Ludicrous, even derogatory?

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Here's a case where English has it relatively easy. There's been plenty of fuss over whether to retain actress or to use actor for females as well as males, whether to adopt new gender-neutral terms like chair and craft in place of chairman and craftsman, and so on. But most English words for social roles and titles are already linguistically gender-neutral: president, senator, minister, dean, secretary, teacher, boss, judge, lawyer,

In languages like Italian and Spanish, in contrast, nearly all such words are specified for grammatical gender, and their grammatical gender is usually interpreted sexually. Furthermore, the option to create gender-neutral replacements is linguistically unavailable — the only practical alternatives are to use one gender (usually masculine) as the default for both sexes, or to coin a new word for the marked sexual category (as in English chairwoman or househusband).

This issue is discussed at length in Miren Gutierrez and Oriana Boselli, "Rejecting the Derogatory 'Feminine'", IPS,  12/26/2009. And what I learned from this article is that Italian and Spanish have dealt with the issue in strikingly different ways.

When it comes to titles of importance, in Italian, you find yourself reading about "il ministro Mara Carfagna" – even if Carfagna, the minister of equality, is a woman. In contrast, in Spanish there is no option but 'ministra', ending in the feminine 'a'.

Both options seem to make a lot of people unhappy. The article says that "In Italian, most women prefer the masculine titles, because the feminine version (when it exists) is considered ludicrous, even derogatory". But

Politician Luisa Capelli, from L'Italia dei valori party (The Italy of Values), thinks that "leaving behind the supposed universal neutrality of the masculine form is an essential passage so that the feminine experience gets respect."

"It is not true that these feminine forms (for positions of power) do not exist in Italian: there are plenty of examples from feminists, linguists and semiologists who have made a number of proposals," says Capelli. "You can say 'avvocata' (lawyer) and 'ministra', but nobody does. Although many of us use those words, we are ignored. To change the symbolic order is hard work that requires a consensus based on the profound convictions of people."

The Spanish, in contrast, have freely coined many feminine forms of terms for titles and roles, though some people think there need to be more of them:

This apparently dull issue of feminine titles jumped to the front pages recently, when Bibiana Aido, Spain's Minister of Equality, used the word 'miembra' (member) in public.

What’s the big deal? The word doesn’t exist. Yet.

"In most personal nouns," says [José Luis] Aliaga Jiménez [professor of Linguistics of the Universidad de Zaragoza], there is a correlation between grammatical gender and the referential meaning of 'sex'. It is a culturally significant correlation… All nouns referred to a person end up with a gender variation, sooner or later. And it is in that context that the words 'miembra', 'testiga' (witness) emerge, since, following the common rule in Spanish, the final 'a' is interpreted as belonging to the feminine."

'Testigo' and 'miembro' are so far exceptions to the common rule and have no official feminine variation.

And apparently there is resistence in Spanish to the use of masculine forms for  traditionally female jobs like azafato ("male flight attendant"), amo de casa ("househusband") or niñero ("male nanny").

In contrast to both Italian and Spanish, the trend in English-speaking countries seems to be to avoid pairs of gendered terms (e.g. chairman/chairwoman or actor/actress) in favor of a single neutral term, whether it's a neologism (chair) or a term that previously had gendered associations (actor).  This apparently reflects the attitude attributed to Italians in the article's opening sentence:

In Italian, most women prefer the masculine titles, because the feminine version (when it exists) is considered ludicrous, even derogatory.

But English ends up with a solution that's largely gender-neutral, and this is not an option in languages like Italian and Spanish, because grammatical gender is too firmly established in noun morphology and in syntactic agreement phenomena.

The article's way of explaining this involves an amusing misunderstanding (or malapropism):

Modern English lacks grammatical gender, whereas Indo-European languages, including Italian and Spanish, can distinguish between masculine and feminine.

Perhaps the state of linguistic education in Italy and Spain is just as bad as in the U.S.

[Hat tip: Randy McDonald]



138 Comments

  1. IrrationalPoint said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 9:08 am

    Recently, in the variety of Spanish I'm familiar with, there seems to be a growing tendency for women to use masculine form with a feminine determiner for some professions, as in la ingeniero, la arquitecto for the engineer and the architect. Traditionally, the feminine is la ingeniera, la arquitecta, and the masculine is el ingeniero, el arquitecto.

    The traditional feminine forms don't seem to be derogatory as such (at least not among the people I know), but some people regard the la + masc. form to be more serious.

    "But most English words for social roles and titles are already linguistically gender-neutral"

    If you're committed to a strong reading of that, does it not become unclear how to explain tendencies to say things like male nurse and female scientist? Or, for that matter, the tendency to say chairman (not chairperson) when the convenor is a man, but chairperson (not chairwoman) when the convenor is a woman?

    –IP

  2. Oskar said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 9:28 am

    This is a minor problem in Sweden too, though not to the extent that it is in Spain and Italy (it's somewhere in between those two and English). Usually what happens is that the feminine form is usually phased out.

    One notable exeption is nurse, where the masculine form is being phased out (which is similar to English, I guess). The Swedish word for nurse translates roughly into caretaker, which in the masculine form is a general word describing someone taking care of something, but the feminine form is only used for the specific job of a nurse. This has led to the feminine form of the word being more "prestigious" than the masculine form, and thus even male nurses are adopting it, even though it sounds very strange if you're not used to it (like referring to a male waiter as waitress).

    Modern English lacks grammatical gender, whereas Indo-European languages, including Italian and Spanish, can distinguish between masculine and feminine.

    Oh, dear me.

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    Leaving aside the question of whether six months ago is "recently" in the context of newspaper headlines, I find the sentence

    'Testigo' and 'miembro' are so far exceptions to the common rule and have no official feminine variation.

    a bit odd. The Real Academia Española lists both as "common in regard to gender", meaning that "la testigo" and "la miembro" are considered correct. There are instances (although not many) of both in the Corpus del Español. "Officially" there can't be a feminine variation because "officially" the words aren't masculine.

    Incidentally, the reactions to the "miembra" incident are a good illustration of the difference between prescriptivism and descriptivism, which I shall probably use in future when explaining it to Spanish-speakers.

  4. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 9:48 am

    A while ago, there was a fascinating debate on Francophone Wikipedia about whether or not it was proper to call Michaëlle Jean (Governor General of Canada) "gouverneure général" and there was a huge row between the Quebec editors (where feminisation is considered obligatory by all) and conservative French editors insisting that there was no such word as "gouverneure".

    French has more epicene words than Italian or Spanish (in your list, the french "ministre", "secrétaire" and "juge" are), and yet there was a definite opposition to "madame la ministre" back in the 90s in France.

  5. Lou Hevly said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    There is also the issue of plurals. Directives from Brussels indicate that administrative language should avoid expressions such as "els alumnes" (Catalan for "the students", whether all male or mixed) and either use "els alumnes i les alumnes" or find some other periphrase.

  6. James D said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    The same gendered language problem happens in Welsh, although usually the masculine term isn't overtly gendered. For instance, one generally advertises job vacancies with the masculine term. The absolutely classic mistake is to advertise for an "ysgrifennyddes" (female secretary), not helped by some very un-PC dictionaries listing it as the first translation of the word "secretary". There seems to be an interesting social phenomenon going on that few people object to "ysgrifennyddes", but woe betide you if you describe the wrong person as a "cyfarwyddwraig" (female director).

  7. Lukas said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:19 am

    I don't know about Italy and Spain, but in France this is complicated by the fact that the feminized forms have traditionally been used to address officials' spouses: madame l'ambassadrice is the ambassador's wife, madame la préfète is the prefect's wife, madame la colonelle is the colonel's wife and madame la présidente is, bien sûr, the president's wife. Changing this system of addresses to accommodate female officials, let alone their male spouses, same sex partnerships and other oddities of modern life, is no trivial matter.

  8. sollersuk said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:29 am

    What amuses me about English is that the -or ending appears to be very specifically masculine in origin – I was taught that it derives from "vir" and therefore from the start referred to males, unlike the English -man ending, which originally related to humans in general.

  9. language hat said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:39 am

    I was taught that it derives from "vir"

    Sue your teacher. It derives (via French) from the Latin suffix -ator, in which the -tor is an agentive suffix with cognates in Greek and Sanskrit; it has nothing to do with vir.

