Because it’s language, everything goes!

Yesterday, I went to see Lilting at the cinema, a film about a Chinese-Cambodian mother living in London, whose homosexual son had died before coming out to her, and about her relationships with her son’s grieving lover as well as with an elderly British womaniser she met at the home in which her son had parked her when moving in with his boyfriend. Given that the mother didn’t speak a word of English (apart from “Fuck you very much”), a bilingual person was brought in to help with communication between the protagonists. Language and interpreting played a major role in the film, and there was a panel discussion afterwards, in which – according to the programme brochure – experts from the University of Edinburgh would discuss, amongst other things, the link between language and gender.

Under the heading “language and gender”, a cornucopia of topics could be discussed, for example how interpreters in cultures with taboos for one gender (e.g. about sexuality) convey ideas expressed by speakers of the other gender, how literary translators between languages with gendered nouns render terms whose genders are used to convey meaning but whose equivalents in the target language don’t have the same gender (e.g. a translation of a German poem in which the sun is assimilated to a woman, with “Sonne” being feminine, into Italian, where the equivalent term “sole” is masculine), how – in many cultures – girls are taught to use language in ways that are different from the ways in which boys use it and vice versa (e.g. when it comes to swearing), how language is used by politicians and activists to promote feminism or to assign gender roles, whether there are universal patterns in the ways in which men and women speak, in which they are addressed and talked about in the languages of the world and to what extent such differences are of a purely linguistic nature and to which degree they can be attributed to culture.

However, Lilting was not about any of these issues, nor was it about anything that could be easily summarised under the heading of language and gender, at least not based on what the non-Mandarin-speaking target audience could have gathered from the film! Don’t get me wrong: it was a highly interesting film, which touched on a lot of subjects that are of great interest to linguists, but it wasn’t about the link between language and gender! It seems to me that the organisers of the panel discussion tried to lump a few modern-day buzzwords, such as “gender” and “LGBT”, together with language in an attempt to make “language” sound sexier! When I challenged the panellists, asking in what ways they thought the film was about language and gender, the answer I got from one of them was: “Well, language can never really be separated from gender!”

What? Let’s hear that statement again, so that it can sink in properly: “Language can never really be separated from gender!” I got very intrigued by that strong statement about language and its putative link to gender, and I asked the expert to expand on that. Her reply was: “Well, there are genders in language, therefore one cannot separate language from gender!” What a sweeping and illogical statement coming from an expert in translation studies!

As the expert wasn’t passionate enough to continue the discussion with me and preferred, instead, to go for drinks with her mates from the Ivory Tower (so much for academia’s attempts to reach out to the public), I was left speculating about what she could possibly have meant: when she said “there are genders in language”, did she refer to the fact that most languages have words (e.g. nouns or pronouns) to describe biologically male or female referents in the world or did she refer to the fact that some languages have grammatically gendered words? Either way, the argument she was trying to make seems trivial at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

If we apply the first interpretation, the only way in which language could not be separated from gender would be the same way in which language could not be separated from meerkats, baobabs, spacecraft or anything else that exists in the world and that we can refer to using language. Based on De Saussure’s terminology, terms like “man”, “woman”, “he” or “she” would be signifiers symbolising referents in the world, but it is quite easy to imagine a language which has no specific signifiers for genders, with maybe only a term to describe personhood. There is absolutely no reason why such a language couldn’t exist and function like any other language, which is why, in this sense, one cannot argue that language and gender are inseparable. The expert I spoke to might argue that there are, of course, biological genders in the real world and that language must have a way of referring to them, but that is simply not the case! There are a lot of things in the world which some languages can and other languages cannot describe, biological gender could just be one such thing. Theoretically, language can be separated from all its referents in the world individually; as long as some semantic content remains in a language, the language in question continues to exist.

If we apply the second interpretation, where gender is seen as a fundamental part of the grammar of certain languages – comparable to the importance of number (e.g. 1st, 2nd and 3rd person singular and plural) in almost all tongues – the statement about gender would only apply to individual languages, such as German or French, while it would not apply to a large number of others which have no grammatical genders, such as English or Turkish. But even then, the claim remains trivial! Claiming that gender can never really be separated from languages such as German or French is like claiming that numbers (e.g. 287 or 563) can never really be separated from most languages (except maybe from the language of the Pirahã, whose number system is extremely rudimentary), because most languages have a concept of grammatical number! In fact, the claim that languages with gendered nouns cannot be separated from gender presents a slippery slope to a complete mix-up of grammatical and biological genders: in the first part of the statement, the adjective “gendered” refers to the grammatical gender of nouns, whereas the gender which, according to this statement, is inextricably linked to language is an organism’s biological gender. The two have very little to do with each other, with grammatical genders’ just being categories of words,  which one could just as well call “Group A” and “Group B”. Therefore, to shoehorn the fact that some languages have grammatical genders into evidence that language cannot be separated from biological genders is a feat of intellectual dishonesty.

I might never find out what exactly the panellist meant by her claim, but I can’t help suspecting that her statement “language can never really be separated from gender” was not well thought through and was uttered more because it sounded good and fashionable, with its slightly neo-Whorfian ring to it, than because of its scientific accuracy. It seems to me that in language studies not even scholars care much about precision. They seem to be quite comfortable with the idea that words are flexible and can be used to blur an illogical train of thought rather than being used as precision instruments to clarify unclear thoughts. Because it’s language, everything goes!


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