englishman abroad, Teaching English

When people assume gender…

Gender isn’t straightforward. I didn’t realise until I started teaching Germans.

This is German: der, die, das, den, dem, des.

Or in English: the, the, the, (to) the, (of) the.

The last two options are quirks of the dative and genitive cases, which we don’t have in English. But those first three? That’s what a gendered language looks like.

Except for a few, insignificant and archaic specks like Waiter/Waitress or Actor/Actress, English isn’t gendered. We have one word for every form of ‘the’ and almost every job title has one word, ‘Teacher’ for example. Is the teacher female or male? We don’t know, it’s irrelevant! In German you are a Lehrer or Lehrerin, a male or female teacher. ‘The female teacher’ and ‘the male teacher’ are Die Lehrerin and Der Lehrer respectively.

Although this insistence on stating someone’s gender is silly enough, it’s about to get weirder.

In Germany, tables are male. Yes, all tables and desks everywhere are men or boys. I had no idea before I came to Germany, but there it is: Der Tisch. ‘The (male) table’.

In Germany all fruits, apart from apples, are female. Die Birne, Die Banane, Die Nektarine.

Every single fruit is a woman or girl. But apples are somehow male. Obviously.

German is a truly demented language. 

In English, practically everything is gender neutral. The table is just a table. The fruit is just fruit. The table will not run off with a banana, get married and have lots of mutant babies.

Yet surprisingly, modern German has one advantage over English when it comes to gender. There is one area where German is simpler and more elegant than English. Honorifics.

When writing an English letter, you start with Dear Mr. Smith…

or Dear Mrs Smith…

or Dear Miss Smith…

or maybe Dear Ms. Smith…

Why are there so many options for the ladies? Is John Smith married? No one cares! But everyone seems to care whether Janet Smith is married or not. That’s why she has three options…

…In fact she has four, I forgot about Mx Smith. Mx is gender neutral and could be used by both John and Janet.

So, there are five options for writing a letter to J. Smith. Good luck guessing which to use.

German has Frau Smith or Herr Smith, for women and men respectively. This is far simpler, but the language completely lacks a gender-neutral option.

I guess that makes sense, Germany; if something as simple as a banana can be mis-gendered what chance do people have?

4 thoughts on “When people assume gender…”

  1. Haha absolutely, not a day goes by where I don’t struggle with figuring out the gender for some noun which seems as abstract as choosing one among 10-15 different types of low fat yogurt.

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  2. Ha! That is something that has long bugged me about English, the honorifics. Esp in the UK where every damned form insists on knowing whether I am Mrs, Miss or Ms. So antiquated. At least in NZ they don’t even bother with this. The name alone is enough. And, being a first name culture, it doesn’t usually matter much for letters and emails, either. But what I want to know is, when is a Frau a Fraulein? And is a boy also Herr?

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    1. Good question! A Frau is no longer a Fräulein because the suffix -lein makes it the diminutive (cute) form of a word. Single women are no longer referred to as such, except perhaps ironically, because it is considered patronising nowadays. Having said that, my 5-year-old daughter gets called Fräulein when she’s especially cheeky, maybe that’s an appropriate use! As for boys, I think they’re called Herr… and The Boy in German is Der Junge (Der being the male form) whereas The Girl is Das Mädchen (Das being neutral, not feminine) interesting isn’t it? Boys are grammatically male from birth but a girl only becomes feminine when she’s a woman. Incidentally -chen (like in Mädchen) is also a diminutive form. I’ve often speculated as to why this might all be, perhaps it goes back to a time when boys had more rights than girls, as did men generally.

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