The Thinking 

A World Map of Gender Distinctions in Pronouns

May 14, 2011



I was reading your May 12th post on gendered pronouns, which I mainly have nothing to say about. But as a linguistics student I have to disagree with one sub-sub-sub-claim, namely:

Human beings have a hard time speaking in terms of non-sexed individuals.

This is pretty easy to be confused about, English does have mandatory sex differences in third person singular pronouns, as do most of the languages taught in American schools. But it’s easy to see on a map that this distinction is hardly a human universal, in fact it’s the exception.

The map is a bit unclear, so here’s a rundown:

1. There are some languages on there that are like English (pink dots) in only differentiating between the third person singular (he and she.)

2. There are also a whole bunch of languages that have even stronger gender distinctions baked in (blue and red dots.) There are a bunch of ways to do this. Maybe you have to indicate your gender when talking about yourself, or maybe you have to acknowledge someone’s gender when you’re talking to them.

3. But the vast majority of languages (white) get along just fine without ever referring to gender in their pronouns.

I don’t know a thing about most of these languages, but I can tell you that Finnish is exactly the sort of language Ms. Swift dreamed of. Despite being highly inflected, it doesn’t ever indicate gender syntacticly. For example it uses the word hän to mean both he and she. In Finnish it’s possible to carry on an entire conversation about someone without revealing or even knowing their gender, which in English would be horrific/impossible. (Certainly you can acknowledge gender, you just don’t have to.)

Anyway, the real reason that the many many proposals for English gender neutral pronouns have failed miserably is that words bearing a lot of syntactic weight tend to go in a closed class. This means it’s nearly impossible to change the words in that class or add new ones. Pronouns in English are closed, so no dice. The last pronoun change in English was you subsuming thee. (Not without a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth by Sheaksphere-era grammarians though.) And it’s possible there’s one going on now in the tendency of younger English speakers to use they when they don’t know someone’s gender. (ex: “A robber broke into my house, and they stole my cat.”) That’s in transition though, and some people still find it horrifically wrong.

All that doesn’t really bear on the actual point of your article, except that I’m certainly not seeing any correlation of sex equality in a culture vs. the strength of the gender differences baked into their language. Which makes all the handwringing over sex-neutral pronouns seem a bit silly.

Laura writes:

Thank you for the correction. I had the sense that I was making too broad of a statement when I said that human beings have a hard time speaking without gender distinctions in pronouns.

You say that the vast majority of languages do not have gender distinctions, but am I correct in concluding that the majority of people on earth today speak in languages that are not sex-neutral in this way? 

The Russian language is without gender distinctions in personal pronouns [see correction below]. Yet the position of women in Russian history has not been better, nor have their achievements been more impressive than those of women in Western history. 

D. from Seattle writes:

You said: “The Russian language is without gender distinctions in personal pronouns…” This is incorrect: Russian, like other Slavic languages and like Romance languages, distinguishes the gender in third person singular personal pronouns (he/she/it) , as you can see here.

Laura writes:

Thank you for the correction. The map is misleading with a white dot over Russia. I see there is also a pink dot to the west and if you click on the dot it makes the point you make, that Russian makes distinctions in third person singular pronouns.  

Sarah writes:

You can look at individual languages by clicking on the dots, although it’s a pain to try and find a certain language that way. You can also read the information organized by group from the map’s xml file, although there’s a bunch of formatting code around it.

Just checking the languages at the top of the list they do seem to me mostly gendered, here’s a breakdown.

Same gender distinctions as English


More Gender Distinctions


No Gender Distinctions


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