gender and language

I’ve been thinking a lot about how different the “Anglo” culture is from the rest of the world (Anglos, as a lot of my French friends call them, being for the most part people from the UK and Australia, as well as to a lesser degree Americans and other Anglophones with whom I’ve had far less interaction). I’ve discussed it with a few different people, and it was very interesting to read this article about how language can shape the view we have of the world.

It’s just the theoretical kind of crap I like to put out there, but… would the absence of gendered nouns in English go some way in explaining why the Anglos are so cold and restrained compared to the Europeans? Of course, I am writing this on an English-language blog, so I should probably hold off bashing them too much… but I liked several of the concepts in this article.

When your language routinely obliges you to specify certain types of information, it forces you to be attentive to certain details in the world and to certain aspects of experience that speakers of other languages may not be required to think about all the time. And since such habits of speech are cultivated from the earliest age, it is only natural that they can settle into habits of mind that go beyond language itself, affecting your experiences, perceptions, associations, feelings, memories and orientation in the world.

Languages that treat an inanimate object as a he or a she force their speakers to talk about such an object as if it were a man or a woman.

Of course, all this does not mean that speakers of Spanish or French or German fail to understand that inanimate objects do not really have biological sex — a German woman rarely mistakes her husband for a hat, and Spanish men are not known to confuse a bed with what might be lying in it. Nonetheless, once gender connotations have been imposed on impressionable young minds, they lead those with a gendered mother tongue to see the inanimate world through lenses tinted with associations and emotional responses that English speakers — stuck in their monochrome desert of “its” — are entirely oblivious to.

I do have a tendency to make sweeping generalisations, but this all rings quite true to me. Similarly, many of my experiences in East Asia, where nouns do not have genders, have led to that same feeling that “us Eurotrash” have more passionate, involved and emotional reactions to the world around us. In a similar vein, in a discussion I had with a French friend the other day, we were saying how bizarrely many Australians and English we have met tend to have a very defined sense of what is WOMAN and what is MAN (think Sex and the City vs football and beer) and the two roles don’t mingle or overlap that much, even appearing highly suspicious of each other. Maybe if gender was a more casual thing, assigned to objects used on a daily basis, there wouldn’t be such a rigid concept of Man and Woman being two entirely separate entities, and the interactions would be a little more comfortable, fluid and mutually respectful, without either sex losing any of its masculinity or femininity.

Again… it entertains me to think of things in this way, but it’s probably easy to disprove both my ideas and those of the article. Regardless, I enjoy considering alternate theories and approaches to the world even when they are unlikely; I have always been delighted with Bernard Werber‘s books on the Missing Link, when he gives the (entirely fictional) solution to how Man evolved from apes. In his science-fiction novels Le Pere de nos Peres and L’Ultime Secret, we discover that Man was born of the taboo union of an ape… and a pig! Whilst scientifically questionable, it is a hilarious and fascinating way of explaining certain things, such as why certain religions forbid the consumption of pork and why we have pink, hairless skins.

There’s no right or wrong answer, I suppose, but I still think that a familiarity with gendered languages might go some way to explaining a different approach to gender.

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