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Friday, December 30, 2005

Language and Gender

Thanks to Kenny, for his post Are Linguistic Facts Theologically Significant.

I was thinking today about how the Bible translates into French. There is certainly gender in French but it doesn't line up exactly with gender in English.

French vs. English

elle - she - singular pronoun fem.
il - he - singular pronoun masc.
elles - they - plural pronoun fem
ils - they- plural pronoun masc.
sa/son - her - sing possessive fem.
sa/son - his - sing possessive masc.

So for the singular pronoun there is no problem. For the plural pronoun French can indicate gender where English cannot. For the possessive, English can indicate gender where the French cannot. In this case gender in French reflects the gender of the object of the possessive not the subject.

Is truth to be variously distributed to the different nations depending on their language? What then should be done about Swahili which has the following 8 genders.

Human, tree, thing (diminutive) appendages, liquid, flora and fauna, round, abstract

The notion that gender in language has more than a superficial association with biological sex is simply due to the fact that the word 'gender' has come to be a euphemism for the word 'sex' in the English language among that part of the population which is squeamish about saying the three letter word out loud. I undertand why this would be on the internet because one should be wary of putting a three letter word in the title of a post.

However I think John Piper is right on this one point - He does not mince words.


At Fri Dec 30, 08:16:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I undertand why this would be on the internet because one should be wary of putting a three letter word in the title of a post.

Wat amm aye mis sng, Suz? :-)

Are you thinking of what email filters might do to a subject header with the word "sex"?

At Fri Dec 30, 10:24:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Incoming more than outgoing propblems. I think one might get more spam. I don't kow if that is entirely avoided now with word verification but the way google and webcrawlers work, I would be more cautious on the internet than in person. However, if one really has to talk about it, I wish people would begin making the distinction between gender and sex. The linguistic contortions are wearing me out.

I had some bad experiences at one point on my own blog and then in my email. Not related to sex but related to other keywords, that I was using, but I got unwanted stuff anyway.

At Fri Dec 30, 10:45:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tnx, Suz. :-)

We have been fortunate on this blog. We've gotten spammed a few times, but almost none since I changed setting not to allow anonymous posts and began using word verification. I get far too much spam on email, but I do have an effective spam filter program there, so that helps weed out the junk.

At Fri Dec 30, 11:06:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Yes, I still allow anonymous posts on Abecedaria but since word verification I have only had a few oddites, nothing too bad.

At Sat Dec 31, 10:34:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Another reason to watch our language on this blog is that we don't want our material to get censored by programs like NetNanny. Of course such programs are intended to protection of children, who are not the target audience of this blog. But sometimes they are applied to public access computers which are also used by adults, as well as by over-zealous employers etc. I'm not saying that we should censor ourselves, only that we may have to bear in mind that some people may not be able to read this blog is certain types of language are used.

To get back to the material of the post, it is worth remembering that French gender differs from English in that it is grammatical rather than pragmatic or real-world. As French has no neuter, all inanimate objects are either "il" or "elle", but that is not at all because they are thought of as male or female, but simply a grammatical convention. And even for a person, "la personne" (grammatically feminine) should be referred back to by a feminine pronoun "elle" even if this person is in fact a man. I'm not sure whether that actually happens in French if the person is known to be male, but I am sure it does when the person if of unknown gender or one of a mixed group, e.g. as I understand it "Each person who has arrived from Paris should report to the desk" would be something like Chaque personne qui est arrivée de Paris..., with grammatically feminine marking on arrivée. At least I think so, but my French is very rusty, can someone confirm this?

At Sat Dec 31, 11:42:00 AM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...


Would you say then that Greek also has grammatical rather than real-word gender marking.?

You say that French has no neuter, so objects are either masc. or fem. but even in languages with the neuter, the three genders, gender still is only grammatical. The most famous example of course is the young woman in German 'madchen' which is neuter. Gender is applied based on a quality in the word not in real life.

At Sat Dec 31, 01:41:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

This is fascinating. I remember reading Don Carson's comment that, in most languages, gender is simply a device to accurately link the subject and the object in a given sentence, and has no reference to sex at all. Would you professional linguists agree with that assessment?

Tim (Chesterton)

At Sat Dec 31, 01:58:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Hi Tim,

I would call myself an amateur linguist. In my profession I work with the acquisition of literacy. However, I do have all the usual training in linuistics and translation and have on occasion worked as a linguist.

I would agree that grammatical gender and sex are not linked, except by association.

I think that people who want to talk about gender and the image of God might be better off talking about sex and the image of God, and derive a theology from the fact Jesus was a man, that is, a human of the male sex. But, one has to start with the fact, the reality, that he was born a boy and grew to be a man, not the notion that 'anthropos' indicates he was a man. It does not.

