Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Linguistics: Masculinity and Feminity in Language

I am conjuring some Latin scholar sitting in a darkly lit back room, centuries ago, deciding what the gender of nouns ought to be. In the Spanish language each noun is prefaced by El (masculine) and La (feminine).

In some cases it makes sense: El hombre (man) and La mujer (woman) or El niño (boy) and La niña (girl). El sol (sun) implies a strong, powerful male sun and La luna, a delicate, smaller mate.

Yet, as to why La cuchara (spoon) is feminine, and El tenedor (fork) is masculine, or El coche (car) is male, and La camioneta (pickup) is female, your guess is as good as mine.

In Spanish you never, ever say or use the noun without its accompanying gender. It is unthinkable. To this day, when speaking Spanish, I often pause in the middle of a sentence before using a noun, until I feel safe I have its correct gender.

And with the fluidity of language brought on by the internet and science, new gender prefaces must be made up and applied as in El celular (cell phone), La computadora (computer, El I-Pod, and El blog (I think!)

No such gender references exist in English, with the exception of colloquial terms like mailman or chairman, which were promptly changed to the gender neutral mailperson and chairperson to pacify critics of the Women's Movement back in the 70's, who charged these kinds of words were Chauvinistic, or something.

So we hispanics continually live with gender charged nouns. Thus, it's La cuchara (spoon) and El tenedor (fork). In our house all rooms, La cocina (kitchen) and La recamara, La sala are feminine, except for the bathroom, El baño. Explain that one to me!

Then there is La pala (shovel) and El asadon (hoe), El caballo (horse) and La mula (mule), La rosa (rose) and El clavel (carnation) El arbol (tree) and Las ojas (leaves), El ojo (eye) and La nariz (nose), El libro (book) and La oja (page), El telefono (telephone) and La computadora (computer), El chile and La naranja (orange), La noche (night) and El dia (day), El lapiz (pencil) and La pluma (pen).

Ironically, ugly is El Feo, and pretty, is La bella. Talk about reverse Chauvinism.

Women's Libbers would have a field day with Spanish! 

We often hear people making errors in ascribing the correct gender to the noun as in El casa or La caballo. Chicanos complicated the problem with spanglish adding the gender prefix to an English noun as in "Mira, La moon, esta muy purdy." 

But I have to admit the gender prefix makes the language prettier, more poetic, being able to see all objects as gender tied, not cold objects defined by a dictionary, without soul.

It's no wonder Cesar Chavez used to say "English is the language you do business with, but Spanish is the language of love."

1 comment:

Froggy said...

That was absolutely brilliant and so funny I am smiling from ear to ear. It does make me wonder who gets to decide on the gender for the newest and latest devices as you mentioned, computer and ipod and what brings the final decision, eni mini miny moe or something more complex lol.

Anyways I enjoyed this and since I don't speak this language I never knew this. Very interesting and definitely a language that will keep you on your toes or is that finger tips?