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When does ‘feminine’ become ‘neutral’?

From Day Translations
From Day Translations
From Day Translations

Anyone who has studied German should empathise with the requirement to attempt the Sisyphean task of memorising which nouns get which gender assignment. You learn all the songs, try to get to grips with the tips and charts but still there is a mountain to climb, and a rock to push for metaphor continuity’s sake.

For instance, ‘cat’ Katze ends in ‘-e,’ which is the common ending for most feminine nouns so its article is die. ‘Honey’ Honig ends in ‘-ig’ meaning it will take the masculine article der. I thought that where the article-roulette-wheel of guessing would at least be simple in intrinsically gendered words. ‘The man,’ der Mann, ‘the woman,’ die Frau, ‘the boy,’ Der Junge; ahh, see here the ending is an ‘-e’ but it’s still masculine? But if you thought that was bad enough, the proper article for ‘girl,’ Mädchen, is das. This blew my little mind when I was younger because I really thought I had at least cracked part of the code. Das is the third gender article in German the Neutrum or Neuter. But why isn’t Mädchen preceded by the feminine die to follow with the rest of the gendered nouns? It’s not, I’m afraid, some sort of break with tradition in gender roles, quite the opposite in fact.

In German grammar, as in English grammar, there is a thing called the diminutive. In our own system this is usually present as the addition of a ‘-y’ as in the name ‘Matt’ becomes ‘Matty,’ ‘kitten’ becomes ‘kitty.’ In German, this suffix can often be ‘-chen’. ‘Child/kid,’ Kind becomes ‘kiddy,’ Kindchen, ‘loaf,’ Brot becomes ‘bun/roll,’ Brötchen and so on. The result is a certain cuteness, Brötchen for instance refers more to little rolls of bread than anything else. How has Mädchen happened, then? Why is the word for ‘girl’ perpetually in the diminutive?

It is oddly hard to trace the etymology of the word Mädchen. It has falsely been attributed to the word Made, only this in fact means maggot and we can only hope this is not the root. The best guess that I have found is the word Magd meaning ‘maidservant/maid.’ This trapping of ‘girls’ as diminutive is mirrored by the word for ‘unmarried women,’ Fraulein, ‘-lein’ being another diminutive suffix. Whilst you can put ‘boy,’ Junge into the diminutive Jungchen, this is not the permanently form. The German for ‘bachelor’ is Junggeselle, there is no diminutive here. Mark Twain was famously not a big fan of the German language, to put it mildly. He writes an amusing literal translation of a fictional conversation regarding first a ‘turnip,’ die Rübe, and a ‘young girl’ das Mädchen. In German, a noun may be referred to as ‘he, her, it,’ er,sie,es, irregardless of animateness.

Gretchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip?

Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen

Gretchen: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden?

Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera

(Mark Twain “The awful German language” from A Tramp Abroad)

It feels odd when translated in his way to read a young woman as ‘it’. It is only when married and fulfilling the status of die Frau that a woman becomes ‘she,’ sie.  However, the German language is far from on its own here. Even in English, where we don’t think of having gendered grammar, reflects a gendered classification of the world. As Kotthoff and Wodak explain the use of the ‘she/her’ pronoun for various inanimate objects is telling. Boats, cars and planes all traditionally referred to as ‘her’- as in ‘fill her up,’ ‘bless her and all who sail upon her’- are all traditionally owned and controlled by men. Likewise hurricanes until 1979 were assigned solely female names, the majority still are. This carried forward the sailor tradition of naming storms after women to be endured/tamed by men.

Although the concept of assigning gender to objects in a non-gendered grammatical language is known as ‘upgrading’, it feels anything but upwards in nature. There are countless variations on the analogy of man fighting against Mother Nature as a flighty, irrational force to be placated. Likewise most commercial objects are sold to us as female, the Boeing 727 or a motorcycle for instance, ‘rev her up.’ Whilst we can allow for some arbitrary assignment of gender to nouns, we should be careful to dismiss entirely the significance of grammar.

Studies show time and time again the impact of a word’s grammatical gender on its associated characteristics. Arabic speakers for instance rate perfume high on the scale of masculinity, in Arabic ‘perfume’ is a masculine noun. English speakers rated it low. When asked to describe a key, German participants for whom the word is masculine mentioned its jaggedness, hardness, weight and usefulness. Spanish participants who know a key as feminine pointed to its golden colour, its shine and its loveliness.

Naming carries with it significant weight. Look at the widespread patrilineal passing on of surnames. A woman’s name and subsequently her identity is first connected with her father and then later in life her husband. Language might not feel visceral or tangible enough to be counted in the revolution for gender equality, but what else in our lives is more prevalent than speech? Mark Twain’s rant against the German language might be amusing, but it is odd to think of a world where turnips can be assigned more humanity than girls.