Language of Sex

For most of us, it’s around age twelve or thirteen that we encounter something that will revolutionize our lives: gender.

Personally, I was twelve.  But, being Catholic, I slammed into it in its most adamantine form: First Year Latin.

I  already had some idea about those strange, oddly attractive aliens called girls.  I had a whole world yet to learn on that subject, but I didn’t know that.  So I felt awkwardly, gawkily prepared for the dances and dating I hoped would come.  But nothing, and I do mean nothing, had prepared me for the kind of gender I met in Latin class.

First, they explained that Latin insisted that every nouns have a gender (why?).  Latin has three:  Masculine, Feminine, and Neuter.  So every noun has to be one of those three.  They like to lull you into a false sense of security by beginning with the logical ones.  Man (vir) is masculine.  Woman (femina) is female.  War (bellum) is neuter.  You start to think it’s going to be easy until they explain that each noun has different endings depending on whether they are the subject of the sentence, the direct object, the indirect object, and so on.  There are six different cases, each with their own endings, and all different depending on the case of the noun.

At this point your head is starting to spin.  Good old English mostly lacks genders and only changes nouns to make them plural.

But wait, there’s more.  I said there were six cases with their own endings?  I lied.  I left out the plurals.  So there are actually twelve cases, each with their own endings.  If you’ve been counting, you might think that means a total of thirty-six endings to memorize.


Latin has five families of nouns, called declensions.  Each family is identified by its own set of endings, singular and plural.  You can’t quite simply multiply by five to get the total number of endings, since not all declensions have all three genders.  For instance: Take the first declension.  Woman (femina) is female while Farmer (agricola) is masculine.  There are no neuters in the first declension.  And as it happens, all the endings are the same for masculine and feminine nouns, so you’ve only got twelve endings to memorize..

In the second declension, almost all the nouns are either masculine like Master (dominus) or neuter like War (bellum).  Unfortunately, they don’t have the same endings, so there’s another double set to memorize.

I could go on, but I think you can see that there’s a bleep-load of endings to memorize.  And, by the way, all your adjectives have to agree with all your nouns.

Oh, and did I mention the irregulars?

But at least you’ve got a fair shot at guessing the gender, right?  I mean, all that Woman = femina stuff, right?

Nope, they lied about that, too.  War (bellum) may be neuter, but so is Kiss (basium).  River names may be masculine (say, the Tiber), but cities are feminine (Roma).  Body (corpus) is neuter, but Table (mensa) is feminine.  And just to add to the students’ woes, Farmer (agricola) is masculine in the mostly feminine first declension, but it’s derived from Field (ager) which is also masculine…but is second declension, so it shares absolutely no forms with its child.

Now all of this would be essentially meaningless (unless you’re looking for a good way to punish your kid) since Latin is a dead language.  Except, of course, she was a prolific little so-and-so and generated lots of children like French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.  All of whom retain quite a few of her nastier features – like gender, changeable noun endings, and the complete separation between “gender” and sexuality.  And a number of non-Romance languages, like German, Russian, and Hebrew, share Latin’s fetish for (apparently) randomly assigned genders.

In fact, if you study any of these languages, chances are your teacher will spend quite a bit of time explaining that although each noun has a “gender,” there is no sexual connotations to the words beyond pure grammar.  So the fact that Bridge (die Brucke) is feminine in German and Bridge (el puente) is masculine in Spanish or that Apple (der apfel) is masculine in German while Apple (la manzana) is feminine in Spanish has no impact on the way native speakers think of bridges or apples.  It’s simply a linguistic artifact.

Or is it?

Turns out, it isn’t.  Studies conducted to test that idea have uniformly shown that the grammatical gender actually affects the perception of the object.  Asked to apply adjectives to the nouns from a set, Spaniards consistently used words like “big” or “strong,” for masculine words like Bridge while the Germans chose “beautiful” or “fragile.”  Both made the reverse choices for words like “apple” that had the genders reversed.

But wait, it gets better.

When the tests were conducted in English, to remove the der, die, das and el, la usage bias (they’re all “it” to us), native speakers still chose adjectives based on the gender in their home language!  In other words, the apparent “gender” perception bias is not based on what language(s) they were speaking, but on what language they learned to speak in.

Setting aside Mandarin Chinese, which I decline to believe will take over, English has the most world-wide native and non-native speakers while Spanish is second.  And the numbers for both are growing.  More importantly, true bilingualism is sky-rocketing.

Looking into the future, we see a world dominated by Spanish and English with a vast population bilingual from an early age.  So what will be the upshot?  Will kids raised in a bilingual household inherit Spanish’s gender perception prejudices?  Or will an early dose of neutral English vaccinate the kids against the evil sexism of Spanish?  What do we do if the gender bias bug proves too virulent to be subdued by a mere dose of bilingualism?  How would we protect ourselves?

Wouldn’t it be ironic if the best tactic in the war against sexism would be for the Feminists to ally themselves with the “English Only” neanderthals?

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