Talky Tuesday: Assuming gender

Since English has no grammatical genders, learning a language with them can be daunting, but fear not. Here are some quick tips on the concept.

One concept in other languages that just boggles the mind of native English speakers is the idea of grammatical gender. It has nothing to do with the actual gender or sex of the person being spoken about and, naturally, inanimate objects tender to be neuter, or have no gender.

Well, at least in English.

Most commonly, languages will either have no gender distinctions, two distinctions (masculine and feminine), or three (masculine, feminine, and neuter.)

Some languages go a little nuts with it, though. Polish technically has five genders — three variations on masculine, plus feminine and neuter. The masculine genders indicate whether something is a human being, a living creature but not human, or an inanimate object, although those last two are not really used anymore.

Bantu languages tend to go the most extreme, with Ganda having ten classes and Shona having twenty — singular and plural are considered distinct genders. Meanwhile, Ganda genders follow characteristics of objects, so pertain to things like people, long objects, animals, large objects, small objects, liquids, and so on.

So if you’re trying to learn a romance language with only two grammatical genders, consider yourself lucky.

Oh — also, do not confuse a language without grammatical genders and gender-neutral language. The latter tries to eliminate sexist terminology.

English still has some gendered nouns that are slowly being eliminated, like the pair waiter and waitress, which are being replaced by server. But note that the two nouns are otherwise not distinguished by articles or adjectives, although they may take different pronouns.

So, for example, “the happy waiter” and “the happy waitress” are both grammatically correct. So are the phrases “He is a server” and “she is a server,” with the pronoun being the only gender distinction.

English used to have a lot more gender-specific work roles and job titles, but these are going away as well. For example, any terms that used to end in -man, like Chairman of the Board, Fireman, Alderman, etc., is being replaced with terms like Chair or Chairperson, and Fire Fighter.

For some reason, probably having to do with Chicago politics, “alderman” is proving to be a holdout, despite efforts to change it.

There are also other gender terms like actor and actress that are changing so that “actor” is now used as the gender-neutral term for either, and a number of gendered terms fell out of use years ago, like baker and baxter, aviator and aviatrix, and seamster and seamstress — although the last one is a little odd, because seamstress stayed, while the former was replaced by tailor.

You also now know where the surname Baxter came from — the same place that Baker did. And yes, there’s a reason that occupational last names are so common in all languages. That’s because a town might have only one baker or miller or blacksmith, so someone would become known as John Baker or Tom Miller or Joe Smith.

This is really amusing when you realize that Giuseppe Ferrari and Joe Smith are exactly the same name.

But back to the gender thing and why it can be so daunting to native English speakers. In some languages, like Spanish, it’s well marked, so that masculine and feminine nouns will generally end in -o for the former and -a for the latter… but not always, and more on that in a moment.

In others, like German, there are broad rule for what words are masculine and feminine, but a lot of the time it’s a total crapshoot, and you can’t get any clues from the spelling. Neuter complicates it further and, on top of that, things don’t always line up, especially when it comes to animate objects and people.

In German, horses and girls are both neuter, for example.

But getting back to Spanish, genders are generally a lot clearer because of the o/a endings, and nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and articles all match:

La mesera alta.

El mesero alto.

These refer, in order, to the tall waitress and the tall waiter, although use camarera and camarero outside of Latin America.

This all makes sense for student learners until the day that the teacher writes, “El agua está fria” on the board, and people freak out.

They will either focus on the “el” and ask why agua is masculine, or they will insist that agua is feminine and ask why the article is wrong.

Welcome to your first grammatical exception — although this one isn’t quite what it seems. If you were talking about “the waters,” “las aguas” would be perfectly fine because the word is feminine. So what’s going on?

This one exists strictly for ease of pronunciation, and it’s the same thing that we do in English when we replace “a” with “an” before certain vowels, like “an elephant,” or “an opera,” but “a universe” or “a unicorn.”

The emphasis in “agua” is on the first a, so it’s very hard to say “la agua” with those two stressed a’s banging into each other. On the other hand, the “l” en el bleeds in very nicely to that stressed a, so that’s why it’s done.

This is true for any word in Spanish that starts with a stressed a, including el águila (but las Águilas), and so on.

This eventually starts to make sense, and then we get the next gender-bomb with something like “el problema.”

Again, the words ends in -a, so it should be feminine, right? Except that this word comes from Greek, where it is masculine, so the gender came over directly into Spanish, and now we have a whole class of words from Greek, generally ending in -ma or -ta and sometimes -pa, that are masculine: el problema, el programma, el planeta, el cometa, el mapa, etc.

