Gender and the English Language

We’re all familiar with International Women’s Day on 8th March, but I bet not all of you knew that there’s an International Men’s Day, too – today! International Men’s Day also coincides with the month of Movember – a worldwide moustache-growing charity event each November which aims to raise awareness and funds for men’s health.

So we thought we’d take a look at ‘gender from a linguistic perspective’, or ‘languages from a gender perspective’ – whichever you prefer!

While gender plays an important grammatical role in most languages (with masculine, feminine and sometimes neuter nouns, as well as personal pronouns or verbs that change depending on the gender), English makes life a little easier for us in this respect.

But this hasn’t always been the case. Up until the 11th Century, Old English had a grammatical gender system which was very similar to that of modern German – with masculine, feminine and neuter nouns. Some determiners and adjectives portrayed gender according to the noun which they modified. The nouns themselves also followed different declension patterns depending on their gender. For example, the word “engel” (nowdays angel) was masculine, the word “scip” (now ship) was neuter and “sorg” (now sorrow) was feminine .

Interestingly, in Modern English, there are some word groups left which are considered ‘feminine’, at least in a poetic or quaint sense. These include ships, nations and churches, for example. So if you’re a non-native speaker of English and really want to impress someone with your linguistic knowledge, make a reference to a ship or country using the word ‘she’. “The Titanic sank in 1912, didn’t she?” But be warned, this might make you seem a tiny bit pretentious, too.

Now finally, let’s take a look at English nouns which have a male and female form – note that there are relatively few compared to other languages.

Widow / widower (not that in this case, the longer word is actually the male form!)

Duke / duchess

Actor / actress

Bachelor / spinster

Hero / heroine

Master / mistress

Nephew / niece

Emperor / empress

Wizard / witch

There are many more of course (we didn’t want to patronize you with simple ones like girl/boy) but these are slightly obscure ones you might not hear every day. Hope this was useful for you. And Happy International Men’s Day / Happy Movember!

By the way, if you want to improve your English on a regular basis with a professional trainer – on your mobile, tablet or desktop – take a look at our online language training solutions for organizations.

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