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?