Gender-specific nouns

2003-11-11 04:27:54

Hello there,

Just came accross this forum, although I was not specifically looking for it. I am a former Russian who now lives in US. I have an English grammar question, and although it may sound a bit strange to ask it here, I thought that people who actively study the language may have a better understanding of the language intricacies than the people who speak it.

I was taking a ride to lunch with my colleagues (all Americans) the other day, and we observed a butterfly near by. When it disapeared, one of my colleagues said, "Oh, he is gone". When I asked the colleague about why he decided to use a "he" (not a "she") in reference to a butterfly, he couldn't explain. I then recalled from a book that there is a vague usage pattern in English that when you try to personalize an object, you should use *your* gender.

Here is my question: is there, in fact, a formal (or informal) grammatical rule or structure in English that prescribes the use of the speaker gender when the speaker refers to some non-human things whose gender is either unknown or not even applicable?


2003-11-11 06:17:45

No. If we consider only the masculine/feminine gender dichotomy, the rule for this kind of thing is:

The Feminine is the "marked" grammatical gender. Use the feminine when you know the actual gender and want to specify it. There are some exceptions for cars, boats, domestic animals, nicks on this forum, etc.

The "unmarked" grammatical gender, traditionally called Masculine, may or may not coincide with actual gender.You use it when you don't want to (or can't) use the feminine form. Like in the butterfly example.

It's similar in Russian. If you hear учитель and others, you can't be sure of gender but if you hear учительница you have no doubt.

2003-11-12 13:54:24

As far as I know birds are traditionally feminine, yet animals are traditionally masculine. A tale by Kipling "A cat that walked by HIMself"

2003-11-13 04:08:53

>birds are traditionally feminine
not in English.

>A tale by Kipling "A cat that walked by HIMself"
you can't go by that. The story was about a male cat, not a cat of unknown gender.

2003-11-14 11:10:58

But this tale was translated into Russian as "Кошка, которая гуляла сама по себе", the gender is feminine. As for birds, I was wrong, I read "A Happy Prince" yesterday, and the bird was Swallow, and that was he. I haven't read it in Russian, so it's interesting how it was translated because Ласточка is feminine in Russian. Thx for teaching! :)

2003-11-14 15:37:07

Вот еще есть "Тигра" в русском переводе Винни-Пуха...

2003-11-14 17:54:24

Actually, as far as birds go, it seems to me there is no particular rule of using gender-specific pronouns. In "the Nightingale and the Rose" by the same O. Wilde we have a she-Nightingale. To my mind, that was required by respective plots of the fairy-tales (nightingale sacrificed for love's sake etc). The Russian translation doesn't retain the gender, the translators used the names of the characters according to the rules of the Russian language, so important bit of the tale spirit was lost for the Russian reader. there are other characters in O. Wilde's tales which are also personified. but, bringing the topic back to the original message, I would say that probably the native speaker didn't think about the gender at all, just using a pronoun at random. In Russian it is impossible to call a butterfly "he" because we have special endings of gender and cases and in English they are all the same. A friend of mine once said something like (in Russian) "какой завлекательный облак сейчас проплыл налево" - mind that he didn't belong to the imaginistic movement of the turn of the century and he was certainly a native speaker of the Russian language,and quite a good one, I should say. But a sentence like this would also puzzle a foreiner, and my friend would be equally unable, should anyone demand reasons for making a cloud masculine, to explain himself.

2003-11-15 00:17:47

I adore O. Wilde despite his sexual orientation. ;-)

2003-11-15 05:04:20

Hey gang - important point of English culture, if not exactly language.

We don't usually refer to artists using initials. In this case, _nobody_ would say "O. Wilde", it's always "Oscar Wilde." Any other way makes it sound foreign, as it struck me reading these posts.

I'm sure somebody will come up with an exception, but this is the general rule.

2003-11-15 11:09:27

Thanks, Chaika! Can I use "Mr. Wilde" then? :-)

2003-11-15 22:29:16

Aiduza, that's "Mr. Chaika" to you....

2003-11-15 23:31:10

OK, Sir Chaika :) May I?

2003-11-16 12:38:45

Хе-хе... O.Henry. :-)

2003-11-16 15:34:50

Помню, когда один издатель спросил О'Генри, как пишется его фаиилия - О.Генри или О'Генри, тот предложил вариант О!Генри :-)
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