englishman abroad, parenting

The difference between boys and girls

I’m six years old and the click-clack of scissors makes short work of my wavy hair. I’m concentrating hard on holding my head down like the lady told me to, and I’m watching the accumulation of brown curls in the lap of my apron. I understand little of what my mother or the hairdressers are saying, but there is laughter and smiling. I’m a good boy, they say, I held my head still and straight.

At school I’ll play with my friends Ash and William and Martin, we’ll pretend fight and play POGS and trade Thunderbirds. Girls are different somehow, they don’t even like football and they talk all the time. Just talk and talk and talk. They’re boring and sometimes they point and whisper and laugh.

And so it was for the longest time until, unexpectedly, girls became interesting. They still talked and pointed and whispered and laughed, but they suddenly looked different.

They now had something we wanted so we chased them and they ran.

Eventually we learned that it’s better to talk to girls, that kiss-chase isn’t always the best way. I still understood little of what they’re saying, but there was laughter and smiling.

I watched the grey and black hair accumulating in the lap of my apron today. I thought how strange it all is that I have a little girl of my own, and I can understand everything she’s talking about. I thought how odd it all was that she wasn’t at all boring and how I join in with her whispering and laughter.

Most of all, I thought about how glad I was that she plays with boys as well as girls.

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?