy or creamy peanut butter. And so on, until we tire of the whole silly business. It's ridiculous, every-day things like shoe-size that matter more than gender or race. Identification is a creative act. Let's talk about your shoe-size. For a Change.

  11. Alex Brown Reply | Permalink

    Thanks to everyone who has chipped in with comments so far, it's fascinating to see that while I'm clearly on to *something* here, it is a subtle art indeed to discern the true influence of gendered pronouns on people's perception of the world...

    Keep it coming folks, we're all learning so much!

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