  10. Maria said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:45 am

    In Argentina the issue was with presidente/a, since the the former does not necessarily mean masculine. Still, most people use the feminine.

  11. Boris said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:47 am

    @Oskar,
    What's the English word for male nurse that was phased out?

    [(myl) "Male nurse", I think.]

  12. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:48 am

    Digression (slightly) but… In South Africa recently I was amused to find two establishments that referred to their waiting staff as 'waitrons', a completely novel formation to me.

    It turns out that it isn't actually new (must be rare in the UK though), but I was equally amused to find that Wiktionary's first definition for it refers to robots.

    Do some English dialects have actrons, directrons etc. too? (Futurama notwithstanding)

  13. Eirik Hektoen said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    I've been told by a male friend who's a nurse in London (UK) that at least where he works it is now common practice to use "sister" as a sex-neutral term for a certain level in the nurse hierarchy, instead of the officialese "charge nurse".

  14. Andrew Clegg said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:49 am

    @Boris

    "male nurse" maybe?

  15. Marc Naimark said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    Complicating the French situation is the fact that even when a perfectly acceptable feminine version of a job exists alongside a male version, it has particular connotations.

    For instance, it is far likelier for a female CEO of a company to be addressed as Madame le Directeur Général than as Madame la Directrice Générale. And yet a primary school principal is always known as Madame la Directrice. Traditionally there have been both male and female principals, but only male CEOs, and this distinction continues in usage, independent of the form of the job title.

  16. Jarek Weckwerth said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:52 am

    The situation in Polish is similar to that in Italian and French, it seems. Some of the feminine forms are felt ludicrous by some people, some are felt derogatory, and some used to be used for the female spouses…

    However, there is at least a real linguistic element in there. The suffix -ka, which may be used to form some of the feminines, also serves as a diminutive suffix, as in noga 'leg' > nóżka 'little leg' (with some additional vocalic and consonantal mumbo-jumbo). This doesn't help in making forms such as psycholożka (from psycholog) sound quite as respectable as they should be. All the same, there are more and more people who insist on (or make a point of) using them. (And, of course, there are those who never tire of mocking that insistence.)

  17. Alon Lischinsky said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    @Lukas: that used to be the case in Spanish, and it is still recorded in most dictionaries. An "alcaldesa" can be both a female mayor or a mayor's wife, although the latter use is certainly dated, if not outright obsolete.

    It seems that Spanish is quite committed to gendering most occupational titles, even some (such as "juez" or "presidente") that do not take the typical -a/-o endings, but the choice is currently a matter of free variation, strongly tinted by language ideologies. Miguel Rodríguez Mondoñedo commented on this a couple of years ago regarding the Argentine 2007 presidential election, where two female candidates chose different forms for their campaign ads (incidentally, the winning candidate and current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, used the feminine "presidenta").

    I'd be very wary of taking the RAE's official stance to be descriptive of anything remotely resembling the current state of the language, however, as they have proved systematically and appallingly insensitive to gender matters. Not long ago they even issued an official communiqué rejecting the use of "género" as a term for socially-determined gender roles, arguing that the distinction between "sexo" and "género" is "unnecesary"– whatever that may mean.

  18. MattF said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    I heard "waitron" in Washington DC bars back in the 1980's, so it's a not a new coinage– presumably it's no longer terminally hip, even in Washington.

  19. Ken Brown said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 11:02 am

    IrrationalPoint said: "If you're committed to a strong reading of that, does it not become unclear how to explain tendencies to say things like male nurse and female scientist? Or, for that matter, the tendency to say chairman (not chairperson) when the convenor is a man, but chairperson (not chairwoman) when the convenor is a woman?"

    Does that tendency still exist? Committees I'm on usually say "chair". Whih is easily available becuase of the long-standing practice of addressing the chairwhatever as "chair" when making some intervention. A few women insist on beng called "chairman" but I think "chair" has won. "Chairperson" is very rare.

    Oskar said:"The Swedish word for nurse translates roughly into caretaker, which in the masculine form is a general word describing someone taking care of something, but the feminine form is only used for the specific job of a nurse. This has led to the feminine form of the word being more "prestigious" than the masculine form, and thus even male nurses are adopting it, even though it sounds very strange if you're not used to it (like referring to a male waiter as waitress)."

    This happens in English with "midwife". The sex of a midwife seems firmly implied by the name, but it is the only name we have for that role, so a man who does it has to be called it. Though the Royal College of Midwives say that the etymology of the name is someone who is "with a woman" giving birth so men who do that job get called that name.

  20. Faldone said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 11:14 am

    I remember "waitron", frequently in the phrase "waitron unit", in the '80s in Ithaca, NY. I assumed that the robot connection was due to the perceived mindlessness of the job.

  21. Jana said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    In German, it has gotten to the point that neuter words (like "das Mitglied" 'the member') get feminine forms ("Mitgliederinnen") because some people seem to assume that if the word does not end in "-in/-innen" (sg/pl for (most) feminine titles/professions) it must be masculine and therefore discriminatory.

  22. Rachael said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    Marc Naimark: You get that with some English words too, e.g. governor / governess.

  23. IrrationalPoint said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 12:07 pm

    Ken Brown:

    "Does that tendency still exist? Committees I'm on usually say "chair". Whih is easily available becuase of the long-standing practice of addressing the chairwhatever as "chair" when making some intervention. A few women insist on beng called "chairman" but I think "chair" has won. "Chairperson" is very rare."

    That's not been my experience at all. My experience is that chairperson persists as a feminine form — I've often been the chairperson (not at my request). I have a particular dislike of chair left over from my debating days, when the chair, the floor, and the house all referred to people or sets of people, and eventually the "thingy-fication" annoyed me. I much prefer convenor. But that's a digression.

    I'm less sure about the gender-distribution of the webmaster, webbie, webmistress, web-monkey set.

  24. michael farris said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 12:31 pm

    The most interesting thing about the Polish handling of this are nouns without female forms. Very commonly they aren't distinguished morphologically in the nominative but are syntactically in oblique cases where female forms don't deline. Let's take Profesor Nowak

    Czy widziałeś Profesora Nowaka? – "Did you see Professor Nowak?" will refer to a man (and as a direct object is in the accusative case).

    Czy widziałeś Profesor Nowak? Means the same thing, but here Professor Nowak is a woman and the accusative form is the same as the nominative. This follows the pattern of family names, where male family names are declined if at all possible whereas womens' often aren't (unless it ends in -a).

    A common, though not very formal practice is to simply add the all-purpose female title Pani (Ma'am, Mrs, Miss, Ms. Madame, etc) before the masculine form as in Pani Profesor.

  25. Robert Coren said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    It seems to me there are two related issues here: how to refer to an office-holder (or similar) of a specific sex, and how to refer generically to the office.

    In English we can say "Who is the president?" without implying anything about the sex of the holder of the office. I can't think of any completely gender-neutral way to ask this question in French, Spanish, or Italian.

  26. Drew Ward said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 12:38 pm

    I am not at all bothered by titles such as chair or chairperson (in lieu of chairman), but one thing that irritates the crap out of me is when authors substitute the generic use of the masculine pronouns and possessive with either the feminine equivalents or horrendous creations such as his/her, he/she, she/he, (s)he, etc. And of course what's worse is attempting to circumvent this by assigning a gender-neutral plural form to singular usage (their).

    It's sad that as speakers, we can't seem to separate grammatic gender from asserting dominance of a sexual gender over another.

  27. Mr Punch said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

    Women who head legislative committees in Massachusetts are addressed as "Madame Chairman."

    We in the US recently faced a version of the Spanish conundrum when Ms. Sotomayor was widely described as "the first Latina Supreme Court justice" — when gender wasn't the point (unless you were counting Cardozo).

  28. Rick said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 12:49 pm

    As a child who loved words, I loved discovering which titles and names of professions had gendered variants and which ones did not. I can accept that many of them are now otiose, and some are condescending, but I still bemoan the loss of 'actress.' Will the language have to be purged of 'diva' and 'chanteuse' as well?

    Get past trifles like split infinitives, and we're all prescriptivists.

