We need no genders in language


Languages are meant to be subtle but their presence is strong.

By Abhishek Sengupta/Monday Musings

Published: Mon 16 Sep 2019, 8:12 AM

Last updated: Mon 16 Sep 2019, 10:16 AM

Languages can be funny. And what often makes them more complicated than they seem is the use of gender. They are meant to be subtle but their presence is strong. You just can't snub them.
How do you tell for sure one's a boy and one's a girl, what's feminine and what's masculine enough to fall on either side of the divide? How can you even be absolute about the vagaries of the verbs (and articles) that come with it? Honestly, I have no idea and my mind's been a bit of mess since I last sat down with my eight-year-old with her French lessons. Like Hindi, Arabic, German and a whole bunch of other languages I speak a smattering of, the syntax of the language of Asterix and his ilk from ancient Gaul too is 'gender-unequal' (never mind if there's no such word) and I guess it's about time we drove that out of our windows and textbooks, if we really wanted to get serious about our crusade against gender disparity. The fact that genders complicate a language for beginners, rather unreasonably, is just another side of the story. In the grand scheme of things, it is perhaps a 'non-issue', a duff reason or a perception but undeniably it is the very genesis of this article.
Come to think of it, if your French initiation happens through a butterfly (papillon), a football (ballon) and a sharpener (taille-crayon) that's masculine and a pencil case (trousse), an eraser (gomme) and a ruler (règle) that are all supposedly womanlike, then am afraid, it's not necessarily the best balanced view of the world, right from the start. And I daresay, so much for Liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality and fraternity) that fuelled the French revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Who or what on earth even decided that butterflies, one of the most beautiful, the gentlest, and the most wonderful of all creatures, must not belong to the category of the fairer sex and that a sharpener should remind us of a woman? And even if you looked for symbolism, that would fail, too. After all, how would you reason with someone not from a Francophone country that a school bag (cartable) that carries books like a mother's womb housing an unborn child is actually masculine in French! And while we are it, apples (pommes) are feminine in French even though it's as round as the football (a masculine object!) and rotund as my middle-aged potbelly. And it was Adam, the first man on earth, who actually bit the same apple that first fell on the head of Isaac Newton that helped him discover the pull of gravity which keeps all in our places. (Oh, and it is completely unrelated but don't credit the Indian minister for what he had us believe about Einstein doing so.) And while trying to decipher why must the apple be a woman, the only remote 'feminine connection' I could establish was that it was bitten on the instructions of one - Eve, the first woman and also as Adam's wife, in the Book of Genesis in both the Holy Quran and the Bible.
But you see, it isn't a just a French problem per se. Even Arabic has different names for colours, of all things - ahmar is red when it comes to a male, hamra is red for its female counterpart, akhdar is green for things masculine while khadra is for just the opposite. And I dread to even begin talking about Hindi, a language whose gender biases, as a native Bengali speaker, I still haven't been able to come to terms with even after studying it in school and a language that India's home minister Amit Shah now wants on everyone's lips as part of the ruling party's ongoing ultra-nationalistic razzmatazz. And my question is how do 1.2 billion Indians even get on the same page when we are so divided on assigning places and things a gender. In Hindi that's mutually intelligible with Urdu, Pakistan's national language and very popular in India, most things that move are necessarily feminine - from bullet trains to buses to planes. But what really needs motion is our collective outlook that's still grossly patriarchal and largely in the same place where it always has been.
But what's it all got to do with languages, you might ask? Well nothing if we saw the gender prejudices as inconsequential, insignificant sweet nothings but a lot if we really understood it is the language that actually subconsciously initiates the gender divide even before we know it.
You don't necessarily have to be a social activist or a fierce feminist to appreciate that gender neutrality should start with the textbooks. And I wouldn't have probably said this had I not met Clarissa, a French teacher from Paris, on a recent flight back to Dubai. If you thought it was an unnecessary ruckus I just created, she will tell you how real the problem is for some of her young, impressionable students who unlike the most of us are - let's call it this way - sexless and genderless.

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