As some of the regular readers of this blog may remember, I got involved in politics pretty much by accident last summer. The county tried to reorganize our neighborhood and we, all 6700 of us, stood up and said no. Three of us, whose main qualifications are that we are willing to stand up and speak in front of an audience of hundreds, emerged as the leaders. And that got me nominated and appointed to the Alameda County Planning Commission.
Well, on Monday we had a very difficult case. A Mexican woman (to judge from her accent in Spanish) stood up to petition for a variance in building an addition to the family house. (She spoke because her husband has no usable English.) Her English was tentative and, because one of the planning staff is bilingual, she was allowed to testify in Spanish.
The story is wrenching. They hired a contractor and filled out the forms for permits, which the contractor said he would apply for. He asked for money up front and constructed a sorely needed addition, which was largely complete when a county inspector noticed that the construction was unpermitted because it did not conform to the setback ordinances. The contractor, who, it turns out was unlicensed and therefore didn’t actually apply for the permits, disappeared. Now the family has been told they will have to tear down the addition they need and which has already cost them $40,000. We toured the site and the neighborhood and noticed that setback ordinances are widely violated throughout the area, but the homeowners association is adamant in this case, and if the Planning Commission were to allow this as an exception — clearly the compassionate thing to do — it would give the next person a precedent on which to demand a variance. Our hands are pretty well tied. There are no grounds to find for a variance. So we continued the case to see if the planning department can work something out.
Now my Spanish is OK. I pretty well followed what she said, but there is one interesting thing in the woman’s testimony and how I heard it that shows the tendency for English speakers to misread the meaning of gendered language.
In the course of her testimony the woman cited the reason for needing the addition was:
Tenemos cuatro hijos.
Since I was working hard to keep up, I processed that
they have four sons.
and it wasn’t until the official translation came back
‘They have four children.’
that I noticed the error.
may be upset that gender language in Bibles tends to attract excessive attention, but here is evidence that even I, who know better, tend to misread the meaning of gendered forms in a language that I don’t speak natively. The reason for bending over backwards on this point over and over is that English speakers misread the gender by reflex.
The patterns are clear and they work the same in Greek and Spanish.
Greek — Spanish — glossυἱός — hijo — ‘son’
υἱόι – hijos — ‘children’ (in special contexts ‘sons’)
πατήρ — padre — ‘father’
πατέρες — padres — ‘parents’ (in special contexts 'fathers')
ἄνθρωπος — persona — ‘person’ (NOT ‘man’ ‘woman’)
This is hard to swallow for English speakers, especially if they are immersed in a tradition of Bible translation which has gotten it wrong for a long time. (See a fuller discussion here
Speakers of languages with grammatical gender do much better, for example the Reformers (as pointed out by Suzanne in a comment on the previous post
), many of whom were German speakers. They know from their own languages that just because ἄνθρωπος
is grammatically masculine does not mean it refers directly to men and only indirectly to women, any more than the grammatically masculine word Mensch does in German. The same is true of persona in Spanish. Just because it is grammatically feminine does not mean it
refers to women primarily and only secondarily to men. The most macho Spanish speaker will not mind being referred to as una persona
And we are all children of God
In Spanish if you want to say ‘They have four sons.’ you have to say.
Tienen cuatro hijos hombres.
(The dictionary will tell you to say hijos varones
but my Mexican friends say that sounds a little archaic.)
In Greek you don’t NEED
to add a modifier to υἱόι
to get the reading ‘sons’, but because there is ambiguity in referential gender, Koine has expressions like υἱός ἄρρην (lit. ‘male son’) and υἱεῖς ἄνδρες ‘grown sons’ (lit. ‘sons men’) with modifiers to clarify actual gender reference.