Friday, April 27, 2007

When gender matters

Not too long ago, a friend of mine asked if I could answer an Italian question for her. I agreed, with the caveat that I don't speak fluent Italian---in fact, I wouldn't even say I speak Italian at all. But the question was easily answered by anyone with a background in any Romance language: she wanted to know whether it was correct to address her friend as "il mio caro Antonio". "Is it 'mio' because he's male, or 'mia' because I'm female?" I explained to her that it's only his gender that matters, and for the male Antonio one must use the masculine form 'mio' regardless of whether the speaker is male or female.

The question seemed initially simple, but it made me realize that the only case I can think of where a speaker's gender matters is Hebrew, where a verb takes different forms for male and female subjects. And yet, upon further research, I learned that this is really just a case of standard subject-verb agreement. It's not the speaker's gender that's important, but the subject of the verb (which is identical to the speaker in the first person, but isn't always). In the present tense, Hebrew doesn't have separate forms for first, second, and third persons, thus "I walk", "you walk", and "he walks" will all be expressed the same way if the walker is male, but a different way if the walker is female. This seems very strange to those of us used to Western languages. And on the opposite spectrum there are the far Eastern languages like Mandarin, where the gender of the subject is almost never expressed explicitly; I'm sure this is why many Chinese, when speaking English, frequently confuse "he" and "she".

My friend's Italian question reminded me of another curiosity, which is that possessive adjectives like "my" are used in conjunction with the definite article ("the my dear Antonio"). Surprisingly, this is not the case in French or Spanish, and Latin---from which Italian is most directly derived---doesn't even have definite articles. Ancient Greek does, however, and the construction is similar.



Greetings from Portugal. Regarding this subject I can say this: the Portuguese language also have male and female forms like the Italian language. “Meu caro amigo” and “minha cara amiga” are male and female forms for the English expression “my dear friend”. Also when you say “thank you” I say “muito obrigado” but if I were a woman I would say “muito obrigada”.

Language Lover said...

Hello, and thanks for your comment! It seems that most if not all Romance languages have gender in adjectives like caro/cara. In Spanish "thank you very much" is just "muchas gracias", but that's because it's literally "many thanks (to you)", i.e. "gracias" is a plural noun. I guess in Portuguese "muito obrigado" means something literally like "(I am) very obligated", which is an adjective that must agree with its speaker. Interesting!

Sarah Deer said...

Several Native North American languages, most notably Lakota, require men and women to speak differently.

Language Lover said...

Hi Sarah, thanks for the comment. I really appreciate it when readers refer me to languages I'm not familiar with. I took a look at the Lakota Wikipedia entry, but the section on the differences in men's and women's speech isn't very long. Specifically, I'm wondering if the differences apply to all aspects of speech (e.g. would men and women say "The sky is blue" differently?) or only when the speaker is somehow involved (e.g. "I see the sky")? As I explained (poorly, I think) in the case of Hebrew, it's really just a matter of subject-verb agreement, but the gender is always contained in the subject whereas in English that's only true for the third person.

A larger question which I didn't dare explore at this point is the degree to which gender specificity affects or reflects the way the different genders are viewed in the culture. I don't see any obvious correlation based on the languages I know, but my sample size is pretty restricted.

Sluggo said...

As you found in Hebrew, the speaker's gender also determines the form in Arabic.

My poor transliteration from memory: "Ana ahedbek" (I love you) would be the male speaker, while she would say "Ani ahedbek". And should he shift into Portuguese, he would have to refer to her as 'o meu amor' (the my love), article and all.