Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Feminism and Feminine Forms

A reader who wishes to be known only as “JC” recently sent this comment to our Good Word inamorato:

In response to the inamorato email which states (in regard to feminine/masculine forms); “The use of suffixes like -ette and -ess to distinguish females from males is now harshly frowned upon.”

I can’t help but chuckle, sometimes, at the supposed “good intentions” of our almost obsessively politically correct society. Such morphemes are very useful, and, I suspect, exist for this very reason, [that] they convey meaning much more efficiently.

I’ve noticed this over the last several years in relation to the term actor. The unacceptability of this morpheme now necessitates the use of the term “female actor(s)” if one needs to make such a reference.

Consider the information conveyed in the word bartendress—not in the dictionary, to my knowledge, but useful nonetheless. I shudder to think what would happen if such a fad took hold of a language like Nahuatl, in which there seem to be [a plethora of] morphemes that can be used to construct single words that are pregnant with meaning!

This American sport even takes the liberty of imposing itself on terms from other languages. I’m sure you’re aware of the fact that a mixed group in the Romance languages, when referred to in the third person, will use the plural masculine pronoun unless it is composed of females.

Taíno, in reference to the Taíno Indians of the Carribean, is a word that has been Hispanicized (for obvious reasons), yielding Taínos for a (mixed) group and Taínas for a group of females.

In The Cave of the Jagua, an anthropological study about the Taíno Indians, the text constantly refers to “the Taínos and Taínas” just as readily as one would refer to “the English” or “the Germans”. Unfortunately, the Spanish language has made an insensitive and chauvinist distinction that now necessitates undoing.


3 Responses to “Feminism and Feminine Forms”

  1. Benjamin Says:

    Just a side note: Nahuatl would seemingly be a politically correct person’s dream. Although there are a good many useful morphemes in the language, there is no grammatical distinction between genders (even in pronouns). There is also no distinction between “brother” and “sister”–you have to say “woman sibling” if there is a need to specify (e.g. noikni means “my brother/sister,” add siua- [woman] to make nosiuaikni, “my sister”). Quite a contrast from Spanish!

  2. leonard c. Says:

    Dear Dr Goodwood,
    It makes me sad to think people cannot differentiate between the concepts of linguistic gender and sex. The two are not necessarily related, e.g. German das Mädchen (the girl) is of the neuter gender. The idea that because a language inflects words for gender agreement makes it inherently sexist, is frankly, idiotic. PS, great blog!

  3. The Ridger Says:

    All you have to do is look at the cultures in languages that have no grammatical gender to realize that they aren’t egalitarian – often, in fact, extremely repressive.

    I’m also fond of the system which calls declensions 1st, 2nd, and 3rd…

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