Date: Sun, 6 Nov 1994 12:25:16 CST


Subject: Re: "them" singulars

In Message Sat, 5 Nov 1994 10:15:42 -0800,

Dan Alford dalford[AT SYMBOL GOES HERE] writes:

He/she merely draws attention to genitalia and

secondary sex characteristics in a way that makes people from other languages

and cultures wonder why they have to pay so much attention to sex in order to

just speak English properly. He/she vs it tends to invoke a "living/dead"


Have you surveyed these claims or are you just guessing? If I may speak

for some of those "people from other languages and cultures," these

interpretations never crossed my mind.

And then, to top it all off, we have a great big gaping hole in

that pronoun set -- any living creature whose genitalia we're not interested

in or can't immediately tell (neighbor's new baby or dog, a tree, a whale, a

bug, a star we label 'IT', as if the creature is dead! I contend our

pronoun systems is subtly complicit in it-ting Mother Earth to death because

of this basic lack of formal respect.

FANTAS-tic theory!! (At least you made me giggle for a while!)

Note this is different from Romance

languages where masc/fem/neut are applied to all objects and beings equally,

without absolute dependence on sexual characteristics.

I have heard another interesting theory about the French gender system,

according to which cultural articfacts and functions originally associated

with women are typically feminine; mutatis mutandis for men/masculine.

There are curious exceptions of course for this theory, because "la

guarde", for instance, is feminine. I wonder if knives were originally used

only by men, as "le couteau" is masculine, while "la fourchette" is

feminine, both of which are used at the dinner table and should have been

expected to be feminine according to this other theory. On the other hand,

"la fourche", which I would associate with men in a farm (though I am not

French), is feminine.

I don't know about Spanish, Portuguese, or Italian, but French doesn't

have a neuter gender.


Salikoko S. Mufwene

University of Chicago

Dept. of Linguistics

1010 East 59th Street

Chicago, IL 60637


312-702-8531; fax: 312-702-9861