Tag Archives: Grammatical gender

Is the Chairman a Woman?

Last month, the Republic of Ireland held a pair of referendums/referenda (Would you prefer a pseudo-Latin word with an English pluralisation or with a pseudo-Latin pluralisation?) on  whether to amend the constitution to abolish Seanad Éireann (Senate of Ireland) on the one hand and whether to establish a Court of Appeal and make other changes to the courts-system on the other. These were held on the 4th of October 2013 and when the dust cleared, it was revealed that voters had rejected the proposal to abolish the Seanad and accepted the proposal to establish a permanent, constitutionally-mandated Court of Appeal and make several other changes to the courts-system.

I voted to reject both proposals but that’s neither here nor there as this article isn’t about the Irish political system as such. This article is about the wording of the information booklet sent out by the Referendum Commission, specifically the difference between one particular sentence in the English and Irish versions of the booklet‘s explanation of the proposal regarding the Seanad and how that illuminates a wider linguistic issue in the Irish language and languages more generally. The content of the booklet is available online here.

It’s worth noting that the Republic of Ireland is an officially bilingual state with Irish as the primary official language (though, in practice, this primacy is all but ignored). In Bunreacht na hÉireann (Constitution of Ireland), the Irish version of the text takes precedence over the English in the case of a conflict. So, on to the statement in question!

The Irish version reads:
“Is é nó is í an Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Leas Cathaoirleach na Dála) a bheidh ar an gCoimisiún in ionad Chathaoirleach an tSeanaid.”

Whereas, the English version reads:
“The Presidential Commission will include the Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Deputy Chairman of the Dáil) instead of the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad.”

A more direct (and by direct, I mean word-for-word)  translation of the Irish would be something like “It is he or she, the Deputy-Head Counsel (Deputy Chairperson of the Dáil) that will be on the Commission instead of the Chairperson of the Senate.”

That’s just my translation and there are a few things to bear in mind about it.
Firstly, I don’t think that direct translations are necessarily the way to go in something like this; obviously, clarity of information rather than semantic pedantry is the purpose of an information booklet.
Secondly, there’s no ‘it’ in Irish, there is only ‘he’ (é) or ‘she’ (í); I translated Irish “Is” as English “It is” to adhere as closely as possible to English syntax where ‘is’ rarely (if ever) appears at the beginning of a sentence unless the sentence is a question.
Thirdly, I translated “Cheann Comhairle” directly as “Head Counsel” but the title is Irish and is usually not translated even in English-language discourse (like the actual English version above my translation).
Fourthly, I translated “Cathaoirleach” as chairperson whereas the actual English version uses “Chairman”. Cathaoir translates as chair, the seat, while cathaoirleach adds a suffix that indicates someone or something that is of the preceding word, so Chair (as in person chairing), chairman (sex/gender-neutral usage of man), chairperson (which I used) or even chair-dweller would all be reasonable translation.  A good approximation might be ‘chairling’ (like yearling) but that’s a neologism coined by me just now, not a recognised term (maybe it’ll catch on after this article).

My more direct translation aside, there are a few differences in the information actually conveyed in the statements. For one thing, the Irish is content to refer to “an gCoimisiúin” (the Commission), as the Presidential commission is referred to in a previous sentence, while the English clarifies that it is “the Presidential Commission” that is being spoken of. Much more interesting (to me) is that the English version chose to construct the sentence in such a way as to avoid saying ‘he or she’ anywhere in the sentence while the Irish made the possibility of a he or a she explicit.

The Irish version could have been: “Beidh an Leas-Cheann Comhairle (Leas Cathaoirleach na Dála) ar an gCoimisiún in ionad Chathaoirleach an tSeanaid” (The Deputy-Head Counsel will be on the commission instead of the Chairperson of the Seanad). This is my own wording here again, where opening with “Beidh” (which approximates as ‘will be’) makes “he or she” unnecessary.

