Friday, April 13, 2012

Neutral language

An utterly brilliant observation was made over at the Log during a discussion of an attempt being made in Sweden to introduce a gender-neutral pronoun (hen) beside he and she (han and hon).

As an aside, for a moment, I'll add that I doubt it will work, because languages generally resist very much any attempt to add a pronoun. I'll also add that English has one - it's "they" - and anyone who happily uses plural verbs with singular "you" shouldn't have a problem doing it with "they", ahem. And I'll also observe the cliché truism that 3/4 of the world's languages don't have gender at all let alone gendered pronouns, yet you'd be reality-challenged to think all those cultures were egalitarian.

Back to the brilliant observation:
languages differ not in what they can say, but in what they must say. In English it's hard to tell a story without incidentally declaring your protagonist's sex, but perfectly easy to tell a story without offering a grammatical clue to anyone's race. The grammar is fully race-neutral.
As the kids say, oh, snap

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At 10:57 PM, April 13, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

A professor of Portuguese at a conference I just attended gave a presentation on his efforts to eradicate at least some traces of sexism from Lusophony. Amazing, the resistance he encountered from some of the old (male) fogeys...

At a conference on Portuguese women where he spoke a few years ago, this same professor cited as the height of ridiculousness the example of a governmental employees' handbook whose section on pregnancy accommodation and leave all were couched in terms of the masculine-gender Portuguese word for employee!

This professor's wife is also an accomplished academic with a doctorate, and their only child is a girl -- so I imagine he's not the sort to feel his manhood threatened by females, despite having been born into the inherently machismo Portuguese culture.

FWIW, I try to go the plural route whenever feasible (i.e., in terms of both sense and gracefulness) in translating Portuguese, so I can use "they" with a plural antecedent instead of having to use "he" or "she" with a single one. E.g, "emigrants... they..." instead of "the emigrant... he..."

At 10:59 PM, April 13, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

OTOH, in Portuguese the reflexive pronoun "se" and indirect-object pronoun "lhe" are gender-neutral -- which, ironically, can raise problems is translating if its antecedent doesn't seem obvious!

At 11:00 PM, April 13, 2012 Anonymous Kathie had this to say...

...problems IN translating...

(Sorry 'bout that -- it's too late for me to be typing!).

At 6:08 AM, April 16, 2012 Anonymous H. S. Gudnason had this to say...

If you haven't encountered them, look for the late Sarah Caudwell's series of mysteries involving young law and equity barristers. The narrator is a professor of legal history named Hilary Tamar, whose gender remains uncertain throughout--I'm not sure how they handle the problem in translations where they'd eventually have to declare for one or the other.

The first of the series, Thus Was Adonis Murdered is brilliant. The others fall off. but are still enjoyable.

And FWIW, Caudwell was the daughter of Jean Ross, who served Christopher Isherwood as the model for Sally Bowles.

At 8:02 AM, April 16, 2012 Blogger The Ridger, FCD had this to say...

I have read them. English is the only language I know (meaning can read) where that central fact could never be disclosed - in Russian, the first past tense verb associated with Hilary would give it away. But it's not entirely natural, and I'm sure it was tricky to write.


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