Tuesday 25 November 2008

Living in a Bilingual World (Serenade)

I am still trudging through Simone de Beauvoir's feminist masterpiece 'The Second Sex' (see navigation bar on the right handside of the blog) and it's funny how I have fallen hook, line and sinker in the linguistic traps that the French writer has unintentionally placed on my path.

In Part 3, 'Myths', Chapter 1, 'Dreams, Fears and Idols', de Beauvoir addresses the feminine attributes that one usually sees cities, nations and abstract entities attired with. Obviously this bold approach set my linguistic pulse racing and with two dictionaries in hand (French and German) I ventured forth, attempting to understand the examples she numbers in her book.

Simone's exegesis includes the words: Church, Synagogue, Republic, Humanity, Peace, War, Liberty, Revolution and Victory. In her own words, 'Man feminizes the ideal he sets up before him as the essential Other, because woman is the material representation of alterity; that is why almost all allegories, in language as in pictorial representation, are women'. In short, the fact that man places these lofty ideals on a pedestal makes woman unreachable and unattainable, a perfect excuse to deny her her right to be a human being. What cannot be touched, cannot be experienced, other than through quasi-religious contact.

And is it any wonder that, in de Beauvoir's own words, this is a phenomenon encouraged mainly by the Christian world? No, it shouldn't be surprising because in Christian imagery 'Woman is the Soul and Idea, but she also is a mediatrix between them: she is the divine Grace, leading the Christian towards God, she is Beatrice guiding Dante in the beyond, Laura summoning Petrarch to the lofty summits of poetry' (op. cit.).

The curious element here, though, is that out of the four languages I analysed, three proved de Beauvoir's theory with a couple of exceptions.

The Church - La Iglesia (Spa) - L'Église (Fr) - Die Kirche (Ger)
The Synagogue - La Sinagoga - La Synagogue - Die Synanoge
The Republic - La República - La République - Die Republik
The Humanity - La Humanidad - L’Humanité - Die Menschlichkeit
The Peace - La Paz - La Paix - Die Friede
The War - La Guerra - La Guerre - Der Krieg (masculine, one of two exceptions to the rule)
The Liberty - La Libertad - La Liberté - Die Freiheit
The Revolution - La Revolución - La Révolution - Die Revolution
The Victory - La Victoria - La Victoire - Der Sieg (the other exception)

As you can see there's only one language that escapes this categorisation. And yes, my dear readers, you guessed it right. English.

This linguistic hybrid, the result of Anglo-Saxon-Jute migration from Denmark and northern Germany plus some French and Latin thrown in for good measure, is the only lexicon of the six more popular modern languages (Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Italian and English) to have a neutral definite pronoun regardless of gender and number. A cause for celebration? Or a reason to despair? As a non-native speaker I find this fact comforting. It is a soft cushion aimed at protecting me against the grammatical rigour imposed by the other five.

And yet... yet... yet, as I continued to read 'The Second Sex' I could not help wondering whether despite this linguistic peculiarity English speakers still saw the nouns listed above in a feminine way rather than in their neutral natural form.

So, this is your homework for this week, my dear English speakers (and the rest, too, of course). When you think of 'Peace' and 'Liberty', just to use two of the examples above, do you see the female of the species or do you see neutrality?

Copyright 2008


  1. Very interesting! In peace, I see femininity however in liberty I see neutrality with a slant towards masculinity. I can't offer a concrete reasoning, but in uttering and, ultimately feeling the two words, this is my conclusion.

  2. Thanks, diva and T. It's lovely to see two different minds focusing on the same phenomenon and arriving at disimilar conclusions. To me, as a non-native speaker, peace is more feminine, the same as liberty, but that could also have something to do with the Statue of Liberty in New York.

    Thanks for your comments.

    Greetings from London.

  3. Liberty, yes !

    The oicture is "La Révolution Française"... Thank you for this !

    See You later !

  4. Thanks, webradio, Delacroix's painting has always been a favourite of mine.

    Greetings from London.

  5. I think Lady Liberty is so firmly meshed in American minds, that "liberty" is feminine. (Of course, Lady Liberty is a gift from the French!)

    To me, any gender assigned to peace in former generations was wiped out by the relatively new "Peace sign" which has rendered it neutral.

  6. Hoy no voy a leer el artículo entero, lo siento, tengo el día monolingüe... :-) pero me gusta el título y siempre he querido ser bilingüe pero no dejaré de tener mi acento español y de hablar spanglish... jaja :-)

  7. Thanks, Cecil, gracias, Carmen.

    Yes, you're right, Cecil, i had forgotten about the peace sign. Fifty years old this year and it does render the word neutral.

