He/She/It: They all Float Down Here

I saw IT last week, only it was actually Ça, considering I saw it in a cinema in Liège. English-language films are generally dubbed here, but as it was a somewhat arty cinema, they were proud to offer the VO (version originale) with French and Dutch subtitles. Having two sets of subtitles taking up space on the screen is quite distracting, but it’s an interesting opportunity to compare English, French, and Dutch at the same time.

Watching a film with subtitles in a language you know is always a little odd, as they never translate things exactly, largely because such a thing is basically impossible. Even so, there are always one or two choices the subtitler makes which boggle the mind. I don’t recall anything like that in this case, but there was one necessary difference in translation that intrigued me.

In the film’s opening scene, the character Bill corrects his little brother Georgie when he refers to his paper boat as it, reminding him that boats are referred to as she. At that moment I glanced down at the subtitles and saw the following:

Un bateau est toujours masculin. (a boat is always male)

Ah! I hadn’t known that before, and immediately added it to my list of little things in French that are different from English. There are a lot of theories as to why we refer to boats and ships as feminine in English, from shipowners being predominantly men and naming ships after significant women in their lives, to ships having female figureheads. I think such theories are putting the cart before the horse though, as I believe that those traditions arose because ships have long been referred to as she. Plus, these theories don’t account for other languages, like French, which refer to boats and ships as he.

I think the answer lies in language. Most European languages are gendered, in that nouns are either masculine or feminine, or, in some languages like German, masculine, feminine, or neuter. This is grammatically important, as it usually means you have to use a gender-appropriate article or pronoun, and also adjust any adjectives you use with the noun. A big boat (male) in French, for example, is un grand bateau. A big car (female) though, is une grande voiture. English, of course, is genderless, except when referring to people, and even then it’s only a matter of using the appropriate personal pronouns and possessive adjectives: He likes his new car, for example. And we can even use the normally plural they when we’re not specifying the gender of a single individual.

Old English had a masculine/feminine/neuter system similar to modern German, so it’s probable that the Old-English word for boat or ship was feminine, and that’s why we continue to refer to them as female. The fact that the Latin for ship, navis, is feminine might also have an influence on this, considering how we’ve long revered the language. In French on the other hand, the grammatical masculinity of the word bateau means French speakers refer to boats as he.

Of course a common question, usually asked by English speakers trying to learn a gendered language, is why do languages have genders in the first place? Heaven knows I’ve asked that about French on many occasions. No matter how good my French gets, I don’t think I’ll ever fully get to know which words are masculine and which are feminine. I sometimes try to guess, based on the look of a word (I often assume a word ending in -ette is feminine), or whether it’s something that we associate with a particular gender in real life, but that never really works, as there’s no real logic as to whether nouns are masculine or feminine. The words for breasts and vagina are both masculine, for example!

Grammatical gender developed far too long ago for us to be able to accurately say why exactly it developed as an aspect of language. The general theory though, is that it came about simply as a way of classifying nouns, which in turn I believe is another way for us to try to impose some sense of order on a chaotic universe. We classify nouns in many different ways in English, even without gender: abstract, specific, proper, countable, uncountable, group etc. And while genders might seem odd to us, it’s not hard to figure out for native speakers of gendered languages, who get used to noticing the gender of nouns from early childhood.

It’s also important to distinguish between natural and grammatical gender. Natural gender refers to gender as we know it in society and the animal kingdom. While grammatical gender generally corresponds to our most basic sense of natural gender, as in the masculine/feminine system of French, it need not necessarily relate to natural gender. Beyond languages which have a third neutral gender, there are others which have collapsed masculine and feminine into a common category, which exists along a neuter category. There are also a small number of languages like Basque which classify nouns as animate or inanimate (and linguistic historians believe that the Proto-Indo-European language had a similar system). Linguistically, these categories are considered genders.

Still though, most language genders do correspond to natural gender, and I think that’s simply because throughout history, most people have identified as either masculine or feminine, and we therefore transplant that view of the world onto our language, making our words equally masculine or feminine. And I think some people find it hard to break out of that worldview, explaining why some people seem to still have issues with gender and pronouns in English. Now that most of us are comfortable with the idea that someone might not have a simple male/female identity, or that their gender might not be the one we assume it be, we’ve also adapted how we use pronouns. This of course still means almost always using he/she and him/her, only now we’re a little more sensitive in how we apply them. If you somehow find this confusing, I’ve two simple guidelines:

  • Never refer to a person as it unless they ask you to, or they’re one of the millions dressing up as Pennywise this Hallowe’en (and even then, they might prefer Pennywise)
  • Use the pronoun that the person themselves uses

Simple, isn’t it? Much easier than learning gender in French.

9 thoughts on “He/She/It: They all Float Down Here

  1. As a native speaker of a gendered language (three genders: masculine, feminine, neuter like in good old English), let me alert you to another aspect of this matter that I find almost uncanny.

    When a foreign loanword (a noun like computer, Internet, perestroika, swastika, sogun, or the Hulk) is intergrated and becomes part of every day talk, it must of necessity acquire a grammatical gender to fit in our language. Well, guess what: Everyone automatically assigns to the foreign term the same gender in Greek! As if there was a collective conscience that directs everyone what to do. Remember the Borg in Star Trek? Something like that.

    Liked by 1 person

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