  29. hsgudnason said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    German usually forms the feminine by adding the suffix -in (plural: -innen) to the masculine title. I've seen the generic problem for third-person references to a profession solved by referring, for example, to StudentIn(nen). And, I think I've always seen Chancellor Merkel referred to as "Kanzlerin."

    Years ago, when I taught in Austria, the practice of addressing wives by their husbands' titles was still practiced, as Lukas describes for French. (I don't know if that's still true.) But my wife, for example, was referred to as "Frau Professor," while my women colleagues were addressed as "Frau Professorin." There's also Hofmannsthal and Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, in which one of the characters, a field marshall's wife, is usually referred to as "die Marschallin," except at the point when her appearance is announced as "die Frau Fürstin Feldmaschall."

    The Spanish/Italian examples caused me to wonder about the history of the Latin first declension nouns that are atypically masculine: the three that come to mind are agricola, poeta, and pirata.

  30. Kylopod said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 1:07 pm

    There are terms for which a gender-neutral alternative has not yet caught on and still sounds weird. One example is the term "straight man" in comedy. Quite recently, I found myself referring to Margaret Dumont as a straight man, because I realized "straight woman" or "straight person" would probably be confusing (and might easily be misconstrued as "heterosexual").

  31. Ellen K. said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

    @Drew Ward, "And of course what's worse is attempting to circumvent this by assigning a gender-neutral plural form to singular usage (their)."

    If anyone is doing that, they are recreating something that already exists. And the subject has been covered plenty in language log.

  32. Alec said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 1:11 pm

    In Alberta there are county-level agricultural extension staff whose job title is "Agricultural Fieldman" (see http://www.aaaf.ab.ca). Increasing numbers of these jobs are now held by women but the term "fieldman" is still used in all cases.

  33. Zwicky Arnold said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 1:14 pm

    IrrationalPoint:

    "But most English words for social roles and titles are already linguistically gender-neutral"

    If you're committed to a strong reading of that, does it not become unclear how to explain tendencies to say things like male nurse and female scientist? Or, for that matter, the tendency to say chairman (not chairperson) when the convenor is a man, but chairperson (not chairwoman) when the convenor is a woman?

    The quoted material is just the assertion that the English language doesn't have grammatical gender, which is true on the usual understanding of what "grammatical gender" is.

    But in various English-speaking social groups there are default associations between certain roles, statuses, or occupations and one sex or the other, which is how some people end up with "male nurse" and the like (in an attempt to override these default associations).

  34. Craig Russell said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    The feminine of that Latin -(a)tor ending is -(a)trix, which is quite productive in Latin (venator=hunter; venatrix=huntress) but only provides one English derivative that I can think of off the top of my head: dominatrix. I assume -trix is the source (through French?) of English -tress (the Latin pair is actor/actrix). But, yes, if we were following Latin rules, every -or agent noun could only be masculine (so Barbara Boxer would be a senatress).

    "Senatress" has been used in English (check OED), and I would call it "ludicrous, even derogatory". "Waitress" and "actress" have (mostly) survived, but there are plenty of other feminines that once existed that would be extremely ludicrous/derogatory if now used:

    Governess Sarah Palin, Doctress Ruth Westheimer, Poetess Maya Angelou

    Perhaps that gives us some sense of how the feminine versions of titles might sound in Italian?

  35. Harlow Wilcox said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    I have seen "chair" used for chairman/chairwoman quite a bit, but I have never seen "craft" used in place of "craftsman." Where, O where, does this happen?

  36. Peter Taylor said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

    @Craig Russell, see also aviatrix and executrix.

  37. Peter Harvey said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 2:01 pm

    An odd thing about Spanish is that victima and persona are grammatically feminine regardless of the sex of the person involved, but I have never seen any pressure for the equivalent (non-existent) masculine forms victimo and persono.

  38. Robert E. Harris said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 2:09 pm

    Hale and Buck's Latin Grammar (1903) offers the explanation that first declension nouns are masculine refer to male persons, such as nauta, sailor, agricola, farmer, but also Hadria, the Adriatic. I'll pencil in poeta and pirata. Thanks, hsgudnason!

  39. Thomas Thurman said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 2:16 pm

    Then there's the odd case of "priest". As applied to Christian priests, it's epicene. But those who believe that no women should be priests occasionally call women priests "priestesses" as a petty insult. (I have seen this even extend to calling Katherine Jefferts Schori a "bishopess".)

  40. Craig said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

    @Oskar, are the male and female versions of "nurse" in Swedish possibly closer to the English words "orderly" and "nurse"?

    An "orderly" is a hospital attendant who tends to do non-medical work, e.g. transporting patients, restraining combative patients, etc. The job is more typically held by males in the US, because of the more demanding physical labor. It's also seen as a less skilled position than nursing.

  41. Corcaighist said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 2:27 pm

    This reminds me of the 1988 headline in French newspapers that ran:

    "Le capitaine Prieur est actuellement enceinte" ( http://www.jstor.org/pss/398544 )

    In Irish there has been some discussion on this. Though we don't normally have explicit gender markings on nouns (despite us having grammatical gender) we do have some explicit words such as:

    banaltra – nurse (with the prefix ban- denoting female). This has been replaced with simply 'altra' covering men and women
    bangarda – woman police officer now changed to 'garda'.

  42. Rick said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    The Spanish/Italian examples caused me to wonder about the history of the Latin first declension nouns that are atypically masculine: the three that come to mind are agricola, poeta, and pirata.

    'Poeta' and 'pirata' are borrowed from Greek, where they are also 1st declension. As for 'agricola' and others of the same type (incola, advena, auriga, etc) one explanation goes like this. These words were originally abstract nouns, and thus were initially feminine, as abstract nouns in Latin usually are. Hence, 'agricola' originally signified 'field-cultivation.' However, by a type of metonymy, they were applied to the person doing the work, and were then reclassified as masculine by the principle of natural gender. Of course, this didn't necessarily have to happen with every masculine word of the 1st declension; I would imagine some were formed by analogy.

    Incidentally, akin to the German 'StudentIn,' some Latin teachers now write 'discipulus/a' to avoid making a specific gender reference. :)

  43. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 3:00 pm

    There are, of course languages (although not English!) which are actually not Indo-European and do actually lack grammatical gender. Turkish, for example. But I recently happened to be reading an introductory Turkish grammar, which advises that Turks occasionally make femaleness explicit by prefixing a word meaning "girl" or "woman" to the sex-neutral occupational noun. So you can specify "waitress" as opposed to "waitron" by saying a compound glossable as "woman waitron." (As it happens, the word for waitron is garson, from French garcon, but I would tend to assume the maleness of the word in its original French context may have become opaque along the way.) An AmE parallel might be "Lady Volunteers" to describe female sports teams of the University of Tennessee, which is if you think about it a bit more curious than, e.g. "Lady Bulldogs" or something like that where the presumptive masculinity of the school mascot is a bit more linguistically overt.

    And to repeat what often seems to get overlooked in these discussions, genderless languages like Turkish or Hungarian are, to put it mildly, not historically associated with cultures that are unusually progressive or egalitarian with respect to sex roles when compared to the cultures associated with languages in which gender is more grammatically salient. Nor does a ranking of IE languages along some continuum of exactly how salient/ubiquitous mandatory gender inflection is correlate particularly well with a ranking of the associated cultures for progressiveness/egalitarianism. Which all tends to suggest to me that the notion that self-conscious tinkering with language is a productive way to promote the implementation of some utopian (or even merely liberal) political agenda is probably based on superstitious pop-Whorfianism.

    "Waitron" is of course largely jocular (I think "server" is preferred by those wishing to be progressive-sounding without any hint of humor). It doesn't work non-jocularly for presumably the same speciesist reasons that gender-neutral "it" (for an adult human referent) is not at present in English a plausible competitor for "singular they." But since the Romance languages have generally given up the Latin neuter, you can't even really experiment there with whether neuter morphology for human referents of unspecified sex would be an acceptable dodge (plus one of the earlier commenters said that neuter nouns have still raised German-speaking feminist hackles).

  44. hsgudnason said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 3:06 pm

    @Rick

    Thanks for the historical explanation. You've solved something I've wondered about, off and on, for nearly a half century.

    The virtue (to my eyes) of the German solution (and it's an accident that it's able to do this) is that it almost makes the feminine the ground form. "Discipulus/a" has the same flaw as s/he or he/she.

