Gender distinction in languages

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[This is a guest post by Krista Ryu]

It may be true that the problem of gender inequality is more severe in East Asian countries than in European countries. However, in terms of languages, Indo-European languages actually distinguish genders while East Asian languages traditionally do not.

I came across a historical fact that the Korean word geunyeo 그녀 (she) was created between late 19th century and early 20th century to accommodate the concept of  "she," distinct from "he," especially due to the need for translating English or other European books. Traditionally in Korean language, there was no such distinction of the third person based on gender, and the word used was 그 (geu, third person singular). In fact the word geunyeo 그녀 is 그 + 녀 (女), which suggests it is a new term created by adding the morpheme meaning female to an existing word for third person.

Similarly in Japan, there was only one form of third person singular, 彼 (kare), and it was used without gender distinctions. However, as Japan started importing Western goods and ideas during the Meiji period, the new word "彼女 (kanojyo)" was created to represent the Western concept of a separate third person female. As most of the Western goods and ideas during the late 19th century early 20th century came through Japan, such translation of the female third person pronoun became adopted in Korean as well, and writers started to use the original third person 그 to refer mostly to the male "he," while new terms were created to refer to the female "she." The word 그녀 only became widely used after around mid 1900s.

The coinage of this new term was necessary because of the extremely high frequency of the use of third person pronouns like he, she and it in European languages. This high frequency of the use of third person pronouns is due to the fact that repeating the same pronoun within the same sentence was avoided, as well as the fact that European languages require the specification of the subject, unlike other languages like Korean that often omit subjects. Even now, unlike in European languages, the use of these third person pronouns in everyday speech is very rare. The use of 그녀 is especially rare in everyday speech and is mostly exclusively used in writing. In colloquial speech, a third person is referred to as using the word geuae (gyae) 그애 (걔) or geu salam 그 사람, which are both gender neutral and literally just means "that child" or "that person."

Then I realized that the above lack of gender distinction in third person is probably the same in Mandarin, especially because the pronunciation of the three forms of third person singular words are exactly the same. Hence, it must be that the word was originally just "Ta" and gender neutral, but the script adopted the Western/Japanese-translation concepts of gender-distinct third person to increase accuracy in translation, creating the separate words  他, 她 and 它.

While thinking about this issue, I realized that the gender distinctions in many Indo-European languages don't stop at third person pronouns; all Romance languages, for example, still have "genders" embedded in all nouns, which also determine the specific article that is to be used. For example, table is feminine in Spanish so one must use "la" as the article, not the masculine "el." One may say that these rules for articles no longer really carry any gender related meaning, and that they are simply grammatical rules to be followed. While such argument may be true for inorganic objects, organic objects in many of these languages still have gender specific terms, such as occupation related words that end with an "a" to specify females. For example, a male painter in Spanish is el pintor while a female painter is la pintora. Even for animals, there is gender distinction. For example, a female cat in French is la chatte and a male cat is le chat. On the contrary, all three East Asian languages discussed above only have one gender-neutral word for these inorganic and organic objects.

Hence, gender distinction in nouns seem to be a requirement in the grammar of many of the European languages, which makes me wonder whether or not speaking these languages itself can cause one to be more conscious of gender differences by always having to clearly draw the line between males and females, which potentially could lead to discrimination based on gender.



35 Comments

  1. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 9:16 pm

    > It may be true that the problem of gender inequality is more severe in East Asian countries than in European countries. However, in terms of languages, Indo-European languages actually distinguish genders while East Asian languages traditionally do not.

    I don't understand this analogy at all. There are more speakers of Indo-European languages in the Indian subcontinent than the entire population of Europe.

  2. Eric Henry said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

    Lydia Liu attributes the invention of the feminine second person character ta in Chinese to Lu Xun – see her book Translingual Practice, 1995, pg. 36-38.

  3. Craig said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 9:49 pm

    If the author seriously thinks, as her final paragraph suggests, that gender discrimination was historically less significant in the Far East than in Europe, she is sadly misinformed about the cultures of the Far East.

  4. John Roth said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 10:20 pm

    This looks like a flavor of Sapir-Whorf. From personal experience with an epicene pronoun in private writing, I can say that it does have a slight but discernible effect. I doubt that it has much more than that in any language, though.

  5. Freddy Hill said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 10:27 pm

    You seem to be implying that language precedes thought, and that just because Western languages have stronger gender-based syntax this marks a difference in attitudes toward sex and gender vs. "the East". I would hope for much stronger evidence before I could even entertain your hypothesis.

