Today is Thursday, August 17, 2017

Gender Bender 1066

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 By ANNE DONNELLDear Ask Anne, Sometimes people refer to objects as feminine or masculine, such as pirates describing their ship with the phrase, “She’s a beauty!”;  or, when a volcano is about to erupt, people will yell, “She’s going to blow!”  Is there any rule about that, or should we just refer to an object as “it”?  He, she, or it?

-E. H., age 11, Smyna, TN What an excellent question, one that hasn’t been asked “Ask Anne.”  Our bright young QP of T (Question Person of Today) is asking about gender-specific pronouns and how we should be using them. 

The gender-specific pronouns: feminine – she, her, hers; masculine – he, him, his; and neuter – it, its. Looks simple, but NO. And researching brought disappointing results.

As QP of T states, a ship, certainly an object without male or female gender, is called she. I’ll add this is a centuries old custom. In 2002 Lloyd’s List announced it would be referring to a ship as it, but had to back off after significant public protest.  Lloyd’s List is one of the world's oldest continuously-running journals (since 1734), now a London daily, “The Leading Maritime and Transport News Portal”

[SKIP THIS IF YOUR FOCUS SEEMS WOBBLY- They, their, theirs, plural personal pronouns, have gender determined by the antecedent (the noun to which they refer), but who cares?  The form’s the same and allows for application to a group of males and females.  The action’s with the singular gender-specific pronouns.]

So what’s the explanation?  My search never found an answer, but I have a theory.  English carries its wisp of giving some objects gender from its strong link to French (face it – Norman Conquest 1066, William the Conqueror, locked this up).  French has gender associated with inanimate objects (book in French is masculine, for example.  Ask Wikipedia). Many other languages freely apply masculine or feminine to objects.  Even Latin, a farther back ancestor for chunks of English, does this.  (Julius Caesar arrived in England more than a thousand years before William.)

Descendents of Latin and other languages developing later, however, did not always use the same gender designations. Sun (sol) in Latin is masculine; moon (luna) is feminine. In German, sun (sonne) is feminine; moon (mond) is masculine. (Thanks, Wikipedia, again.  I know you can be unreliable, but no one else was speaking on this.) In English we speak of the “man in the moon,” but we don’t talk about moon as masculine or feminine. 

The wisp of giving some objects gender left us saying she, her, hers for ships, machines, and countries.  Mid-twentieth century people frequently used she, her, hers for cars. EXAMPLE. That ole Chevy – she’s a wonder! This seems to have faded away. The Chicago Manual of Style (abbreviated in writing as CMS or CMOS, or verbally as Chicago) is a style guide for American English published since 1906 by the University of Chicago Press.  It opposes use of the feminine pronoun for anything other than bona fide females. 

Pets, according to grammar rulebooks, should be called it.  I doubt I’ve ever said that. Mine are he or she. (Four he’s, one she currently, and they’re all neutered.)

Oddly, people commonly refer to an unborn child, even after the definitive ultra sound, as it. That’s probably because we now are very uncomfortable with the old standard indefinite designation he, him, his for male or female when the gender is unknown or merely seems unknown.

EXAMPLE  - OLD STANDARD (his is used to include males and females).  Everyone should leave his book at his desk. This practice fell under fire as the feminist movement gained momentum.

People then tried (and still are trying) to get their tongues around his or her. EXAMPLE Everyone should leave his or her book at his or her desk. 

Some chose the less accepted their as in EXAMPLE Everyone should leave their books at their desk. This seems to make sense, not grammar sense, because everyone brings to mind a large number. BUT everyone is considered singular, like everybody.

TWISTY PATH SOLUTIONS (AVOIDANCE) Everyone, leave your book at your desk. OR Students must leave their books at their desks.

BACK TO BUSINESS. Ships, countries, some modes of transportation have fallen into this mysterious category of nonliving things given gender (feminine, it seems).  Volcanoes, too, our QP of T has discovered.  (“Thar she blows!”) The roots of all this are lost in time; interest in it is surprisingly sparse.  Grammar books don’t mention it nowadays, although they did formerly.

Interest hasn’t disappeared.  An e-mail has been zipping in cyber for a year or so; coincidentally it arrived in my mailbox (Thanks, MG) the day after I received QP of T’s letter (hand delivered by grandmother, no dumb bunny herself).  A Spanish teacher was explaining to her class that in Spanish, unlike English, nouns are designated as either masculine or feminine. House for instance, is feminine: la casa. Pencil, however, is masculine: el lapiz. •A student asked, “What gender is computer?” Instead of giving the answer, the teacher split the class into two groups, male and female, and asked them to decide for themselves whether computer should be a masculine or a feminine noun. Each group was asked to give four reasons for its recommendation.• The men's group decided that computer should definitely be of the feminine gender (la computadora), because: 1. No one but their creator understands their internal logic. 2. The native language they use to communicate with other computers is incomprehensible to everyone else. 3. Even the smallest mistakes are stored in long term memory for possible later retrieval. 4. As soon as you make a commitment to one, you find yourself spending half your paycheck on accessories for it. • The women's group, however, concluded that computers should be masculine (el computador), because 1. In order to do anything with them, you have to turn them on. 2. They have a lot of data but still can't think for themselves. 3. They are supposed to help you solve problems, but half the time they ARE the problem. 4. As soon as you commit to one, you realize that if you had waited a little longer, you could have gotten a better model.  The women won. Share this with all the smart women you know and all the men who have the right kind of sense of humor.  All four of them.  

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