Unfortunately, you really just have to memorize them, because a word like etapa (meaning a period of time or a stage in some process) is feminine — la tercera etapa del cohete, the rocket’s third stage.

Once you’ve had fun with those, we get to the word for the hand: la mano. And yes, mano is feminine, for the same reason those Greek words are masculine, except that in this case, “mano” came from Latin, and the form of the word that got adapted into Spanish was feminine.

“Necesitará una mano lista para enfrentar un problema duro.” You will need a ready hand in order to tackle a hard problem. Note how the articles and adjectives appear to not match their nouns at all. Get used to it.

Don’t worry. It gets worse!

Further into occupations, you might learn the word dentista — ella es una dentista. Now, you could assume that the corresponding sentence would be “él es un dentisto,” but you’d be wrong. The correct phrase is also “él es un dentista.”

This is another class of words, generally ending in -ista, that are invariant, and frequently refer to occupations or ideologies. “Socialista” is another one that does not change, regardless of the actual gender of the socialist.

The same applies to nacionalista, capitalista, comunista, marxista, machista, and so on.

Finally, there are words that take on a particular gender because of what is missing. For example, “radio” can be either masculine or feminine, but there’s a good reason for that. When you’re referring to an actual physical device designed to receive and play radio broadcasts, then it’s masculine: el radio. However, when you refer to the broadcast that’s played en el radio, then that is la radio.

The reason for this is that when referring to a medium the word radio is short for “radio difusión,” or transmission by radio, and since difusión is feminine, so is the shortened form.

You can see this in words like la foto and la moto, which are short for fotographía and motocicleta. This is also why days of the week are all masculine — the word for day, el día, is masculine — and why the hours of the day are feminine — because they pick up the gender of the word for hour, la hora.

Month is masculine, so I’ll let you figure out which gender applies to the names of the months.

So it’s not a system that is as hard as it seems, and while there are some exceptions, those exceptions actually follow their own rules. You can’t always assume the gender of a noun, but once you know what it is, remembering it will gradually become second nature.

Good luck! ¡Buena suerte! — because, in Spanish, luck be a lady.

Talky Tuesday: Respecting pronouns

Apparently, some people get their panties in a twist over the mere concept that people can have pronouns that are different than what you, personally, think they should be. Maybe it’s a childhood friend you grew up with who has now announced that they’re transgender, or a celebrity who was famous as their assigned-at-birth sex before confirming their actual gender.

Hell, maybe it’s even someone you’ve never met, but in your opinion the pronouns they’re asking for don’t fit your perception of them.

Well, here’s how to respect those pronouns. If someone tells you what their pronouns are, you thank them and then use those pronouns. End of story. Sure, you might slip up now and again at first, but if you catch yourself doing that, just say, “Oops, sorry,” and make the correction.

It’s really actually pretty easy, and just requires a bit of empathy and respect. And you know what? Despite knowing a lot of transgender individuals now, I rarely ever run across anything beyond he/him/his, she/her/hers, or they/them/theirs.

Even though I’ll see official dropdown lists on some forms that include all kinds of things that didn’t exist previously, I really don’t see people gravitating to those. Hey, all of us like the familiar, and he, she, and they have been with us forever.

Side note: “They” has been used in English as a singular pronoun since the 14th century, so anyone trying to argue that it’s plural is just plain wrong, and you can tell them that. It’s really the closest to a neutral pronoun that English has.

But… now that we’ve simplified how to respect people’s chosen pronouns, let me get to that other part, where people abuse the hell out of pronouns on a daily basis. They really aren’t all that complicated, especially in English where we don’t decline the hell out of everything, and yet the wrong ones get used in the wrong place all the time.

Here are a few examples of pronoun abuse:

Me and him went to the store today.

His philosophy totally changed myself.

Do you know whom is knocking on the door?

The kitten licks it’s paws.

They gave awards to she and I.

And so on.  Also, as I mentioned, pronouns aren’t all that complicated in English. We have subject pronouns, which indicate who’s performing the action in a sentence. We also have object pronouns, which tell us who’s on the receiving end of that action. Finally, we have possessive pronouns, which tell us when somebody owns or has something else.

Right off the bat, English is simplified because there is no difference between direct and indirect pronouns. In other languages, it does make a difference whether someone is doing something directly to you or doing something to another object to give it to you.

For example, in English, whether you hit a ball to someone or hit them with the ball directly, the pronouns are the same: “Hit the ball to him!” “Hit him with the ball!” In Spanish, it’s not the same in the cases of “you” (singular familiar) and “he,” in which case the pronouns change from ti to te and le to lo. And it can get more complicated in other languages.

But let’s look at what’s happening wrong in each of the examples above.