    Of all the European languages I know, perhaps English is the least "gender aware". As you suggest, in English a painter is a painter regardless of physiological or psychological differences. This is not true in Spanish (pintor, pintora) or German (Maler, Malerin). Are the speakers of these languages more aware of sexual/gender differences than English speakers? If you think so, can you prove it?

  6. Mara K said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 10:58 pm

    Counterpoint: Japanese and Korean honorifics are packed with gender. Also relative age and social class.

  7. Krista Ryu said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 11:14 pm

    Hello all. Thanks for the comments.

    I just wanted to clarify a few things and answer some questions:
    1. this writing was originally a thought exercise in a private email that was originally sent without the intention of being posted in a public forum. Hence, this post does not have any citations or the intention of trying to posit or prove a hypothesis.

    2. I am actually a native Korean speaker and speak fluently both Mandarin and Japanese and learned Spanish and French. In this post, I was merely trying to suggest a potential topic of discussion that interested me because I realized there is indeed a need for gender specification in the European languages I learned, which was not the case for the East Asian languages I know.
    Even the last paragraph I wasn't trying to posit a hypothesis. I said "I wonder whether or not…. " because it was just a topic of discussion I wanted to have with my classmates.

    3. As a Korean and someone who has lived in China for significant amount of time, I am clearly aware of East Asian cultures and I am not, in any way, suggesting that the glass ceiling does not exist or that East Asian countries have more gender equality vis-a-vis European countries. Of course, as a South Korean female, I am often subject to gender discrimination in my own country. What I wanted to discuss here and bring attention to was the fact that while such is true with the culture in East Asia, it is somewhat ironic that the languages used in these countries seem actually more gender neutral that those of Europe. I found this fact quite interested and wanted to share.

    @Ambarish, I was referring to languages that are part of the Indo-European language family. Nothing to do with the people or the culture. Again, this is just about the language itself and not about the actual culture of the countries that use these languages. Maybe this definition was too broad, but I was mainly referring to the Romance languages which is within this language family.

    @Craig, I am actually from East Asia and I am also a female so I am clearly aware of the fact that gender inequality is a huge issue in the region. However, I am not suggesting anything about the actual culture, but the fact that ironically (precisely because the societies of East Asia have gender inequality problems), the languages of East Asia themselves seem to be more gender neutral than those of Europe.

    @Freddy Hill, I was not trying to really put forth an argument as I explained above. I was simply wondering whether or not it could impact people's thoughts and was calling for further discussion on the topic which I thought was interesting (especially due to the fact that it seemed contrary to what the actual cultures in these regions were). If you have thoughts on this, please let me know.

  8. Moonfriend said,

    October 23, 2017 @ 11:18 pm

    "However, in terms of languages, Indo-European languages actually distinguish genders while East Asian languages traditionally do not."

    Not true. Persian is one example, where 'he' and 'she' are both 'u'. I'm sure there are many others.

  9. Ergative Absolutive said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 1:23 am

    The first and last paragraphs seem to contradict each other. In the first paragraph, the writer asserts that gender inequality is worse in East Asian countries than in European countries. But in the last paragraph s/he seems to suggest that gender inequality in European countries might be related to the gender coding of the languages spoken. If that were true, then we would expect that East Asian countries don't have such an inequality problem, but we already established in the first paragraph that they do, and it's more extreme than in Europe. I think it's more likely that the genderedness of the languages has nothing to do with inequality in the speech communities.

  10. Lameen said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 1:38 am

    From the data given in the first few paragraphs, I'd bet Korean geunyo was actually a direct calque of Japanese kanojo, just as kanojo was a coinage inspired by translation from European languages.

    "speaking these languages itself can cause one to be more conscious of gender differences": I'd rather say: speaking these languages requires one to be conscious of gender differences, whereas speaking, say, Chinese does not. The obvious fact that East Asians are at least as gender-conscious as Western Europeans thus implies that non-linguistic factors are a much stronger motivation for gender-consciousness than linguistic ones.