The most likely explanation for the difference in construction is probably separate people working on each version of the text or even the same person choosing to construct the sentence in whatever way seemed most natural rather than focusing on parity between texts. I suppose it’s possible to make something of the use of “Chairman” rather than Chairperson combined with a lack of “he or she” in the English version and claim an assumption that the Chairperson would be male but I mention that only because I thought of it, not because I think it’s likely.

Anyway, as I mentioned earlier, Irish has no ‘it’; all nouns have a gender and are referred to with ‘é’ or ‘í’ (‘he’ or ‘she’), and change in different grammatical contexts depending on what gender they are.

Along with masculine and feminine, there was once a neuter gender in Irish (as there still is in German) but no longer; most nouns are masculine but some are feminine. There’s little rhyme or reason to which nouns get which gender either. Cathaoirleach (chairperson), which can be a man or a woman, is masculine. Comhairle (council/counsel), which can also be a man or a woman, is feminine. Cailín (girl), which is female by definition, is masculine.

Gender is a fundamental feature of the Irish language in a way that is not remotely equivalent with English. Gender in English is largely restricted to ‘he’ for male, ‘she’ for female, ‘it’ for anything else (unless you’re being metaphorical, as in “she’s a cruel mistress” in referring to the sea) and gender-specific words like ‘actress’ (which seem to be on the way out anyway).

Old English once had masculine, feminine and neuter but there was a gradual move away from gendered morphology and Modern English has little more than the fossils I mentioned above. Irish as I mentioned has discarded the neuter and most words are masculine so it would be natural to assume that the feminine gender will eventually disappear from Irish grammar except in the case of ‘é’ and ‘í’ (perhaps even them too), thus making the masculine no longer masculine but universal (the universalization of masculinity may be taking place in other languages like Hebrew too).

One complication to any such change in Irish is An Caighdeán Oifigiúil na Gaeilge (The Official Standard of Irish) which could either hasten or slow the process considerably due to the fact sway this has in all official Irish-language communication (Irish is a minority language and official communications therefore hold an influence over the language that can’t be easily subverted).

What does everyone else think? Is this interesting? Is it important? Have I missed anything? Have I got anything wrong? Can you add to the conversation?

What a Piece of Wording is Man!

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason!
How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how
express and admirable! In action how like an Angel!
In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world!
The paragon of animals! And yet to me, what is
this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me;
no, nor Woman neither; though by your smiling you seem to say so.

The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Act 2, Scene II), William Shakespeare

In the passage above, Hamlet plays on the double meaning of Man as a term for any human being regardless of sex/gender identity on the one hand and Man as a sex/gender identity distinct from Woman on the other. So in the first sense, every woman is a man, as every man is a man, but in the second sense a woman is not a man as a man is a man.

When I use the word ‘man’, I usually mean a human being with anatomical features that distinguish them as a male of the species. Masculinity is thus caused by the balance of steroids in the body: more androgens and less oestrogens making the person male rather than female, and the balance of steroids influenced by chromosomes (XY for male, XX for female), along with other, epigenetic, factors.

Not everyone will necessarily mean this when using the word ‘man’, however. Some use the word to refer to a (somewhat nebulous, in my opinion) gender identity; others will use the word to refer to the human race as a whole; often all three senses would be used by the same speaker but in different contexts (or even together, as Hamlet did).

J. R. R. Tolkien used the capitalised ‘Man/Men’ for humans in general but ‘man/men’ and ‘woman/women’ (without capitalisation) for human individuals with an identifiable sex/gender. Thus in The Silmarillion, Haleth the woman demonstrates the valour of Men to Carathir the (male) Elf. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien plays a similar game to Shakespeare’s Hamlet above (yet maybe more like Macduff’s revelation in Macbeth) when Éowyn (a woman) faces the Witch-king of Angmar (“not by the hand of man will he fall” according to Glorfindel). The reasons why these puns of species and sex or gender are possible in Modern English are what I’m writing about in this article.