WRONG: Me and him went to the store today

The short reason it’s wrong: these are object pronouns when they should be subject pronouns. The two people in the sentence are the actors, so they are the ones going to the store. If you used a pronoun for “store,” then it would be the object pronoun.

I quick way to spot the error is to drop one of the pronouns and see if you sound like Tarzan. Clearly, “Me went to the store” and “him went to the store” are just wrong. Also remember, when ordering pronouns in groups, the speaker always comes last, so the correct sentence is, “He and I went to the store today.”

WRONG: His philosophy totally changed myself

I actually heard someone say this in an interview and wanted to punch my phone. The problem? The “-self” pronouns are reflexive. They’re what happen when you are both the subject and object pronoun. Think of Nelson’s famous “stop hitting yourself” from The Simpsons.

By definition, someone else cannot affect a change on yourself, only on themselves. (Also note the plural construction of the singular themselves there.) There are two correct versions here. One is the simple direct object verb: “His philosophy totally changed me,” and a reflexive cause and effect version: “His philosophy made me totally change myself.”

WRONG: Do you know whom is knocking at the door?

I like to think of this one as a mistake of pretense — as in when someone wants to show off that they know the pronoun “whom,” but then also instantly proceeds to demonstrate that they have no idea how it works. “Whom” is another object pronoun, and usually follows a preposition: To whom, from whom, for whom, with whom, etc.

There’s a quick rule of thumb to see if you’ve got “whom” right. Replace it with “him” in the sentence. It’s easy to remember because they both end in “m.” So: “Do you know him is knocking on the door?” is clearly wrong, and the correct word is “who.”

WRONG: The kitten licks it’s paws

Now we come to the possessive pronouns, which really trip people up, because they don’t work like other possessives. In most cases, you add an apostrophe, with rules depending on whether the possessor is singular or plural or whether the word ends in S or X — although there’s some disagreement on the former.

So, singular: Jon’s article. Maria’s car. Plural: The Peoples’ Choice. Trick plurals: The men’s group, the children’s choir, the women’s union. The Joneses’ house.

As for the names ending in S rule, there are two schools of thought on that. One is that classical names always get just an apostrophe, and not an apostrophe S. So Jesus’ parable, Socrates’ method. But there’s a split on modern names. Some people insist that these names only get an apostrophe, and that’s it.

Others, though, for ease of pronunciation, say that these words should get the full apostrophe-S.

So you have Cass’ bar vs. Cass’s bar, or James’ theatre vs. James’s theatre. Clearly, the latter look a lot like how they are pronounced. But these are all nouns. Let’s get back to the pronouns.

Basically, none of them have apostrophes because they don’t need them: My book, your shoe, his wallet, her degree, our house, your (pl.) cars. The one that trips people up is “its,” because of that pesky S — but it’s not needed in possessives. Correct example from above: The kitten licks its paws.

The way to remember this one is that in the word “it’s” the apostrophe represents the missing “I” in the contraction “it is.” So when you see “it’s” in a sentence, read it out as “it is,” and if it makes no sense, then you want “its.” “The kitten licks it is paws.” Nope.

Finally, don’t confuse the possessive pronouns with the adjectives of possession. “My book” is pronoun and object. “That book is mine” is a noun and adjective. Although do note that, technically, in English, mine (and thine) were used as the sort of equivalent of “a” and “an” when it involved coming before vowels.

You’ll see it all the time in Shakespeare: “Be still my heart, yet weep, mine eyes.” (Made up line.) And it’s quite prominent in an old American song, The Battle Hymn of the Republic in the line, “Mine eyes have seen the glory…”

It’s really fallen out of fashion, but it was there for the same reason that we don’t like to say “a elephant.” It’s just clunky.

WRONG: They gave awards to she and I

This is sort of a reversal of the “me and him went to the store” problem. In this case, the subject pronouns have been used as objects, and you can spot it the same way: Drop one pronoun. Also note that, unlike the object version where the speaker comes last, with subject pronouns, the speaker comes first, so the correct sentence would be, “They gave awards to me and her.” Yeah, why it works like that, I have no idea, but just trust me. “To her and me,” just like “I and he went,” would totally grate on a native speaker’s ear.

So: The moral of the story is that pronouns are things to be respected and treated with care. Our language has taught us to use them properly lest we sound less than educated. Don’t forget to let the people around you now educate you on how to use theirs properly, and then do it, lest you continue to sound less than educated.

That’s right. A lesson in grammar and gender of the non-grammatical sort — and remember this: Every grammar rule I just explained to you will be a metric fuckton harder to remember than how to get people’s pronouns right.

You’re welcome.

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