  11. bulbul said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 1:53 am

    While I do appreciate the information provided on the history of Korean and Japanese, I must join fellow commenters in shaking my head at some of the other statements here. Like for example:
    The coinage of this new term was necessary because of the extremely high frequency of the use of third person pronouns like he, she and it in European languages.
    I would love to see some example, as I'm sure would other readers. This would also allow us to check similar scenarios, like translations into Hungarian and Finnish which also don't have the gender distinction in the third person pronouns.
    This high frequency of the use of third person pronouns is due to the fact that repeating the same pronoun within the same sentence was avoided
    So how does avoiding repeating the pronouns square with their high frequency?
    the fact that European languages require the specification of the subject unlike other languages like Korean that often omit subjects.
    Again, I would love to see some comparison here, maybe even some stats, because it is not quite clear what is meant here. And I have a suspicion that by "European languages" you mean "English, French, Spanish and German" where clauses tend to feature overt, but not Slavic or Baltic languages which do not because the subject is encoded morphologically. This, if I recall correctly, is not the case in Korean.
    In fact, once again assuming I've retained enough of my study of Korean, wouldn't the difference here be in that Korean tends to eschew the use of pronouns as such and in contexts where English or German would use pronouns, speakers of Korean use nouns "older brother" (for which works for "you" and "he") or "that man" ("he")?
    I realized that the gender distinctions in many Indo-European languages don't stop at third person pronouns; all Romance languages, for example, still have "genders" embedded in all nouns
    a) Surely this is nothing new to readers of LanguageLog…
    b) And Slavic and Baltic languages go even further by having genders everywhere, including some verbal forms, and sometimes the grammatical gender is not the same as the, um, biological gender.

  12. Thorin said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 2:03 am

    @Moonfriend Armenian is another example.

    I'm wondering why, if Korean was able to distinguish between 'he' and 'she' on its own based on context, including I imagine in Korean literature, why would the translation of global literature necessitate the invention of 'geunyeo'?

  13. bulbul said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 2:06 am

    speaking these languages itself can cause one to be more conscious of gender differences
    Again, I counter with Hungarian which has no genders, a single 3rd person singular pronoun ("ő") and the same cultural context as Slovak, Ruthenian, Romanian, German and Slovenian which all do have genders (to varying degree). And what would those gender differences be anyway, some sort of special type that is not already evident from every day socialization?
    A case in point: in Slovak, as in most Slavic languages (don't you nitpicky bastards bring up Bulgarian and Macedonian), the past tense is composed of an auxiliary and a participle. This participle can take the feminine suffix -a and so while a male speaker of Slovak would say "bol som" for "I was", a female speaker would say "bola som". Children have to learn this at one point and indeed they do. The question is whether this process is any different from how they learn that boys don't wear skirts and girls should not play with Transformers (TM) (I'm not endorsing gender stereotypes, just reporting on them). I very much doubt that.

  14. bulbul said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 2:12 am

    Thorin,

    if Korean was able to distinguish between 'he' and 'she' on its own based on context
    This reminds me of my Erasmus stay in Finland where I tried to learn Finnish. One evening after sauna, a bunch of us (including some natives) were sitting around talking and somewhat I got to complaining about Finnish and other gender-less languages with my point being something along the lines of "So many pointless cases, but no gender differentiation. How can one even write a love song like Elvis Costello's She in Finnish when you guys only have one third person pronoun, hän, which means both he and she?" To which a Finnish buddy got up, walked to his CD collection ('twas the early oughts), got one and handed it to me pointing to the back where the track list included this bit.

  15. Matt said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 2:53 am

    I don't have a citation handy, but it's received wisdom in Japanese-ology at least that the repurposing of kare and creation of modern kanojo (notwithstanding previous examples of it used to mean "that woman" etc.) were indeed a direct response to early modern encounters with IE languages, particularly parsing/translating texts in those languages. Of course there was no need to invent new pronouns; that sounds bizarrely mechanistic to us today. But it seemed necessary to (certain) Japanese people at the time, who were obviously working from different translation theories.

  16. Matt said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 3:06 am

    Actually, I just remembered that I can a cite! The second edition of the Nihon Kokugo Daijiten (the closest thing Japan has to the OED) says in its notes "kanojo":

    日本では古くから三人称は「かれ」で、男女両性を指していたが、西欧語に接して、男女の区別が必要となり、西欧語の三人称女性代名詞の訳語として生まれた。

    In Japan, from ancient times "kare" was used to refer to both men and women in the third person, but contact with Western European languages made a male/female distinction necessary, and [kanojo] was born as a translation of the third-person female pronouns of Western European languages.

    At the same time, "kare" was narrowed to refer to men (paralleling the narrowing of 他 in Chinese, I imagine, although I'm not familiar with the details there.)