Modern English ‘man’ is derived from Old English mann, which meant a human person with no distinction made between male or female and could also be used as an indefinite pronoun, equivalent to the Modern English ‘one’, as in “One wonders how many people are actually going to read this”. Man is still used this way in Modern German, while mann in Modern German means male human but the related word Mensch means human regardless of sex/gender. The sex/gender connotations did not show up until about a thousand years ago, when Old English was being replaced by Middle English (with the aforementioned French influence). That’s not to say that there were no sex/gender distinctions in Old English, there were; in fact, there wer.

An adult male human in Old English was a wer (cognate to Latin vir, as in Modern English ‘virile’, and to Old Irish fer which became Modern Irish fear meaning an adult male human) and an adult female human was a wif (Modern English wife). Now wer has more or less disappeared except for words like werewolf (literally man-wolf, a modernised spelling for Old English werwulf) and wergild (literally man-gold, blood money owed for a dead man), the latter of which is more or less limited to so-called fantasy fiction or academia. The original sense of wif survives in ‘fishwife’, the phrase “Old wives’ tales” and in the ritual language of a marriage ceremony “I now pronounce you man and wife” (the terms husband and wife are not equivalent, in this sense).

The sense of ‘man’ as a human person, regardless of sex/gender identity survives in mankind, manslaughter, chessmen (which include the Queen) et cetera but eventually ‘man’ replaced wer far more completely than any word managed to replace wif. The meaning, if not the entire pronunciation of wif survives in the Modern English word ‘woman’, which comes from late Old English wimman (wifmann or wife-man, female human).

So ‘man’, left to its own devices (not undergoing any major phonetic changes) develops into a word for a male human unless wif is added to make a word for female human, which is practically the opposite of what happens in human embryonic development where the embryo, left to its own devices becomes a female human unless the SRY gene (usually located on the Y chromosome) is added to make a male. Obviously this is a gross oversimplification of biological sex-differentiation and there are exceptions when androgen insensitivity syndrome is present or if the SRY gene is defective or whatever. Anyway, ‘man’ plus wif is woman; embryo plus SRY is male.

So, that’s biological sex with genes and chromosomes, and oestrogens and androgens, and gonads et cetera. Then there’s gender with uh…. Whatever gender is…… Something about who gets to wear dresses?

Gender as applied to human beings is a strange thing. The terminological differentiation between gender and biological sex did not exist before 1955 when it was introduced by the sexologist John Money. Before Money (the man, not the currency), gender was used almost exclusively to describe grammatical categories. He used the word ‘gender’ as distinct from sex to describe societal roles as distinct from biological realities.

Money’s usage did not become widespread until the 1970s and seems to have undergone a shift in understanding since then. I recently had to fill out a form where I was asked whether my gender was male or female but was not asked about my biological sex. It seems that ‘gender’ is now used for biological sex as well as societal roles, ignoring the distinction that it was originally called on to make.

The Modern English sense of gender described above also seems to be creeping into other languages. German, which has traditionally used Geschlecht for biological sex and for the social norms which become attached, has now begun to use the English word Gender to describe the societal concept.

Whereas French, apparently taking its cue from English has used the word genre (to which the English word ‘gender’ is cognate). Of course, English in the meantime has decided to use the French word to describe types of art. So, science-fiction is a literary genre and therefore science-fiction is a gender of literature (but not a biological sex of literature).

English ‘gender’ and French genre are both derived from Old French gendre, which was borrowed into Middle English along with many, many, many other French words around the time of the Norman conquest of English. The Old French word meant ‘type’ or ‘kind’ and came from Latin genus which means ‘type’ or ‘kind’. Genus (apart from its use in biology) is also the root of words like ‘generation’ and ‘genocide’.

So gender has nothing to do with men but everything to do with men and women (if you see what I mean). Also, all women are men, all men are women with an SRY gene, and mankind is not necessarily a gendered term but womankind certainly is. However, referring to women as men can be controversial. You can probably do so in sentences like “Hey man, what’s up?” (where ‘man’ is interchangeable with ‘dude’), though if in doubt as to how offended your female friend might be if you call her a man, you may want to say “Hey woman what’s up?” (where ‘woman’ is interchangeable with ‘dudette’ or more likely ‘dude’ because ‘dudette’ is a rarely used word).

Any thoughts?