Sex and gender in language
"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".)
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.
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.
- 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?