    There are a few twists to the story (e.g. the actual pronunciation of 彼女 took a while to standardize as "kanojo"), and whether this can be linked to any particular attitudes towards women on the part of early modern Japanese speakers is a boxing ring I don't really care to step into myself, but the background to the word's creation isn't in serious dispute.

  17. Birdseeding said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 4:39 am

    This brings up an interesting question: Why did speakers of three utterly unrelated East Asian languages decide it was necessary to add a new pronoun because of western contact, while Finnish/Hungarian/Armenian/Persian has existed for many centuries just fine without a he-she separation, and yet presumably much more western contact?

  18. Bathrobe said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 5:07 am

    @Birdseeding

    I think it was the suddenness of the contact and the challenge (military, economic, industrial) that it posed to the countries of East Asia that might account for the adoption of new pronouns where no such thing happened with Finnish/Hungarian/Armenian/Persian, which had a much longer period of contact.

    In the 19th century East Asia was faced with a severe challenge from the Western powers after a several centuries of relative calm and perhaps self-satisfaction. In order to understand their new adversaries and learn how to deal with them they engaged in a great deal of translation activity. This meant learning from the West in order to catch up technologically, resulting in widespread 'Westernisation' / 'modernisation'. In both China and Japan there was a tendency to reject the past (Confucianism, etc.) and to 'overhaul' their political and economic systems, as well as their languages, in imitation of the West. The Chinese abandoned Literary Chinese as their written language and the Japanese forged a new written language under 言文一致 genbun itchi, unification of the spoken and written languages. That was the enormity of the change that faced them — a complete makeover, in effect — and it had a deep-seated linguistic impact that continues today.

  19. Doug said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 8:17 am

    I'm having a little trouble understanding the comment by Ambarish Sridharanarayanan.

    My best guess is that he mistakenly believes that Krista Ryu is including the Indian subcontinent in "East Asia."

  20. Christian Weisgerber said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 8:47 am

    Hungarian doas not have grammatical gender, but—as a quick look at the Hungarian Wikipedia entries for various famous people shows—it has an optional feminizing noun suffix -nő: Stephen King is an író, J. K. Rowling is an írónő; Michael Jackson was an énekes, Madonna is an énekesnő.

    Make of that what you will.

  21. bulbul said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 9:28 am

    Christian,

    except that's only in the entry name, the actual text of the entry has "énekes, színész, rendező és üzletasszony". That last word is a calque of "businesswoman" and sounds weird to my native ears, especially since "asszony" is more aptly an equivalent to "lady".
    BTW, same goes for Finnish and -tar. In fact, the song I linked to above makes it clear it is a woman this song refers to by describing, well, her as "Hän, hyvä haltiatar, hän / Yön kuningatar, hän" ("she, good mistress, she / queen of the night, she"). The Finnish wiki describes J.K. Rowling as "kirjailija", not "kirjailijatar" and Madonna as "poplaulaja-lauluntekijä, tanssija, tuottaja, lastenkirjailija, elokuvaohjaaja ja näyttelijä" and not … you get the point.

  22. Renato said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 10:33 am

    I can`t follow the argument grammatical gender – (social) gender awareness. I am a native speaker of Spanish and nothing (stress required), nothing makes me think of a tangerine ("la mandarina") being female, even when it is grammatically marked for femenine. By the way, in Spanish it´s only optional to say "la pintora" you can do very well with "la pintor" or "el/la juez" or "el/la artista". In Spanish there is no such thing as an "artisto" (intended: "the (male) artist"). Some grammarians tend to interpret "-a" suffix more as a classifier than a gender marker given the fact that not always signals femenine as I showed with "artista".

  23. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 10:33 am

    @Doug

    Let me try to explain.

    > It may be true that the problem of gender inequality is more severe in East Asian countries than in European countries. However, in terms of languages, Indo-European languages actually distinguish genders while East Asian languages traditionally do not.

    The 'However' suggests contrast between the first sentence and the second. The author's implication seems to be thus that even though Indo-European languages are gendered while East Asian languages are not, gender inequality is worse in countries corresponding to East Asian languages than in countries corresponding to Indo-European languages. But then she seems to equate countries "corresponding to IE languages" to "European countries". This is, of course, absurd, as I pointed out above.