I say this with sincere respect because I think we have all been challenged and stimulated by our discussions on language and gender. We all have our preconceived notions about language and I have personally learned a lot from this dialogue.

At Sat Dec 31, 02:27:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I remember reading Don Carson's comment that, in most languages, gender is simply a device to accurately link the subject and the object in a given sentence, and has no reference to sex at all.

I'd like to see the actual quote from Carson. It's difficult for me to believe he would say something quite this strong.

Grammatical gender systems in languages do often show gender accord between a subject and verb, or verb and object, or both (as in Cheyenne). Cheyenne gender is of two classes, animate or inanimate. The Bible translation debates over gender only focus on gender which has some kind (and there is much of the debate; what kind? how much?) of connection with biological sex, male or female.

There is some correlation between grammatical gender (masculine or feminine, now) and biological sex, but there are so many exceptions that we must be very careful how we speak about Greek, Spanish, or other languages (including English) with regards to grammatical gender.

In Greek a man is referred to by nouns or pronouns with grammatically masculine gender, a woman by feminine gender. But children are referred to by neuter gender, even though children, obviously, have biological sex. Groups which are of mixed gender, including males and females, are referred to in Greek by masculine gender. This is a linguistic fact and has no ideological or theological significance. If we insist on some theological significance to the fact that grammatically masculine Greek forms are used to refer to gender-inclusive groups, then we must be willing to demonstrate the theological significance of every other grammatical gender assignment within Greek. We cannot simply pick and choose whatever genders agree with our personal theologies and doctrine and then point to them as evidence to support our theology. That is circular reasoning.

If we find theological significance in the fact that the default gender for gender-inclusive reference in Greek is masculine, then we must explain the theological significance of the fact that pistis 'faith' is feminine, episkope'office of overseer' is feminine, but nomos 'law' is masculine, and pneuma 'spirit' is neuter.

It is simply not logically consistent or scientifically reliable to self-select which data we will regard as theologically significant and which we will not.

Gender systems around the world have some relationship to reality. But there are so many exceptions that we just have to realize that these are man-made grammatical systems. Such system help people group similar things together. Some things don't fit into any group so they are arbitarily assined to one group or another.

What is the theological significance of the fact that the Hebrew word for 'spirit' is feminine but the Greek word for 'spirit' is neuter? Yet many theologians consider the Holy Spirit to be "masculine" is some sense.

So, Carson is right in pointing out that gender functions in languages not to indicate something about the real world. Grammatical gender in languages is a man-made, not a divine notion. People have devised a variety of gender systems. Some are based on shape of objects. Some are based on whether something is considered to be alive or not, human or not, etc. Some gender systems reflect the fact that males are masculine and females are feminine, but then everything else in the world has to be assigned to either a masculine or feminine gender. There is usually no logical rationale for the assignment.

We are on much safer grounds, theologially, if we develop our theological systems from the actual statements (propositions) of the Bible, for instance, in its frequent insistence that there is only one god. The fact that there is the Hebrew grammatical plural elohim to refer to this monotheistic god (at least in Judaic Hebrew, if not in its pre-hebraic semitic roots) should not bother us since we have clear statements in the Bible calling us to believe in only one god.

We need not be overly concerned about mis-matches between grammar (a human development) and divine revelatory teaching. The teaching should always take precedence over the grammatical markings.

This is where Dr. Grudem and Dr. Poythress get confused (and misinform others, unintentionally) with their doctrine of "male representative language." They fail to adequately differentiate between real-world semantic reference and non-real-world grammatical features. They choose certain grammatical features to support their belief in a male hierarchy, but then do not account for all the other gramamtical features which have no relationship to biological sex. They would be safer if they let grammar be grammar and let the Bible teach what it teaches about the sexes.

At Sat Dec 31, 04:24:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Wayne, unfortunately I don't have the Carson book here at home with me (and I'm on holiday from my 'office' at the moment!). I was quoting from memory from 'The Inclusive-Language Debate' and may not have done so entirely accurately (i.e. my quote may have been 'dynamically equivalent' rather than 'formally equivalent'!).


Tim (Chesterton)

At Mon Jan 02, 05:03:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Suzanne asked me:

Would you say then that Greek also has grammatical rather than real-word gender marking.?

The answer is, Yes. For, as Tim asks, Carson was more or less right to say (if he really did) that "gender is simply a device to accurately link the subject and the object in a given sentence, and has no reference to sex at all" - although "no reference... at all" is a bit too strong. But then I can hardly claim to be a "professional linguist"; I have had some linguistic training, but no formal qualifications.

The lack of a neuter in French affects some of the details but not the general principle. But I don't know of any feminine words in Greek which can be used in a "feminine-representative" way like French la personne. However, its Latin equivalent persona can be "feminine-representative", as in the expression persona non grata used in English in a completely gender generic way, although anyone who knows any Latin will immediately recognise that it is grammatically feminine.


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