  45. Peter Taylor said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 3:26 pm

    The written hip youth Spanish solution to e.g. compañero/a is compañer@. It doesn't work for words which don't have an -o/-a ending variation, of course, but it covers a large number (probably the majority) of words which change for gender.

  46. Rubrick said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    Drew wrote:

    "And of course what's worse is attempting to circumvent this by assigning a gender-neutral plural form to singular usage (their)."

    Of course! I mean, expecting "their" to function as both singular and plural is as daft as expecting "you" to. Thou would surely laugh at such an absurdity.

    [(myl) Prithee, mind thy verbs. "Thou wouldst surely laugh at such an absurdity".]

  47. Sandra Wilde said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 3:36 pm

    Is anyone else bugged by the use of "Latino/a," which occurs particularly in academic writing? I'm totally in favor of inclusive language, but this just seems affected and awkward to me.

    I doubt academia will ever change if to Latin@.

  48. Lazar said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:02 pm

    I could be wrong, but it seems to me that most Hollywood actresses self-identify as "actors", even though "actress" prevails in popular usage. I have to say, the use of "actor" for a woman still sounds odd to me.

  49. Army1987 said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:07 pm

    The last quoted sentence becomes arguably sane (if still weird-ish) if the comma before "including" is removed.

    I've read that the feminine forms of masculine titles to refer to wifes of officers used to be common in Italian, too, but it hasn't at least since I was born.

    (And for some of the nouns which have one gender regardless of sex, the gender is the "wrong" one: guardia is feminine and soprano is masculine.)

  50. Q. Pheevr said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:15 pm

    Perhaps in English we should start using billy in the sense of 'niñero'—I mean, if a niñera is a nanny, and l@s niñ@s are kids….

  51. Stephen Jones said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    The femine in Catalan also has the meaning of wife of so la jutgessa can mean the wife of the judge. There are some derogatory meanings in English ('poetess' which is derogatory, as opposed to 'waitress' which isn't).

    There are gender neutrals in Spanish, 'el/la juez' for example and masculines that end in 'a' such as 'un poeta'.

  52. Kylopod said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:16 pm

    I seriously doubt the author of that last sentence was unaware that English is an IE language.

  53. Jim said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:22 pm

    As Dinosaur Comics pointed out, maintaining the actor/actress distinction makes some sense because the person's sex affects what roles they can play. In most other professions sex is irrelevant to their qualifications (at least theoretically; sex discrimination obviously still exists in practice).

  54. Stephen Jones said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

    which is true on the usual understanding of what "grammatical gender" is.

    I have long been under the impression that English had two genders: higher animals is one, and lower animals and inanimate objects is the other. Of course the fact that ships and cars and geographical entities can be classed as higher animals and babies as lower animals or inanimate objects is just a loveable English eccentricity.

    One of the places where this gender distinction comes into place is in the genitive (the apostrophe can only be used for higher animals). In 'A University Grammar of English', Leach and Svartik talk about gender to explain the genitive in English.

  55. Stephen Jones said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:28 pm

    the same speciesist reasons that gender-neutral "it" (for an adult human referent) is not at present in English a plausible competitor for "singular they."

    It's the gender distinction I referred to in my last post. 'It' is the singular pronoun for lower animals and inanimate objects; the singular pronouns for higher animals are 'he' and 'she', since one of the characteristics of the gender class is that its members are defined by sex.

  56. Kylopod said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:35 pm

    @Stephen Jones

    "One of the places where this gender distinction comes into place is in the genitive (the apostrophe can only be used for higher animals)"

    Huh? You can't talk about a clam's shell? A tree's bark? A book's cover?

  57. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:38 pm

    Peter Taylor wrote:

    The written hip youth Spanish solution to e.g. compañero/a is compañer@.

    And, unsurprisingly, it's also used to insult people by suggesting effeminacy, mannishness, or homosexuality. One person might say to another, "¡Sal del armario, guap@!" (="Get out of the closet!" I'm having trouble translating guap@&mdash"babe"?)

  58. Peter Harvey said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:54 pm

    Re languages without grammatical gender, I will never forget the time a gorgeous young Finnish woman looked me straight in the eyes and said 'We do not have sex in our language.'

  59. Coby Lubliner said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 4:57 pm

    In Spanish, masculine nouns ending in -ta (other than -ista) sometimes take the feminine form -tisa, e.g. poetisa for a female poet. Words ending in -ista are normally epicene.

    But when the word modista was borrowed from French with the meaning 'dressmaker', it became so strongly associated with women that, when men entered the profession, the masculine modisto was formed to designate them.

  60. Rubrick said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 5:03 pm

    Myl: You know, I originally did use "wouldst", and then decided that that was confusing the issue, since the peeve concerned pronouns, not verbs. Damned if I do….

  61. Craig Russell said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    @Peter Harvey

    Spanish 'victima' and 'persona' go back to Latin words which originally didn't refer to people. 'Victima' was an animal offered for sacrifice (we still say "sacrificial victim"), and 'persona' was a theatrical mask (which then came to stand for the character an actor portrayed, which then came to mean any character or personage–like our word "persona"). When the words were transferred from non-people to people, they kept their old feminine gender.

  62. chocolatepie said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 5:56 pm

    Just this morning on the radio, a DJ was discussing the results of the Golden Globes, and referred to Sandra Bullock as having won an award for "Best Female Actor." It was the first time I'd heard such a construction, and was jarred and intrigued. The DJ referred to the male winner as "Best Male Actor," in turn.

    One might question why we have gendered categories for a talent like acting in the first place (historical exclusion of women from "serious" consideration?).

    On "male nurse," I've heard plain "nurse" used overwhelmingly to refer to either gender, unless the audience was especially likely to assume any nurse was a woman (grandparents, strict gender traditionalists, etc.).

    [(myl) COCA has 78 instances of "male nurse" and 16 instances of "female nurse"]

  63. Stephen Jones said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 6:06 pm

    Huh? You can't talk about a clam's shell? A tree's bark? A book's cover?

    You can count on gentives to bugger you up. You can't talk about 'a door's handle' or 'a table's leg' or 'a tree's leaves'. You can talk about 'a building's structure' but not 'a building's windows'.

    I'll let somebody cleverer than I work out the exact rule.

    [(myl) There's certainly a connection between animacy and choice of English genitive construction (as discussed here and here), but it's by no means a "rule", and intuition is not in general an adequate guide to usage.

    For example, there are four instances of "tree's leaves" in COCA ("She realized it was not enough to study a tree's leaves. She needed also to pay attention to the insects that nibble on this green stuff..."), and also four instances of "building's windows" ("... a technique that prevents a blast from turning a building's windows into lethal shards of flying glass..."), and a similar number of instances of "a door's handle" ("He parked and got out of the car, and pulled on the door's handle to make sure it was locked.")]

  64. John Cowan said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 6:10 pm

    The situation in Russian is probably as tangled as all the other European languages put together. With a few exceptions like tkach/tkachixa 'weaver/weaveress', pre-1917 Russian simply did not admit that there were any occupations that could be practiced by both men and women. Therefore, if an occupation was women's work, the noun would of course be feminine and refer to females, without any confusions, and mutatis mutandis for a man's job.

    The Revolution scrambled all that up, of course, and created a real mess: maxinistka was marked feminine, and meant 'typist', but male versions could not be called maxinist, because that meant railway engine driver. What is more, -ka is a general formative for all sorts of non-human things, making things even worse. As a result, modern Russian is full of idiosyncractic substitutions.

  65. J.W. Brewer said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 6:15 pm

    On "priest/priestess," I think in AmE the word "priest" is really only commonly epicene in practice when discussing the clergy of the Episcopal Church (total membership <1% of the U.S. population, although to be sure disproportionately high-profile in the media). The other Christian groups of any significant size in the U.S. who typically call their clergy priests don't ordain women and the other Christian groups of any significant size who do ordain women don't typically call their clergy priests (and common alternative terms like "minister" and "pastor" have no obvious historically available variant the way "priest" does). Anglophone neopagans seem to my limited knowledge happy with "priestess" (and I would have some concern about possibly giving offense to the ladies in question if I referred to them w/o the -ess), and one at least frequently sees in writing phrases like "Buddhist priestess," "Shinto priestess" or "Santeria priestess," although I do not have enough experience with Anglophone practitioners of those religions to know what their patterns of internal usage in the U.S. may be.

