Saturday, 9 June 2012

He, She and It




Who's that?


















Henry is too young to differentiate between saying "who's that ?" and what's that?" so we have been having conversations lately like this:

"Who's that?"- Henry
"oh that's your teddy bear, Rex"- Me
"and who's that"- Henry
"oh that's a ladybird"- Me
"and who's that?" - Henry
"oh, that's a stone, Henry" - Me

I love these conversations. Suddenly the stone acquires a little personality of its own. It just shows that the way we label things using language can instantly change our perception of them.

The German language is still a source of wonderment and confusion to me. Unlike English, nouns are attributed a Masculine, Feminine and Neuter gender. In German 'the' can be Der (M), Die(F) or Das(N).

So the desk that I am sitting at is masculine, der Tisch. And the computer that I am looking at is also masculine, der Computer, but the keyboard is feminine, die Tastatur. And if I had a laptop it would be swaying somewhere in gender limbo between masculine, der Laptop, and neutral, das Laptop, as it would seem that people are still in disagreement on this one.

The fruit in my kitchen in mostly feminine, though the apple happens to be masculine. Funny that.

I can sort of get used to this way of attributing gender to things, in an abstract way but it jars with me with certain words. For example, das M├Ądchen, which means girl. It just feels wrong that the word for girl in German has a neuter gender, like Henry turning to one of his cousins and saying, "What's that".

On the other hand, cousin is not a neutral gender word in German. You know immediately if the cousin is male (Cousin) or female (Cousine).

Likewise the German word for friend indicates whether the friend is male (Freund) or female (Freundin).  That's why when Germans speak in English about their female friend or friends, more often or not it doesn't come across the way they intended:

"My girlfriends and I love to go to the beach together"German
"How nice for you"(wow, these Germans are pretty forthright aren't they.)  Brit
"And I am going to see my best girlfriend in Rome,next week"
"Oh, that sounds nice" (How many girlfriends does this woman have!) Briti
"It would be nice to have you as a girlfriend from England"German
"Er ,well.." (Wow, I heard the Germans were direct but...) Brit

On the other hand if you talk about your friend which is a male in German, this is also the word for boyfriend, which could leave your relationship on the ambiguous side.

Is this her boyfriend or just her friend friend?

Usually this is countered by a more emphatic: "MY friend" just so you know for sure.
Or when introducing a male friend I usually say, "this is my friend" - followed by - cough-  "this is a friend of mine" which always sounds wooden and as if you are really overstating that actually you really are not sleeping with this person, but keeping them at arms length so don't get the wrong idea, because he is of mine and not mine!

Whew, then it gets even more complicated and the words get correspondingly longer.

Whereas in the English language we have mostly done away with gender specific job titles, where, for example, the word actor nowadays can mean both male and female, and political correctness has replaced chairman with chairperson, in Germany the division is still there.

So you know whether the chancellor is a male or female, or the head of the company just by looking at the word ending.
If you are addressing a group of male and female students, for example, the gramatically correct way to address them would be by using the male plural for student, Studenten. However it is deemed politically correct to use the female form and make it plural, Studentinnen, and for good measure add und Studenten, so the boys don't feel left out by the feminist linguistic revolution.  Also, you might see StudentInnen, which has a capital letter I as a sort of code to let you know that the boys are included in this one, too, but means you can save on ink.

It's strange that the problem of equality in language has been dealt with in totally different ways in German and English.
Stewardess sounds quite old fashioned now and most people are quite happy to use the term flight attendant and be rid of the feminine ending, without feeling that feminism has received a deadly blow. I personally do not regret the passing of this term or feel that I should make a point of keeping it.

In a series of guidelines on how to formulate language promoting equality, I noticed that it often recommends skirting around the issue altogether (or should that be trousering) by using verbs instead of nouns. So instead of saying, "user friendly" you could say, "easy to use". No person mentioned, ha ha.

Even when the word is neuter and shouldn't really offend anyone, such as the German word for "members", die Mitglieder,  there is  a widespread insistence of putting both feminine and masculine endings on it, which is grammatically absurd.

But I don't think you can have your neuter cake and eat it, even if it is in a good cause. Just have pity on the poor foreign students trying to get their heads around all of this gender bending. The words get really really long and you often have to write two words instead of one.

What if everything was a that? Not a who's that, as Henry would say, but a what's that?

Everything could become neuter including people, which could not only solve hours of soul searching over political correctness, but also alleviate the headaches of millions of students studying German as a foreign language everywhere.

German teachers could go on a sabbatical and learn all the Latin names of flowers if they felt bored.

And now that German just got easy peasy, all those students could use their time in other productive ways. Like figuring out when it is appropriate to address someone as "Sie"(formal) or "Du"(informal) in German.

Hang on a minute. Cancel that sabbatical. Hyacinthus Orientalis is going to have to wait.























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