    Greetings from London.

  8. I'm with T. Allen exactly on this. Peace I see as feminine and liberty as basically neutral with a hint of masculinity. I'm not sure exactly why. Just my first reactions without analyzing it.

    Intriquing post, Mr. Cuban!

  9. opps..typo...should read intriguing, but you knew that!

  10. Thanks a lot willow for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  11. I do not have the cultural reference of the 70's here, so feminine both. Very interesting.

    By the way I knew the answer to the book question before asking..LOL

  12. Great post! Like you, I was relieved to learn that English has a gender-neutral definite article. I was equally relieved to learn that there is only one form of "you", sparing me the worry about using the "informal you" inappropriately.

    To answer your query, I'm grateful that powerful words like "peace" and "liberty" are neutral; it seems more democratic that way.

    At the same time, I still like the fact that a ship is still a "she" in English. It's a sign that we did not expunge history altogether.

  13. Thanks to you both for yhour kind comments. Yes, dutch, isn't that funny? And land/country is female also. Your feelings about 'you' echo mine. Everytime I have to explain to my children that they to use the 'usted' with certain people, I feel more and more jealous of the simplicity of the English language.

    Greetings from London.

  14. I just love these posts!

    Swedish has, just like English, lost the division of feminine and masculine nouns. From the three genders of the Proto-Indo-European language, feminine, masculine and neuter, we only have two left - “utrum” a fusion of masculine and feminine, and “neutrum”.

    As Swedish is my mother tongue I’ve always found it funny that someone, mostly meaning my Spanish and Italian friends, actually see dead objects as feminine or masculine.

    Just like Cecile, I thought about the fact that the Statue of Liberty is a woman, but as it was a gift from France it’s not much of a surprise ;-) haha

    Out of curiosity I wrote down your list of words in Swedish. I’m not quite sure what I was expecting to find as Swedish doesn’t have masculine and feminine, but if the words were all originally feminine they should all be “utrum” in Swedish. The only exception is “Kriget” (The war), which doesn’t make it masculine, but “neutrum”.

    Kyrkan (utrum)
    Kriget (neutrum)

  15. It's amazing, Sara. The word for 'war' in German (Krieg) is so similar to Swedish. And the fact that is masculine in the Teutonic language should bring mirth and joy to most feminists ;-).

    Thanks for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

  16. Fascinating analysis...
    I'd like to say neutrality for but because I was brought up with English/Spanish/French, I hesitate and would probably choose femininity as I've spoken far more French in my life than either of the the other two languages...
    I love thought provoking posts like this - thanks..:)

  17. Thanks, here, there, for your kind comment.

    Greetings from London.

  18. ACIL, your bilingual world posts are always so thoughtful and informative. It is interesting the gender differences in languages.

    I’d like to believe that peace and liberty are gender neutral, but history shows that they are not. Testosterone seems to lead to war and to repression of liberty, but perhaps that is only due to more men being in power and thus able to grant peace and liberty or to snatch it away.

  19. Thanks, Sarah, I had testosterone in mind when I writing the post, actually :-).

    Greetings from London.

  20. Definitivamente me encanta pasar por aquí para tirar el ancla. El post muy bueno. Me dejó pensando en algo, en español,
    Dios es hombre, pero la vida es mujer...

    Abrazon con son, tonin.

  21. Ja, ja, ja, cierto es, hombre. No se me habia ocurrido. Dios es masculion y la mujer, bueno, la mujer es mujer, no? :-)

    Saludos desd Londres.

  22. you're going to laugh at my inexorable frenchitude but when i hear the word Liberty/liberté immediately comes to the mind, the spirit of the French revolution, liberté, égalité, fraternité, Rousseau's ideals...

    ouais...i don't particularly visualize a person

    as for peace, funnily images of men such as Gandhy or Mandela come to my mind.

  23. Thanks, my castle, and no, it's not Frenchitude (great word :-D, may I use it?) at all. That was the reason why I put Delacroix's image at the beginning of the post.

    Greetings from London.

  24. Fabulous, thought-provoking post.

    If (or I should say when, because it isn't consistent) I have a slant, it is toward seeing peace as a softer, more feminine word. I think of paloma, dove, when I think of peace. And yet liberty I perceive as more masculine, despite that gift from the French that graces New York Harbor.

    Greetings to you from Atlanta!

  25. Thanks to you Erin. Much appreciated.

    Greetings from London.

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