Gender in Languages

Depending on what language you speak, you may think of all things in existence as being masculine or feminine. That’s a characteristic of all romance languages. Other languages, like Latin and German, offer you another category: neuter—for those things lacking sexuality. Then there are languages, like English, in which gender is rare, used only for nouns specifically identified by sex, e.g., man, master, and stag for male items, and woman, mistress, and doe for female. All other beings, that is, the vast majority—like house, bush, and car—have no gender. They are sexless.

The Asian languages I know, Chinese and Vietnamese, don’t express gender at all. It’s possible to specify masculine or feminine in those languages, but nothing is assumed to be either unless expressly so identified.

I’m left to wonder about the degree to which language shapes the way we perceive the world. Do native speakers of those languages that identify everything as male or female tend to think of the world as divided between the masculine and the feminine? How different is their perception from those who speak languages that make little or no distinction?

I have no way of knowing. My impression of the French, Spanish, and Italians is that they are more focused on sexuality than are the speakers of English. But that focus doesn’t seem to extend to the Germans, known for their practicality. And the Asian cultures I’ve known impress me as much more centered on survival than procreation.

But the observations in the previous paragraph are based on nothing more than vague feelings. I have no verified facts to work from. And I am reminded that American English is the richest language in history, with more words and more ways to express things than any other tongue. And I’m lucky enough to be a writer with English as my native language.

I’m left to ponder how English affects the way I think.

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