Message #211 Posted by James M. Prange (Michigan) on 6 June 2007, 1:52 a.m.,
in response to message #209 by Walter B
English can be rather strange with regards to the "genders" too.
"Gender" in language, at least originally, referred to which
"kind" a word was, not necessarily to which sexual characteristics
were associated with it, which may perhaps explain some seeming
oddities in linguistic genders.
But of course, which sexual characteristics (masculine or
feminine) something seems to have, or the lack of sexual
characteristics (neuter), seems a natural way of classifying into
which "kind" it is too, and the modern usage of "gender" is
usually understood to mean which "sex" something is.
English started out as a west Germanic dialect, so modern English
does share a lot with modern German and the other modern
"Germanic" languages, but English has been extensively modified
(and, in some ways, simplified) by the use of Latin by the church
and the learned, intermingling with the "Danes" (Vikings) and the
Norman French, and many of its speakers being familiar with and
rather freely borrowing from other languages. Remember that
English was once a rather obscure language usually used only in a
part of the island of Great Britain.
Of course, sometimes a language is modified just for the fun of it, or to identify the speakers with a particular group.
In modern English, for the personal pronouns and adjectives, only
the third person singulars "he", "him", "his", "she", "her",
"hers", "it", and "its" have any gender. Plural and first and
second person pronouns and adjectives are "genderless".
For the most part, a "person" is either masculine or feminine, and
a "non-person" is neuter.
The feminines are always used for a definitely female person, but
the "masculines" are used both for a definitely male person and
for a "person of unknown gender".
Some seem to find using the masculine for a person of unknown
gender rather uncomfortable or downright objectionable, as if the
"masculine" should be used only for a male, and not for either a
male or a female, whichever the person happens to be.
Sometimes, to avoid using a masculine for a person of unknown
gender, a plural is resorted to. For example, the plural "they" is
sometimes used with the singular "everyone", and the plural
"their" is sometimes used with the singular "anyone". This seems
to be pretty much accepted English usage, but the disagreement in
number rather jars on my ears.
Similarly, constructions such as "he or she" or even "he/she" are
sometimes resorted to, but they seem clumsy and just don't "sound
right" to me.
Those who object to English using the "masculine" for a person of
unknown gender sometimes seem to make it a point to use the
feminine for such cases, but that sounds very stilted and
unnatural. "Making a point" about one of the oddities of standard
English language rather distracts me from whatever other
communication is being attempted.
A human is almost always treated as either masculine or feminine,
but an infant is sometimes treated as neuter, as though not really
a "person" yet.
Sometimes it's ambiguous which sex a person is, and in such cases,
it's rather debatable which gender to use.
An animal may be treated as masculine or feminine (a "person"),
even if it has been physiologically "neutered", but may be treated
as neuter (a "non-person").
Inanimate nouns are usually neuter, but sometimes an inanimate
noun is "personified", in which case it's treated as either
masculine or feminine, depending on tradition or on which
characteristics seem most important. For example, the sun is
neuter, but the Sun is male; the earth is neuter, but of course
Mother Earth is feminine. A ship is feminine (even if it has a
"masculine" name) or occasionally neuter, and automobiles and other
machines (things that males "fall in love with", I suppose) are
often feminine. An oak may be treated as masculine due to it
sturdiness (even though its acorns may seem a feminine
characteristic), and a willow may be treated as feminine due to
I'm often impressed by how clearly those in this forum who (I
guess) don't have English as their mother tongues communicate in
English, sometimes better than those of us who (I guess) do have
English as our native language. Maybe those who use English as a
second language tend to be particularly careful in how they use
Edited: 6 June 2007, 2:16 a.m.