Gender neutrality in genderless languages
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A genderless language is a natural or constructed language that has no distinctions of grammatical gender—that is, no categories requiring morphological agreement between nouns and associated pronouns, adjectives, articles, or verbs.
The notion of a genderless language is distinct from that of gender neutrality or gender-neutral language, which is wording that does not presuppose a particular natural gender. A discourse in a grammatically genderless language is not necessarily gender-neutral, although genderless languages exclude many possibilities for reinforcement of gender-related stereotypes, such as using masculine pronouns when referring to persons by their occupations (although some languages that may be identified as genderless, including English, do have distinct male and female pronouns). A lack of gendered pronouns is also distinct from a lack of gender in the grammatical sense.
Genderless languages do have various means to recognize gender, such as gender-specific words (mother, son, etc., and distinct pronouns such as he and she in some cases), as well as gender-specific context, both biological and cultural.
Genderless languages are listed at List of languages by type of grammatical genders. Genderless languages include the Indo-European languages Armenian, Bengali, Persian, Zemiaki and Central Kurdish (Sorani Dialect), all the modern Turkic languages (such as Turkish) and Kartvelian languages (including Georgian), Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and most Austronesian languages (such as the Polynesian languages).
Tagalog, like most Austronesian languages, is gender-neutral. The third-person pronoun siya is used for both "he" and "she", as well as "it" in the context of being a neuter gender. Native nouns also feature this characteristic, normally with the addition of lalaki ("male") or babae ("female") to the noun to signify gender in terms such as anak na lalaki ("son") or babaeng kambing ("she-goat").
However, because Tagalog has had over three centuries of Spanish influence, gender is usually differentiated in certain Spanish loanwords by way of the suffixes -a (feminine) and -o (masculine). These words mostly refer to ethnicities, occupations, and family. Some examples are: Pilipina/Pilipino (Filipina/o) and their derivative nicknames Pinay/Pinoy, tindera/tindero (vendor), inhinyera/inhinyero (engineer), tita/tito (aunt/uncle), manang/manong (elder sister/brother), and lola/lolo (grandmother/grandfather). A few gender-differentiating pairs originate from Chinese, mostly relating to kinship terminology such as ate (big sister) and kuya (big brother).
English lacks grammatical gender, but can be considered to have a pronominal gender system with semantic gender represented in the pronouns. This system of gender is quite minimal compared to languages with grammatical gender.
Historically, "he" referred to a generic person whose gender is unspecified in formal language, but the gender-neutral singular they has long been common in informal language, and is becoming increasingly so in formal language. The use of the neuter pronoun 'it' in reference to a person is considered dehumanizing.
While Kurdish has two grammatical genders, none of the Kurdish languages have gender pronouns; thus the third person singular pronoun ew refers to "he", "she" and "it".
Persian is commonly considered a genderless language, but can be considered to have a pronominal gender system with common and neuter genders represented in the pronouns. For both males and females, the same nouns, pronouns, and adjectives are used. For example,
- u (او) is used for both "he" and "she" (common gender);
- ishān (ایشان) is used for both "he" and "she" but in formal contexts and writing;
- ān (آن) is used for "it" (neuter gender).
Other natural languages
Turkish is a gender-neutral language, like most other Turkic languages. Nouns have a generic form and this generic form is used for both males and females. For example, doktor (doctor), eczacı (pharmacist), mühendis (engineer) etc. Very few words for person reference contain a clue to the gender of the referred person, such as anne/baba "mother/father", kız/oğlan "girl/boy", hanım/bey "lady/sir". The third person singular pronoun "o" refers to "he", "she" and "it".
At the same time research has shown a significant presence of semantically-implied gender (covert gender) in Turkish. In addition to the absence of semantic gender neutrality it was also noted that the usage of gender markings in Turkish is asymmetrical. In translations of sentences from English texts where the gender is evident (e.g., usage of he/she or male vs. female context) it was noticed that feminine gender was marked in 50% of cases, while masculine was marked only in 5% of cases. While translations are not typically representative of linguistic data, similar asymmetry was also observed in Turkish literary and newspaper texts.
Yoruba is a Volta–Niger language spoken in Nigeria, referred to by its native speakers as Ede Yoruba. Yoruba is a gender neutral language. Gendered pronouns such as he or she do not exist in Yoruba language. Words like brother, sister, son and daughter also do not exist. Instead, the most important organizing category is age. Therefore, people are classified by whether they are égbǫn (older sibling) or aburo (younger sibling). In order to say brother, one would need to say "aburo mi okunrin" (this roughly translates to "my younger sibling, the male"). Male and female are also quite unlike man and woman in the English language. "Obinrin" and "okunrin" which mean "one who has a vagina" and "one who has a penis" are used to mean female and male respectively. Due to European colonization, western pronouns are becoming more widespread.
Swahili is a Bantu language spoken in many parts of Africa such as Kenya and Tanzania. It is largely gender neutral in specific nouns. Words such as actor/actress (mwigaji wa hadithi) and waiter/waitress (mtumishi mezani) are gender neutral among most others in the language. The words he, him, she, her translate to a single word in Swahili, yeye.
There are gender specific words for man/woman (mwanamume/mwanamke) and mother/father (mama/baba), so it is not completely gender neutral, although a vast majority of the words do not distinguish between male or female. The language does not have a grammatical gender either.
The Chinese language or languages/topolects are largely gender-neutral. Chinese has no inflections for gender, tense, or case, so comprehension is almost wholly dependent on word order. There are also very few, if any, derivational inflections; instead, the language relies heavily on compounding to create new words. A Chinese word is thus inherently gender-neutral, and any given word can be preceded by an morpheme indicating masculinity or femininity. For example, the word for "doctor" is yīshēng (Traditional: 醫生, Simplified: 医生). To specify the gender of the doctor, the speaker can add the morpheme for "male" or "female" to the front of it. Thus, to specify a male doctor, one would prefix nán 男 (male), as in nányīshēng (男醫生/男医生); to specify a female doctor, one would prefix nǚ 女 (female), as in nǚyīshēng (女醫生/女医生). Under normal circumstances, both male and female doctors would simply be referred to as yīshēng (醫生/医生).
Spoken Mandarin Chinese also has only one third-person singular pronoun, tā for all referents. Tā can mean "he" (also "He" for deities, written differently), "she", or "it". However, the different meanings of tā are written with different characters: "他", containing the human radical "亻", from "人", meaning person, for he or a person of undetermined gender; "她", containing the feminine radical "女", for "she"; and "它" for "it"; "祂" containing the spirit radical "礻", from "示", for deities; "牠" containing the cow radical "牜", from "牛", for animals.
The character for "she", containing the "woman" radical (glyphic element of a character's composition), was invented in the early twentieth century due to western influence; prior to this, the character indicating "he" today was used for both genders: it contains the "person" radical, which, as noted above, is not gender-specific.
In written Cantonese, the third-person singular pronoun is keui5, written as 佢; it may refer to people of either gender because Chinese does not have gender roles as English in third-person pronouns. The practice of replacing the "亻" radical with "女" (forming the character 姖) to specifically indicate the female gender may also be seen occasionally in informal writing; however, this is neither widely accepted nor grammatically or semantically required, and the character 姖 has a separate meaning in standard Chinese.
- Gender marking in job titles
- Gender neutrality in languages with grammatical gender
- IGALA (International Gender and Language Group)
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