Friday, 5 June 2015

A Grammatical Thought Experiment on God's Gender

Greek has three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, neuter.

So does German.

French has two, but masculine takes precedence.

Flemish - now this has always been too much for me - it's got either two or three, depending.

English has "he and she, "him and her" " for things that have clear genders - people, and animals that you know quite well. But for all other things it just uses "it". It's heading towards having no genders, though it's never gonna get there.

Can you imagine a language which uses "the" as a definite article, has "it" for all genders, and distinguishes between male and female parents by calling them "parent", and "who happens to be male/female" only if there happens to be a need to distinguish?

Yes, I can, too.


  1. Latin has three.

    English is odd, though, isn't it, in that it can quite happily apply (mostly) feminine pronouns to neuter objects to indicate fondness/familiarity, eg cars, boats.

    Some southern dialects also seem to operate without a neuter pronoun, everything being (mostly) masculine where Standard English would use "it". Familiar phrase in Dorset: "Where's he to?" meaning "Where is it?".

  2. The real call is for a neutral word in a word in a more familiar register, or "Our parent in heaven..." would miss the point. Come to think of it, "father" in English seems a bit formal for that. English has too many registers. I am not ready for "Our 'rent" though.

  3. I just tend by default to refer to God with the pronouns "they, them, there" as I do for some of my non-binary friends who ask to be referred to with those pronouns. Perfectly acceptable to use "they" as a singular.
    There are plenty of other gender neutral pronouns to choose from. But I can never use "it" because that's a very impersonal word that gets used for so many of us as an insult when we pass people in the street, they point at us and we hear "What the **** is it?"

  4. What language uses "parent who happens to be male/female"? What point are you making? I don't understand.

    1. None that I know of. But I could imagine it. In that language God would be referred to as a neutral pronoun and in neutral terms.

  5. I don't think English does have grammatical genders - there is nothing about 'boy' that distinguishes it grammatically, as opposed to lexically, from 'girl', for instance, and nothing that one needs to do such as make adjectives agree with nouns (like 'beau' and 'belle' in French). Even 'actress' or 'victrix', though they have what appear to be feminine endings do not behave grammatically any differently from their male equivalents. This is presumably why English speakers get into such a muddle about sex and gender and why half the congregation leaves if the priest says, "dearly beloved brethren" and the other half walks out if he calls them "dear sisters and brothers".

    1. Exactly! English has many pitfalls, which cause the muddles about sex and gender, as you say. Those who pray in Latin can happily address God as 'beata Creatrix' (feminine) on Trinity Sunday (because Trinitas is feminine). And we're still accused of being patriarchal!


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