Gender Versus Sex

Daniel Brooks

I know someone in the US who recently began working at a new job. Before going to work, she was asked to sign a form giving her a choice of “she”, “he” or “they” as her personal pronoun. This allowed her to be named a woman, a man or both by her fellow employees and employer.

The first question that popped in my mind was how to use “they” when talking about one person. The internet provides several ideas. One approach suggests avoiding the word “they” altogether. This seems like a sensible idea and better than saying “they will be here soon” for his, her (or their?) arrival. The ungrammatical “they is here” doesn’t make much sense, either. Perhaps they could be asked what personal pronoun they prefer, leading to a discussion of their sexual inclination. You might find out why they chose their personal pronoun, perhaps the motivation behind the entire exercise in the first place. 

This question would be difficult to ask in Russian. As in many other languages, gender in Russian has a linguistic and grammatical purpose. It does not necessarily define the male or female sex. Masculine, feminine and neutral nouns in Russian determine the endings on the adverbs, adjectives and verbs. A “good” (khoroshaya ) sobaka (dog), has an “aya” on the end of the adjective for the feminine gender.  A fence is in the masculine gender and “good” used with fence (khoroshii) has an “ii” on the end of it. An adjective for a neutral word uses “oe” as an ending. In German nouns are preceded by different suffixes (der, die, das), depending on the male, female or neutral gender. Spanish, French, Italian and other languages have their own suffixes that match gender.  In short, gender is the marker by which nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs are formed, and the language is stitched together. What matters most is that the verbs, adjectives and adverbs used with each noun have endings which are likewise masculine, feminine or neutral. 

In English the word “gender” has been press ganged into being limited to sex. In other languages, this is not always the case. In Russian, a fence (zabor) is in the masculine gender, but it is not male. The gender for heaven (nebesa) is feminine, but it isn’t thought of as a feminine place. The same is true for deity (bozhesctvo) which is in the neutral gender. No one would claim a deity as being neutral. 

In addition to changing the use of personal pronouns, some Americans these days are giving their daughters first names that in the past were provided to boys. Some US girls are being named James, Noah, Ezra and Palmer. Formerly boy’s names such as Ashley are now girl’s names. I know Americans who shorten their daughter’s full names, such as Josephine or Roberta to nicknames such as Jo or Bobby which to my ear sounds masculine but are now accepted as female. Almost no American parents give female names to their sons.

I’ve never heard of Russian parents giving their daughters a male name. I believe this is done because Russians are traditional about their first and last names. It also sets things straight in terms of nationalities. Oleg would be identified as a Russian whereas someone named Armen would be Armenian.  When Russians hear the name Marat, they can speculate whether he is from Tatarstan or somewhere in the Caucasus. This way, nationality can be identified by talking about names, a popular but tiresome tradition in this country with conversations about people taking place after the country of their forebearers are pinned down.

Switching names for boys and girls in Russian causes grammatical disruption. A female Ivan would be described with adjectives and adverbs having masculine endings, instead of feminine ones, to be grammatically correct. Not only would a female Ivan be an anomaly as a person; her name would cause a certain amount of confusion, not to mention ridicule.

In the US, saying “girl” is often frowned upon. This is not an issue in Russia where it is perfectly acceptable to call a fully grown woman a girl (devushka). Women and men are equally enthusiastic about calling women “girls” in public places, stores and elsewhere. Many women claim to prefer it, although sometimes the look on the faces of waitresses (servers in the US) seem to say otherwise. When a woman becomes old, she can be named a babushka in public, meaning grandmother. Most babushkas don’t seem to mind. In the US, naming a woman a girl would not be recommended and no one in their right mind would name an unknown woman a grandma in public.

Grown men are not called “boys” in Russia. Often “young person” (molodoi chelovek) is used for men of various ages. I’m often called molodoi chelovek and the older I get, the more often I hear it. Or I’m called myschina meaning “man”, in such phrases as the one I just heard from a parking lot attendant who said, “hey, man, the parking is over there” (eh, muschina, parkovka tam). 

A woman is not referred to as a person (chelovek) because grammatically, the word is in the masculine gender. Instead, the choices are between a girl or a woman. The plural for person is lyudi, meaning people, which includes both sexes. This perhaps is some consolation for a Russian woman who cannot be referred to as a “person” in the singular, for grammatical reasons. 

I have never heard anyone say, “young woman” (molodaya zhenschina) to an adult woman in public. I tried saying it once in a grocery store and I was looked upon with derision, by a woman. I had to explain I was a foreigner. Clearly, in response, she felt sorry for me. 

Daniel Brooks, copyright, 18 February 2021