Gender Politics

by Gail Armstrong

A Russian child, while reading a translation of German tales, was astounded to find that Death, obviously a woman (Russian smert, fem.) was pictured as an old man (German: der Tod, masc.). My sister Life, the title of a book of poems by Boris Pasternak, is quite natural in Russian, where “life” is feminine (zhizn), but was enough to reduce to despair the Czech poet Josef Hora in his attempt to translate these poems, since in Czech this noun is masculine (zivot).

[The preceding is from] a great little piece on the *conundrums posed by gender in translation—over at ProZ’s forums, which include a discussion on whether translators are, well, nuts. (It would appear to be so. Zut, alors.)

No doubt the most confounding thing for a native English speaker when attempting to learn certain languages is the notion of gender—the system of tagging inanimate objects masculine or feminine.

“Why the hell are breasts masculine?” he cried.

In Old English, as in Latin, there was a masculine, feminine and neuter, but it was already losing steam around the time of Chaucer, under the influence of the various marauding hordes. Only Indo-European and Semitic languages make the distinction and many assert that, in English, the erasure came from the gradual disappearance of what are called inflections—i.e. endings tacked onto words that alter their meaning: from a simple ‘s’ for the plural to more elaborate endings in other languages.

O, Anglos, you’ve got it easy: in Russian or German, among others, the spelling of the word house would change (as would any adjectives, pronouns or articles attached to it) depending on whether you’re looking at that house, entering it, being given it, etc. becoming the equivalent of housa, housi or houso—the last letter serving to indicate what’s happening to the house or the speaker’s relation to it.

A number of ancient languages (and certain native American ones, such as Cree) simply divide all things up between animate and inanimate. And a great deal of confusion would be erased if, instead of male, female and neuter, nouns were termed X, Y, and Z because, in the main, it has nothing to do with sex. Sorry.

So why are boobs masculine?

There appears to be no solid theory on how things were originally elected masculine or feminine, and the general consensus is that it was arbitrary for the most part, although many have attempted long-winded explanations to the contrary. A certain Russian professor, for instance, tries to convince us that objects were given a gender in relation either to their physical appearance (e.g. mountain = big and strong = male; water = soft and soothing = female) or the sex that was most likely to use them (knife: male; spoon: female). An appealing theory that falls flat on its face (visage, Gesicht, masculine; faccia, feminine) as soon as you move into a host of other languages.

Moon is feminine in French, Italian and Spanish, but masculine in German; the opposite is true of sun. Milk is feminine in Spanish and German, masculine in French and Italian, neuter in Russian… and on it goes. (A confusion only further enhanced by the fact that a same neologism in French can be masculine in France and feminine in Quebec.

Oh, and, should I mention that a same word in French can be either masculine or feminine, depending on its meaning. E.g. un voile = a veil; une voile = a sail. Beat that.)

For native speakers, it’s just one of those things you learn without questioning and becomes second nature in no time. Kids will make mistakes with verb tenses, but rarely with gender.

I think it’s fair to say that the use of gender affects the perception of objects to some small degree, it’s by no means overwhelming, and I’ve found most feminist essays on the subject, and calls for all languages to adopt a natural gender system (as in English), somewhat misguided.

(That said, I do have a very impractical objection to the fact that, in French, if you have a group of twelve thousand women and one man, the masculine plural, ils, will be used to sum it up. I brought this up with my grade 3 teacher who advised me to get over it.)

So why are breasts masculine?

Pretty boring, actually: the French word sein comes from the Latin sinus, meaning curve, hence the bit of the toga that curved just so. Alas, nowhere near as exciting as boobies.

Gail Armstrong is a hopelessly parenthetical freelance translator, etc., bemoaning the fact that she lives in the South of France instead of her native Canada (of all the nerve!). Please visit her website at openbrackets or contact her at armstrong[AT]openbrackets.com (replace [AT] with @).

*On a completely unrelated topic, there came about the question as to what is the correct plural of conundrum. For more on that, go to the Guardian Unlimited for a spirited dialog between a number of Brits, one of which wrote "The correct plural of 'conundrum' is, of course, 'Notes and Queries'. Now, would anyone care to provide me with the plural of 'overbearing pedants'...?"

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