    What might be more interesting (but I don't know the answer) is how Protestant denominations that now ordain women deal with the title issue in Dutch, French, German, the various Scandanavian languages etc., in terms of just using the same word historically used for the members of an all-male clergy for both sexes or instead using a morphologically feminine variant for their female clergy.

  66. Simon Cauchi said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 6:20 pm

    @Rubrick and myl: "Thou" + plain-form verb is attested in sixteenth-century English. E.g. "Thou shall", not "shalt".

  67. Ben said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    @Stephen Jones
    You can't talk about 'a door's handle' or 'a table's leg' or 'a tree's leaves'. You can talk about 'a building's structure' but not 'a building's windows'

    I'm not following your argument. All four of the items you quoted as things you can't talk about seem like perfectly valid constructions to me (and no different in form from the one you cited as valid). Can you elaborate on what you see that's wrong with them?

  68. Grep Agni said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    You can count on gentives to bugger you up. You can't talk about 'a door's handle' or 'a table's leg' or 'a tree's leaves'. You can talk about 'a building's structure' but not 'a building's windows'.

    I'll let somebody cleverer than I work out

    I have no trouble with any of these examples. 'The building's windows need to be replaced' sounds OK to me.

  69. Ben said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 6:30 pm

    The abandoned town had long since succumbed to decrepitude. Pieces of old furniture littered the sidewalks–a door's handle here, and table's leg there. Across the street from me, a building's windows hung onto their sockets at strange angles, defying the building's structure.

    [(myl) Real-life examples -- less writerly ones, in general -- are easy enough to find. See the list in this comment, or on the web at large, things like

    A door's handle is not the only thing thats important, you will also need to look at specific hinges to connect it to the wall.
    I had a quite painful experience touching a door's handle at -50 without any glove.
    He reminded everyone to touch a door's handle before opening it in case of a fire, to make sure it is not hot.

    There's some truth to the observation about animacy and choice of English genitive constructions -- see e.g. here and here -- but it's not a simple "rule", and there's some evidence of a change in progress in the strength or nature of the tendency.]

  70. marie-lucie said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 7:12 pm

    @Ben: In the context of your example, "a door's handle, a table's leg" are parts of specific items of furniture which the writer is describing, rather than just parts of those objects which might be detached from its whole, for instance a "door handle" seen lying on the ground with no corresponding "door" in the vicinity. Similarly, "a building's windows" is all right because the windows are still attached to the particular building, or have recently been taken down, while "building windows" would be strange unless they were contrasted with, for instance, "car windows", both of which would have to refer to types of windows considered apart from the things they were normally part of, as in the warehouse of a glass manufacturer where only windows for different purposes would be stored.

  71. Kylopod said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 7:15 pm

    An easy source where you can find hundreds of published examples of constructions like "tree's leaves" is Google News and Google Books.

    [(myl) And a good way to see what's happening is to look at the 's/of ratio (as discussed here). Thus Google books finds 658 instances of "the|a tree's leaves", compared to 1740 instances of "the leaves of the|a tree", for a ratio of 0.38. Compare e.g. "the|a child's fingers" (728) vs. "the fingers of the|a child" (620) for a ratio of 1.17; or substitute doctor for child to get 636 vs. 128 = 4.97. Alternatively you could look at the percentage of 's forms, as discussed here.]

  72. Katherine said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    IrrationalPoint said: "I'm less sure about the gender-distribution of the webmaster, webbie, webmistress, web-monkey set."

    Never seen "webmistress" used, though I'll certainly admit to not dealing with webM's of either sex much. Do people use "webmistress" with all the connotations that usually come with "mistress" though?

  73. marie-lucie said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 7:37 pm

    Occupations and gender: Like Italy and Spain, France and Canada have taken different routes. In France, the generic masculine is still in general use where there are no traditional feminines, but in Canada there is wholesale feminization, sometimes taken to (to my mind) ludicrous extremes, as when les étudiants et les étudiantes are urged to seek advice from un professeur ou une professeure. Of course this doubles the number of full noun phrases and gives the impression that there is a difference of nature between the two nominal referents where there is none that is relevant. Given such cumbersomeness, it is inevitable that some texts forget to mention both alternatives (especially when the nouns are pronounced identically), thus giving the impression that only one sex is intended.

    In translating from English into French, the genericness of most English nouns can give rise to misunderstandings. I remember reading an article in a French magazine about a school-age American girl who had been stricken with some long-term illness. According to the article, un instituteur (a [male] primary school teacher) was coming to her house every day and tutored her in her bedroom. Given American standards, it was unthinkable to me that the teacher in question was not a female, but the translator of the article had probably taken the first word s/he associated with "teacher".

    As for the dislike of the -ess suffix (or French -esse), it does not seem to extend to royal or noble titles: to my knowledge, no one has suggested that Princess Diana should have been known as Prince Diana.

  74. Jonathan Badger said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 7:49 pm

    Interesting to read Eirik's comment to the effect that "sister" in the British nursing system is being used gender-neutrally. I wondered about that — not just the British system, but many countries call nurses "sisters" (in the local language) — not just because of the traditional female dominance in the profession, but because it was a traditional job of nuns.

  75. Joshua said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 7:57 pm

    When I was in high school (mid-1980s), my Spanish textbook had a section on various occupations, identifying the masculine and feminine words for each. Most of these words were more-or-less regularly formed (the lawyer = el abogado/la abogada), but there was one which didn't fit the pattern: the pilot = el piloto/la mujer piloto. Based on general patterns of the Spanish language, one would expect that a female pilot would be "la pilota" instead of "la mujer piloto." I'm not sure what the reasoning was for this form.

  76. Kylopod said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 8:19 pm

    In the animacy discussion, I am also not clear on whether the distinction between "lower" and "higher" animals really applies. I have read many a scientific article that refers to insects as "he" or "she" when the biological sex is known. Following myl's advice, I compared the results of "bee's stinger" to "stinger of a/the bee" on Google Books, and here are the results:

    the/a bee's stinger 462
    stinger of a/the bee 359

    I'm sure others can do a more comprehensive and precise analysis, but I suspect that insects are treated as animate a great deal of the time, even if less often than warm-blooded vertebrates.

    It seems to me that this depends a lot on the speaker's knowledge about and/or attitude toward the animal in question. The same cat may be addressed as "he" by the owner, and as "it" by the neighbor, even if the neighbor knows it is a male. There are people who will even refer to a hermaphroditic snail they find in the driveway as a "he."

  77. Sybil said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

    @Harlow Wilcox: ' but I have never seen "craft" used in place of "craftsman." Where, O where, does this happen?'

    Yes, indeed! Enquiring minds want to know!

    I have seen "crafter", but it seems to refer to something else other than what "craftsman" does. In point of fact, "crafter" suggests female to me, and less – um – strenuous? crafts.

    And "waitron"? Gah. I was waiting on people when that was current, circa 1980. I never figured out where it came from, and was so put off I never used it. I preferred "server", and I was well in the minority then. But. We seldom "waited".

  78. Matthew Kehrt said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 9:01 pm

    Regarding titles of nobility, there is the odd case of the use of "Lord" rather than "Lady" for certain titles held by British monarchs. So, for instance , Elizabeth II is the " Lord of Mann" and the "Lord High Admiral".

    Regarding women putatively ordained as Catholic priests, I've seen the word "womenpriest" seriously used in discussions of the validity of their ordainment, generally by neutralish third parties (the Catholic Church, of course, feels that there is no need for such a word, and the women want to be called "priests"). I find this term utterly ridiculous.

  79. Anonymausi said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 9:19 pm

    In East Germany, gendered terms for professions were reintroduced after the annection because the unisex (faded male) terms were deemed sexist by Westerners (Westernesses?). Merkel was a Physiker in the 80s, now she's a Kanzlerin. I can't help but notice that this coincided with the reintroduction of systemic gender inequality to the working place.

    As for the camel-cased Binnenmajuskel in words such as StudentInnen, it is already outdated. Queerist political correctness calls for a Gender_gap: Student_innen.