  24. Chris Button said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 11:52 am

    There are a few twists to the story (e.g. the actual pronunciation of 彼女 took a while to standardize as "kanojo")

    Further to Matt's point, I think the comparison of Japanese with Chinese is really interesting in terms of the different applications of kanji/hanzi in the orthography. Essentially, both decided to add 女 to specify the female gender, but Chinese simply modified their existing character by substituting the person radical with 女 which had no bearing on the spoken language, whereas Japanese added 女 as a separate character after their existing character which resulted in the coinage of a new spoken compound pronoun.

    Some grammarians tend to interpret "-a" suffix more as a classifier than a gender marker given the fact that not always signals femenine as I showed with "artista".

    Further to Renato's point, I think a clear distinction should be made between gendered pronouns and grammatical gender. The former is concerned with real gender distinctions; the latter seems just to be a result of morphological word classifications later becoming associated with gender as a result of which category certain gender-specific words happened to end up in. While a distinction based on animacy seems possible as part of the original PIE nominal distinction, any association with male-female gender seems to have developed later.

  25. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 2:34 pm

    Renato: there may not be "artisto" but there is "modisto" (since "modista" came to refer only to a female dressmaker).

    The independence of grammatical gender and sex in Spanish can be seen in such constructions as "la primer violín" (the first violinist if female) or "el tercera base" (the third baseman if male).

    The gender declension of adjectives and nouns, however, often makes translation difficult between languages that have it and those that don't. For example, Cole Porter's Night and Day can be addressed to either a man or a woman, but when I translated it into Spanish (here) I had to make a choice. Also, the famous Argentine milonga Se dice de mi was originally written to be sung by a man, but the lyrics had to be modified to be sung by Tita Merello, who made it famous. By contrast, no changes needed to be made in Me and Bobby McGee between Roger Miller's and Janis Jopnin's versions.

  26. BZ said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 4:08 pm

    In Russian, while I don't think genders of nouns referring to most inanimate objects impact how speakers view them, the same cannot be said for animals. The common ones in folk literature especially, like the male wolf and the female fox (there are gendered versions of both of these for when e.g. a male fox needs to be referred to, but the ones I mention are the generic terms), but even run of the mill ones like the female squirrel, affect how one thinks about them.

  27. jick said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 5:30 pm

    It goes even further: as far as I know, even the Korean male pronoun "그" (geu) is a modern invention, influenced by Japanese *kare*. Before modern times, 그 only meant determiner "this", as in "그 사람" (that person) or "그 책" (that book): it is still the predominant use of the word 그, and use of 그/그녀 as third-person pronoun is still highly restricted, appearing mostly in novels or translated text.

    For example, you will hardly ever see president Moon referred to as 그, or the ex-president Park as 그녀, in news articles or anywhere else. Unless they're quoting something from CNN or Le Monde. Amusingly, in that case 그/그녀 is fair game (because everybody *knows* "he" is 그 and "she" is 그녀.)

    I think this also answers the questions raised by some commenters above, that is, how come something as fundamental as pronouns could be introduced through translation. The situation is different from speakers of two languages interacting with each other. There was a one-directional flow of printed information from Western languages to Japanese, where countless Japanese scholars pored over the trove of "superior Western thinking" and tried to coin new words (or repurpose classical terms) to match established concepts in European languages. Then the process was repeated from Japanese to Korean.

    I've read a Korean translation of a Japanese book "飜譯語成立事情" (번역어 성립사정): "How Translated Words were Established". It's a short but fascinating book: the set of Japanese (and hence Korean) words thus created/repurposed includes such basic words as 사회(社會 society), 개인(個人 individual), 자연(自然 nature), 자유(自由 freedom), and even 연애(戀愛 romantic affair)!

  28. Bathrobe said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 8:16 pm

    I totally agree with jick.

    Interaction with Western languages gave rise to a kind of institutionalised 'translationese', whereby Napoleon, for instance, will be referred to as 彼 in Japanese but a Japanese historical or contemporary figure would not. It seems the same must apply to Korean.

    This kind of translationese can be used to literary effect, as it is in the strange letter-writing style of the protagonist in Higashino Keigo's The Devotion of Suspect X.

  29. Bathrobe said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 8:28 pm

    This kind of style originally sounded startling and awkward. When Fujimori Seikichi published a play called 何が彼女をそうさせたのか ('What Made Her Do It') in 1927, it was a clunky title that sounded like a translation from English. Needless to say, such works helped establish this kind of language in the Japanese idiom so that they sound far less unnatural than they did in the day.

