Why Do Things Have Genders?

In nearly all world languages (English being a prominent exception), ordinary things are assigned genders. For example, in Hindi, a table and a bed have a masculine gender while a chair and a wardrobe have a feminine gender. Apples in German (Apfel) are masculine and in French (Pomme) are feminine. In Sanskrit, a tree (vṛkṣa) is masculine, while a creeper (latā) is feminine; rivers are feminine, while the oceans are masculine. Genders were used for things in English as well, until about a 1000 years ago. English changed all things into the neuter gender, marking the beginning of object-thinking.

Romance languages in Europe (French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian) have more gendered nouns compared to Germanic languages (English, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic). The places that use Romance languages are more personal than those that use Germanic languages. More scientists came from Germanic linguistic societies than Romance linguistic ones, due to the difference between personal vs. impersonal thinking because to be a scientist in the modern sense, one has to have an impersonal view of nature. Their religious choices—e.g., Catholicism or Orthodoxy vs. Protestantism—are also more personal vs. impersonal.

In modern science, we see the world through coordinate reference frames. The same thing can be given a different label or name like locations in space are renumbered by changing the coordinate reference frames. The distances between things can be altered in different coordinate reference frames (a lesson from relativity that led to the conclusion that space and time as measured distance and duration are not objective realities; they are rather artifacts of our perception and hence can vary across observers). However, to the extent that these measured distances are not arbitrary (the distance measured in one reference frame can be transformed into the distance measured in another reference frame), we are compelled to think that there is an objective reality which is perceived differently by different observers.

A similar type of view needs to be applied to the linguistic representations of reality in our minds too. We can treat a language as the goggles through which we see the world. There are objective or real distinctions between things in the world, but a language distorts this objective space of distinctions by bringing things nearer or farther in our perception and conception. For instance, things designated feminine will be more like each other than things designated masculine. Based on such classification, metaphors from one gender can be mixed better than others. For instance, a country can be called motherland or fatherland in a language. In the former case, metaphors of motherland nurturing its children would be more apt while in the latter case metaphors of obedience to fatherland would be more appropriate.

Every perceived quality has a gender. Sweet is feminine and bland is masculine. Soft is feminine and hard is masculine. Pink is feminine and blue is masculine. Circularity is feminine and angularity is masculine. Fluidity is feminine and rigidity is masculine. Smooth is feminine and rough is masculine. When we aggregate these qualities into objects, then based on the prominence of masculine or feminine qualities, the object acquires an objective gender. However, different societies may attribute different genders to different qualities. They might also give greater prominence to one quality over another. Thereby, the gender of the object can be altered based on language and culture. For instance, if women are seen as tenderness, then fragile things would be designated feminine while sturdy things would be designated masculine. If instead, women are seen as assertive and demanding (just like men), then the distinction between masculine and feminine genders would disappear into neuter genders.

The cultural relativity of gender assignments, or the fact that some languages use gender-neutral nouns and pronouns more prominently, is not contrary to the objectivity of genders. Every quality, activity, and object has an objective gender, but we may not perceive it correctly. The culture and language specific goggles distort the perception of genders. Our minds reorganize an objective reality in a subjective and intersubjective way, changing the distances and durations between them. When the distance between two ideas is altered, they can become nearer (i.e., similarity) or farther (i.e., difference). When the duration between two ideas is altered, some ideas become archaic while others become modern. Two things that seem farther apart (and hence less similar) in one culture can seem closer and interrelated in another.

The study of how things are assigned genders therefore illustrates many useful ideas—(a) the objectivity of genders, (b) the relativity of gender perception, (c) the role of linguistic and cultural goggles in reorganizing the world in human conception and perception, and (d) widespread effects of such gender perception and conception on a society’s inclination toward sciences, religions, cultures, and aesthetics.

The methodology for researching the effect of gender on nouns involves taking thing-words from different languages and classifying them into masculine, feminine, and neuter genders, to build a repository of masculine, feminine, and neuter gender words per language. The use of masculine and feminine genders in a language will show the relative extent of personalization within a society. The similarity of genders assigned to things across different languages will indicate the similarities between cultures and their respective notions about what they consider to be masculine and feminine qualities. The differences of genders assigned to things across different languages will allow us to understand the broader differences in cultures across art, literature, science, religion, and social norms. Finally, we can understand how the mind reclassifies and reorganizes an objective reality in a personal space.

English has contributed significantly to the impersonalism of modern science. Everyone believes that things aren’t persons because all things are designated by the neuter gender in English. The presence of linguistic genders across other languages, however, shows that nature has always been personalized across cultures. Some languages have the remnants of that personalization far greater than others.