    In other news, "the bee's knees" : "the knees of the bee" = 8,900,000 : 100,000

  80. Kylopod said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 9:20 pm

    Among Episcopalians, they're simply called priests.

  81. marie-lucie said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 9:28 pm

    There are people who will even refer to a hermaphroditic snail they find in the driveway as a "he."

    What else would you expect or suggest to use to refer to a hermaphroditic creature (even assuming that most speakers are familiar with this biological peculiarity)?

    When I first came to live among English speakers, I was surprised that children uniformly referred to animals (except their own female cats or dogs) as "he". Even small insects were "he", not "it", and never, ever "she" (adults might use "it" for insects, but not children). This puzzled me because in French animal species are referred to by nouns which have grammatical (not always sexed) gender, so even animals for whom one would be hard pressed to determine their sex are masculine or feminine in gender. I guess that children use "he" as a generic for a living creature with its own mind, while "it" could only be an inanimate object.

  82. Kylopod said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 9:57 pm

    @marie-lucie

    Most English speakers refer to a snail as an "it," not just because it's a hermaphrodite, but even more because it's a primitive animal. However, it depends greatly on how much the speaker is inclined to personalize and anthropomorphize the creature.

    Children and some adults refer to animals by default as "he" because, I suspect, that reflects how they're conceiving of the animal. We tend to conceptualize creatures as male until proven otherwise: that's why Ms. Pac-Man has a ribbon (it's also why Pac-Man is thought of as male in the first place).

    We call this natural gender rather than grammatical gender because the rules are pretty flexible when it comes to animals, and are based on how we think of the animals rather than on the requirements of the language. And it shows that our thinking itself is sexist, rather than the language's construction.

  83. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    January 18, 2010 @ 10:19 pm

    It's true that "presidenta" is in common use here in Argentina, and indeed la presidenta insists on the use of that term, and it's in the DRAE, with, among other things, the meanings "president" and "wife of the president", so she's actually been una presidenta twice: once in her current term, and once in the previous term, during which her husband was el presidente. Many people feel that the word is absurd, and "la presidente" would be more appropriate. I can't think of any other words that have a masculine form ending in "e" and a feminine form ending in "a", and feminine words ending in "e" are commonplace.

    I have seen "compañer@" and the like in informal writing. So far I haven't seen "compañerⓐ", although that would be a logical extension. The other forms I commonly see use "x", as in a graffito that says something like, "Libertad para todxs lxs presxs políticxs!", meaning "Liberty for all the political prisoners!" — of both sexes, both todas las presas políticas and todos los presos políticos. (I am not aware of any current political prisoners in Argentina, as the term is commonly used, but maybe there are some people who disagree. Too bad they didn't include their web site URL in the graffito, as many graffiti artists do, so I can find out what they were talking about.)

    I also see locutions like "los niños y las niñas", where traditionally you would just say "los niños".

    Related to the discussion of grammatical case and gender in English, I have an amusing error to relate. Much as in Japan, many stores, brands of clothing, etc., here use English in an attempt to seem hip, sophisticated, or international. It's very common to see a store that sells dog and cat food, barbiturates, cat toys, cat litter, and so on, labeled as a "Pet's Store". The owners are apparently unaware that this means that the store is owned by a pet, and in the plural as "Pets' Store" would imply that the pets are stockholders or similar.

    Perhaps this illuminates the differences between the English possessive case and the Latin genitive, which I believe would be entirely appropriate.

  84. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 12:04 am

    I'm surprised no one here mentioned (a large part of) the reason that Bibiana Aido was criticized. While being an American from a state with a strong good-ole-boys network, even I find her appointment to be more than a bit off. She's not the brightest bulb in the box. After she got her degree, she worked for only a few years before getting herself on the elections list. (I'll never understand the idea of voting for parties and thus getting representatives you might hate just to get the others you like, but I guess that's just my American vote-for-the-person bias). The president appointed her "Minister of Equality" at the age of only 31 even though she had pretty much no experience…in anything.

    I don't know anyone who uses miembra except for her. It has always been listed as epicene even in the first DRAE of 1734. It's not much different than with el/la canciller (chancellor), especially now that it has been losing its epicene quality and simply becoming a gender-common noun (to use the RAE's terminology).

    Her most memorable line is when she stated that a 13-week-old fetus "is a living being, of course, but we can't speak of a human being because that has no scientific basis." Basically, she's a young incompetent politician known for verbal slips that got her position because the president wanted to say he had the first majority-female cabinet. (just to give context to her reference)

    More on topic, I don't think this is a huge issue, except with political correctness. Most words that "need" a female form got them long ago. Even el/la jefe (boss) got the form la jefa noted in the DRAE back in 1837. It's just accepted that where you have "la piloto" you also have "el periodista" (and all the other -ista words). Political (over-)correctness is just something that has been recently pushed by the Spanish government, especially in always redoubling with the feminine: "los niños y las niñas" when "los niños" has always been the standard. Even lower and middle class mothers I worked with were opposed to the PCness, as they recognized that's just how the language works. I'm unaware of how things are in Latin America, though, and would be interested to hear from LLers from there on it.

  85. Axel said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 12:11 am

    @Jonathan Badger
    I recall that during a fairly recent labour dispute involving nurses in Sweden, there were a lot of calls for support for the "sisters". The front figures on the nurses' side were all male.

    Another Swedish tidbit, my sister who is a primary school teacher is addressed by her charges either by first name, or with "fröken" (miss). Her husband who is also a primary school teacher is addressed in the same way. Although I think that the frequency of "fröken" is lower than for my sister.

  86. ET said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 12:43 am

    Waitroid, anyone?

  87. Bryan D said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 1:21 am

    Modern English lacks grammatical gender, whereas Indo-European languages, including Italian and Spanish, can distinguish between masculine and feminine.

    I lol'd at that.

  88. David Fried said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 1:33 am

    When men began to attend at births in the 18th century, the terms in use, I believe, were "man-midwife" and "accoucheur." I assume the latter was borrowed from French precisely because calling a man a "midwife" seemed inappropriate or ludicrous.

  89. Peter Taylor said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 4:57 am

    @Kragen Javier Sitaker, sirviente/a; I think asistente/a.

  90. Army1987 said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 4:59 am

    As for the genitives, "the photo of John" depicts him, "John's photo" is owned by him, and "the photo by John" was taken by him. (And short of using verbs meaning "depict", "own" or "take" I don't think there's any way to distinguish these in Italian: la foto di John can mean any of these depending on context.)

  91. Jo said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 5:05 am

    One does see "ministra" rather often these days in Italian newspapers, in reference to Mara Carfagna, and I have the uncomfortable feeling that it's only caught on with her because she couldn't conceivably be accused of being "masculine" or fiercely feminist… the older and more outspoken Rosy Bindi or Barbara Pollastrini, for example–who unlike Carfagna have never posed for calendars–didn't get called "ministra" nearly as much in the press, as far as I remember. One problem often raised about the word is that it sounds too much like "minestra" (soup), but people seem to be gradually getting accustomed to it anyway.

    I've only seen @ used a few times in Italian in place of o/a, but * is becoming pretty common in young lefty circles, especially for the plural ("ciao a tutt*", etc.).

    Personally, as a native English speaker, I would love it if everyone would get over the "it just sounds funny" problem and use feminine forms for professions in Italian. Even after all these years, saying "il mio medico" (my doctor, who happens to be a woman) and then having to stumble around using masculine endings until I can fit in a "lei" or "la dottoressa" in the next sentence sure sounds funny to me. But then again, if it were really about making my life easier, they would get rid of every word with an r followed by a consonant.

  92. uberVU - social comments said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 5:11 am

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by PhilosophyFeeds: Language Log: Ludicrous, even derogatory? http://goo.gl/fb/5qSt

  93. Plegmund said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 5:51 am

    "it's also why Pac-Man is thought of as male in the first place"

    The clue's in the name, isn't it?

    What puzzles me about actress/actor is the speed and completeness of the change. It seemed to me as if there had been no premonitory whisper of discontent about 'actress'; but then overnight all female thespians were being called 'actor' – was there some declaration or edict that I missed?

    However it was done, that's clearly the way to do it.

  94. Sybil said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 6:37 am

    @ ET:

    "waitroid" would have been preferable. And more accurate.