  30. Joseph F Foster said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 8:42 am

    Some of the confusion in this original post and thread results from a failure to distinguish between gender and sex. Some comes from misinformation. For instance, Ms. Ryu says that "European languages require the specification of the subject." No, many do not. Germanic languages require an overt subject, even in subordinate clauses. But French, and I think one dialect of Rhaeto-Romance, requires an overt subject. But the other Romance languages do not–Spanish, Italian, and Rumanian…., do not. Russian tends to require an overt grammatical subject but some other Slavic language, Serbocroatian for instance, do not.

    Gender in language may or may not have anything to do with biological sex. Southern Bantu languages, like isiZulu for instance, have 10-14 or so genders depending on how you count singular~plural pairs, and Zulu has a 'human' gender, but no masculine nor feminine. Some languages of the Caucasus have 6 or 8 genders, including masculine and feminine, but others as well.

    And as has been pointed out in commentary, gender can and often does involve much more than personal pronouns. In Zulu, all adjectives and demonstratives agree in gender and number with their head nouns and verbs agree in gender and number with their subjects and objects.

  31. Bathrobe said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 9:12 am

    @Joseph F Foster

    From a broader linguistic viewpoint what you say is correct.

    But from the point of view of East Asian cultures, Spanish, Italian, Rumanian, and the Indian subcontinent for that matter, are irrelevant. The "Indo-European languages" that Ms. Ryu was referring to (and the ones that East Asians tend, or until recently tended to refer to) are basically the unholy trinity of English, German, and French, known in Japanese as 英仏独. She did not mention this in her post because anyone dealing with these cultures takes it for granted. A broader term is 欧米 (Europe and America), which includes North America in the mix, but you can be assured that it still refers largely to the big countries and cultures of Western Europe and North America. (Nowadays, of course, North America is probably paramount). This usage is due to the historical background that I outlined above. Nobody bothers to spell it out in detail because it doesn't need to be. This is one reason for the confusion: the existence of different assumptions and world views.

  32. Chris Button said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 9:29 am

    @ Bathrobe

    The Portuguese were the first Europeans to arrive in Japan and the influence is still present in the many Portuguese loanwords in the language – even an iconic word like "tempura" originally comes from Portuguese (as does the cooking technique apparently).

  33. Bathrobe said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 9:43 am

    @Chris Button

    There was also strong a Dutch influence because of the long-term Dutch presence at Dejima in the Edo period.

    But the key period we are talking about for grammatical influences was the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th. For instance, the Chinese adoption of 他, 她, and 它 (as well as 牠) dates to the early years of the 20th century. Later on Russian would become more important, but it wasn't from Russian that the gender distinctions were introduced. It was from those three major Western European languages, the ones that East Asians needed to study in order to catch up with the West.

  34. Chris Button said,

    October 25, 2017 @ 10:25 am

    But the key period we are talking about for grammatical influences was the latter part of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th

    Yes – good point! Seems like I monetarily forgot the original thrust of the post and ended up a few hundred years out :)

    Counterpoint: Japanese and Korean honorifics are packed with gender. Also relative age and social class.

    Also, no-one seems to have mentioned the use of gendered phrase final particles (e.g. "wa" in Japanese being appended to the end of a phrase being female in style).

    Germanic languages require an overt subject, even in subordinate clauses. But French, and I think one dialect of Rhaeto-Romance, requires an overt subject. But the other Romance languages do not–Spanish, Italian, and Rumanian…., do not

    This allows for some interesting differences in intonation. If in English you want to focus on "I" in a sentence like "I finished it", it is usually done by shifting the nuclear tone (as opposed to a more cumbersome construction like "It was me who finished it"). In Portuguese, just by saying the 1st person pronoun "eu" (as opposed to omitting it), the new focus is already apparent whether or not any specific intonational tone shift is used or not.

  35. BZ said,

    October 26, 2017 @ 8:56 am

    Russian actually allows subject-less sentences in many situations, mostly in places where a pronoun would be the subject. In the present and future tense the implied pronoun is incorporated into the verb ending. In the past tense and infinitive it is not, but it can still be omitted if it can be figured out from context (such as when the noun and/or pronoun the verb refers to is established in the previous sentence). Then there is the famous one word sentence "night was falling" – "vecherelo" – where the word for evening is verbed, and it's not clear what the subject could be if there were one. There's only a handful of these, all in the natural phenomenon category. I suppose it's similar to "it's raining" where the "it" is not referring to any noun, but in Russian, adding an "it" to such a sentence would actually make it ungrammatical.

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