  95. Lazar said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    @Matthew Kehrt: In the Channel Islands, the loyal toast is, "To the Queen, our Duke!", as in Duke of Normandy. I don't know why the feminine form isn't used.

  96. Lazar said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 8:01 am

    I should add, English appears to be unique among Indo-European languages (at least as far as I've looked) in having a word for queen which is not derived from the word for king.

  97. Army1987 said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 8:37 am

    How comes that Indo-Europan (including English) lost the original word for "(typically adult) male human", only preserved in compounds such as "werewolf"[1] and "virile", being replaced by the word originally referring to any human, and now has an Etruscan borrowing originally meaning "mask, character" to refer to any human, but not always ("Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen", not *"… of Person …")? I've heard that Christianity drove away the use of "vir" and caused "homo" to be also used specifically for males, but that doesn't sound too plausible for me.

    [1]Which nevertheless turns out to mean "human wolf" not "male wolf".

  98. martin said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 9:31 am

    @Robert:
    "¿Quién ocupa la presidencia?" is a gender-neutral (and not entirely uncommon) way of asking who's president.

  99. Alon Lischinsky said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    @Lazar: and she is Lord, not Lady, of Mann.

    @Kragen Javier Sitaker: add "clienta", "regenta". You can have a look at the evolution of academic views on the matter with these articles: http://www.jstor.org/stable/339381 (1976), http://www.jstor.org/stable/342818 (1990), http://www.jstor.org/stable/4178707 (1991). And Clare Mar-Molinero has a great introduction to these issues, although its name escapes me at the moment.

  100. Karen said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 9:42 am

    Where I grew up (East Tennessee) all dogs were "he" and all cats were "she" until you knew better. It always jars me in Dick Francis to read of horses being "it", but babies as "it" is fine. Birds and bugs tend to be "he", unless it's a definitely, obviously female bird (a hen or a she-cardinal), though some bugs are "she" (ladybugs, for instance) – but "look at her go" is the standard, so maybe they're "he" in nominative. Heck, maybe they're holdover "hi/hir" for all I know.

    What I do know is that it's dangerous to say that "everyone" says anything.

  101. Jorge said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    In addition to the already mentioned presidente/a, jefe/a, sirviente/a, asistente/a, there's intendente/a, regente/a, cliente/a. Also pacienta is found sometimes.

    A female gobernante is not the same as a gobernanta though. One governs a country, the other just a house.

    Cristina was not the first to be Argentina's presidenta in both the older and modern senses, and Isabelita was presidenta and vicepresidente simultaneously.

  102. Kylopod said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:25 am

    "it's also why Pac-Man is thought of as male in the first place"

    The clue's in the name, isn't it?

    Well, okay. But notice that his female counterpart is also called Pac-Man, only with a "Ms." attached. (It's kind of like the way women have masculine-sounding surnames like Johnson and so on.) And I think my statement holds true in general: anytime there's a cartoon creature whose sex is unknown, audiences will treat it as male.

    Where I grew up (East Tennessee) all dogs were "he" and all cats were "she" until you knew better.

    That's pretty much the way most Americans think. Can you imagine a superhero named Dogwoman, or Catman? Well, maybe you can, but it's a bit counterintuitive.

    Again, this has to do with natural gender rather than grammatical gender. English speakers are actually thinking of these animals as male or female, regardless of what they in fact are. In gender-dominant languages, the masculinity or femininity of an object usually depends on the form of the word rather than the meaning of the word. When "pizza" was borrowed into Modern Hebrew, it became a feminine noun simply because it ends in an open vowel.

  103. Peter Taylor said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    Can you imagine a superhero named Dogwoman, or Catman? Well, maybe you can, but it's a bit counterintuitive.

    I can't imagine Dogman either, and I have no reason to believe that Catwoman wouldn't sound odd if I had not heard it many times before.

  104. mollymooly said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    The wife of a Lord Mayor is a Lady Mayoress. The husband of a Lord Mayor has no title. "Mayoress" is always consort, never regnant.

  105. John said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 2:17 pm

    Kylopod said,
    Among Episcopalians, they're simply called priests.

    Similarly, among American Reform and other liberal Jews, they're called "rabbi", regardless of which sexual organs they may have. Hebrew may have extensive grammatical gender, but it doesn't seem to carry over into English.

    I've also (over)heard a few discussions of the idea of female rabbis by Conservative and Orthodox Jews, and while they don't approve of the idea, they seem to have no (language) problem using "rabbi" to refer to a female. Their problem is social and religious, but apparently not linguistic.

  106. Ben said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 2:43 pm

    @Army1987 said
    As for the genitives, "the photo of John" depicts him, "John's photo" is owned by him, and "the photo by John" was taken by him. (And short of using verbs meaning "depict", "own" or "take" I don't think there's any way to distinguish these in Italian: la foto di John can mean any of these depending on context.)

    Without context, "John's photo" takes on that default meaning, yes, but in context it can take on different meanings.

    When a photography teacher is grading a photo assignment, "John's photo" probably means the one taken by him.

    When some is browsing Facebook pages, "John's photo" probably means the one that depicts him.

    So in English too, there is some ambiguity that must be resolved contextually.

    The two prepositional phrases, on the other hand, have pretty fixed meanings regardless of context.

  107. J. W. Brewer said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    I am no doubt ignorant because we don't have high-falutin' titles like that here in the U.S. of A., but what's the (I assume relatively recent?) historical reason for a female Lord Mayor being called that? That's not how the Brits handle, for example, the judiciary. On the Court of Appeal for England & Wales, it's Lord Justice Hughes but Lady Justice Hallett.

  108. David Eddyshaw said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 2:57 pm

    I've worked for years in British hospitals and never even once heard a male charge nurse called "sister" except as a joke (and not often then.) I don't believe this story.

    I did in my youth attempt to start a trend of calling a particularly terrifying ex-army charge nurse "brother", but it didn't catch on.

  109. Zwicky Arnold said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

    On Dogwoman and Catman: neither Dogwoman nor Dogman seems to occur as a superhero (or supervillain), but there are several Catman characters (some heroic, some antiheroic). Do a search for Catman on Wikipedia, and you'll get a list.

  110. Ben said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 3:18 pm

    For what it's worth I've always referred to all mammalian house pets–dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, whatever–as 'she' until told otherwise by the owner. Barn animals too (with exceptions where the difference is plainly obvious — bulls/cows, roosters/hens).

    On the other hand, I've always (even as a child) referred to insects, fish, and reptiles as 'it'.

    Wild mammals and birds I'll usually refer to as 'it' unless I for some reason I'm talking about a specific animal I know of (like the raccoon that keeps knocking over the trash can), in which case I'll usually not use 'he', 'she', or 'it', but 'they'-singular.

    So my default ways to refer to animals are–on a scale of similar-to-self to not–'she', 'they', and 'it'. The only animals I call 'he' are animals that I know to be male (either because that kind of animal is necessarily male or because someone told me).

    So naturally I agree with Peter Taylor that Dogman sounds as bizarre to me as Dogwoman, and I suspect that Catwoman only sounds okay because I've heard it so many times. Similarly, Spiderman sounds fine to me even though I don't attribute masculinity to spiders, and Iron Man and Wonder Woman also sound fine even though Iron is not animate and Wonder is not even concrete. So I don't think it's the sex of the prefix that makes a super hero's name sound good; I think it's just that they all sound weird until someone produces a massively popularly comic series featuring them.

    For (human) babies I make it a point to try to find out the sex so I can figure out whether to say 'he' or 'she'. Calling a baby 'it' just sounds disrespectful to me, except in the phrases declaring or asking about the sex — e.g. 'It's a boy!'.

  111. Ben said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 3:21 pm

    For what it's worth I've always referred to all mammalian house pets–dogs, cats, hamsters, birds, whatever

    Just calling myself out before someone else does… =)

  112. dwmacg said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 3:50 pm

    They could avoid the whole issue in Spain if they would just adopt Basque as the national language.

  113. Kylopod said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 3:56 pm

    I've also (over)heard a few discussions of the idea of female rabbis by Conservative and Orthodox Jews, and while they don't approve of the idea, they seem to have no (language) problem using "rabbi" to refer to a female. Their problem is social and religious, but apparently not linguistic.

    A few factual points: Conservative Judaism has ordained women as rabbis since the 1980s. Orthodox Judaism still does not. There was, however, a story recently about an Orthodox woman given a role very similar to that of a rabbi, but without being given the title "rabbi." Her official title was "madricha ruchanit," though "rabba" and "rabbanit" were floated around as feminine versions of the word rabbi. To read more, click here.

  114. Peter Harvey said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 4:14 pm

    In Lancashire the loyal toast is 'The Queen, Duke of Lancaster'.

  115. Kylopod said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 4:32 pm

    So I don't think it's the sex of the prefix that makes a super hero's name sound good; I think it's just that they all sound weird until someone produces a massively popularly comic series featuring them.

    The point I've been trying to reach–and I may not have explained it well enough–is that cats in our culture are frequently thought of as possessing traditionally feminine traits, whereas dogs are typically thought of as possessing masculine traits. I believe that's what leads people to think of cats as female and dogs as male, rather than any element of gender in the English words for dogs and cats (as is the case in many other languages).

  116. Drew Ward said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    Their:

    (From a facebook status message)

    Jonathan David Stokes got their tongue stuck to a flag pole would you come to their rescue?
    a few seconds ago

  117. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 5:55 pm

    @Peter Taylor, @Jorge: Thank you!

    @Alon Lischinsky: Those do look interesting, although it's amusing that they seem to have been published in English. I don't suppose you have copies?

  118. Ben said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 6:21 pm

    @Kylopod: I agree that that's probably true in general. But I think the super-hero naming issue is a separate beast altogether.

  119. Stephen Jones said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 6:41 pm

    They could avoid the whole issue in Spain if they would just adopt Basque as the national language.

    Which brings us to the interesting fact that despite the protestations of crazed feminists gender in language has little to do with the repression of females in society. Persian is gender neutral but that doesn't mean Iranian society has more gender equality than in Sweden.

  120. John Cowan said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 8:48 pm

    Sybil: They also serve, of course, who stand and wait.

  121. Jake Schneider said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 9:03 pm

    I find that making a minority identity linguistically female makes the term more offensive.

    Jew is okay, but Jewess is not.
    Negro isn't okay anymore, but Negress is far worse.

    Just a thought.

  122. Kylopod said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 9:16 pm

    @Jake

    The counterexample is Latina. While there has been a general move away from feminine nouns, and this has led English speakers increasingly to use Latino for both sexes, Latina still remains popular, and is often considered preferable to Hispanic.

  123. Dan Lufkin said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 9:56 pm

    @ Lazar — "Queen" isn't related to "king." It's from Old Norse kvæn "woman" (and goes way back earlier than that in IE). Still persists in Scots "quean."

    The Scandinavian languages use drottning for queen. True, the etymon is drótt, more or less = "king," which is still used in Icelandic, but the others now use kung or Danish kong.

    In Denmark, King Kong was called Kong King.

  124. Rick said,

    January 19, 2010 @ 10:33 pm

    @Army1987:
    I've heard that Christianity drove away the use of "vir" and caused "homo" to be also used specifically for males, but that doesn't sound too plausible for me.

    Yeah, that's not very likely, though there's no stick so small that someone won't try to beat the medieval church with it. :) 'Homo' supplanting 'vir' is an aspect of Vulgar Latin.

  125. Jake Schneider said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 2:32 am

    @Kylopod:

    I think we might categorize words like Latina differently as appearing foreign. Thus, if an English-speaking American uses Latino/a rather than Hispanic, it reflects a kind of cultural sensitivity for having taken the trouble to understand a bit of another language. The feminine Latina goes along with that; someone who would use the endonym might also know a bit about Spanish grammatical gender. Spanish, as discussed above, has less options for gender neutrality. It's easier to call a woman a Jew (w/o -ess) than a Latino.

  126. Alon Lischinsky said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 6:15 am

    @Kragen Javier Sitaker: I don't really find that amusing, but that may be because I'm too used to English being the academic lingua franca. In any case, my (interested insider) impression is that English-language scholarship on Spanish is far less conservative than the Spanish-language one.

    A few references in Spanish, though: http://www.ucm.es/info/circulo/no9/andres.htm; http://www.ucm.es/info/especulo/numero17/sexism2.html; http://www.mec.es/sgci/br/es/publicaciones/comunicjp.pdf; http://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/fichero_articulo?codigo=2171628&orden=0; http://dialnet.unirioja.es/servlet/fichero_articulo?codigo=2766269&orden=0; http://gupea.ub.gu.se/dspace/bitstream/2077/21038/1/gupea_2077_21038_1.pdf; http://www.asamblea.go.cr/BIBLIO/revista/articulos%20revista/Vol%2016%20no1%20abr%202008/valorsemant.pdf; http://www.inmujer.migualdad.es/mujer/publicaciones/docs/11Demujeres.pdf

    @Jorge: I know that, but it was in the 2007 elections that the choice of term became a political issue.

  127. Alon Lischinsky said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 9:13 am

    An extraordinary 1837 discussion of the topic (far less rigid and doctrinaire than some contemporary ones) can be found here.

  128. marie-lucie said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 11:26 am

    Dan Lufkin: "Queen" isn't related to "king." It's from Old Norse kvæn "woman" (and goes way back earlier than that in IE). Still persists in Scots "quean."

    Reading a book about cats where the feminine equivalent of "tom" was said to be "queen", I wondered whether that was not a mistake for "quean" by people who did not know the latter word, or did know it but thought "queen" more dignified as well as better known. About "quean", I had earlier seen a comment that the word was derogatory, which would fit in with the promiscuousness of female cats at mating time.

  129. Sandra Wilde said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 7:17 pm

    @marie-lucie: Her name was technically Diana, Princess of Wales, not Princess Diana, though of course she was usually called the latter popularly. A locution like Princess Anne is for someone who's a princess by birth.

    @kylopod: I think the name Ms.PacMan was meant to be funny! as was the bow in her hair that distinguished her. There were also less well-known Baby PacMan and PacMan Jr. games.

  130. marie-lucie said,

    January 20, 2010 @ 9:15 pm

    Sandra: Thank you for the correction, but my point was that no one seems to have suggested that "princess" should be replaced by "prince", as opposed to "actress" by "actor".

  131. Kragen Javier Sitaker said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 5:57 am

    @Alon: Thank you even more!

  132. Kylopod said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 9:05 am

    @Sandra

    Of course it was supposed to be funny! But you can see a lot about the way people think from these sorts of things. If you utter the word "female snake," most people I suspect will quickly form some image in the backs of their minds of a snake wearing a bonnet or a dress or with thick red lips and long eyelashes. The image will usually vanish before they're consciously aware of it, but it's part of the way most people think, and it shows up most often in stuff like children's cartoons and games.

  133. ajay said,

    January 21, 2010 @ 1:43 pm

    The suffix -ka, which may be used to form some of the feminines, also serves as a diminutive suffix

    Similar in English, with the (now obsolescent) -ette. A kitchenette is a small kitchen, an usherette is a female usher.
    IIRC, interestingly, "suffragette" was treated as offensive in the US but embraced by the movement in Britain.

  134. Gender Non-Neutrality « Cheap Talk said,

    January 22, 2010 @ 5:54 am

    [...] an interesting post at the great blog Language Log.  Lots of great comments [...]

  135. Chris Waugh said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 6:24 am

    Re the supposed masculinity of dogs and femininity of cats, is it because of values or characteristics of masculinity and femininity they supposedly embody, or because we have the words 'bitch' and 'tom'?

  136. muzaffar said,

    January 24, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

    In Arabic all such terms are strictly specified for grammatical gender, although I'am not a native arabic speaker, I have never heard that arabs use male forms for females or vice versa in everyday speech.

  137. Oskar said,

    January 25, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    @Craig: No, the male and female words for nurse in Swedish are simply versions of the same word, but with an ending that indicates gender. The female version is sköterska and the male word is skötare. The -are ending is a signifier of a male gender and -erska is a signifier of female gender.

    Thus the situation is similar the English words actor and actress. It's just the endings that differ.

  138. Ellen said,

    January 26, 2010 @ 10:26 pm

    Oskar: I think he meant in meaning, not form.

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