Saturday, January 5, 2013

What you don't know does not always hurt you - Gender distinction

The Middle East is a sexist place, socially and linguistically.   Gender definitely matters.  The exact form depends on the specific ethnic and religious subgroup.  For example, in many subcultures in Israel, women and men sit separately, sometimes even in different rooms.

It also affects language.  English and Russian have the unisex they and они [oni], respectively;  French has the flexible on, which can refer to any grammatical gender or person.  By contrast, in Hebrew, the second and third person pronouns and all verb forms must reflect gender.  There is no escape in ambiguity.

For example, a typical American teenager can make the following statement:  They (the friends) invited me to a party.  The parents have the privilege of pretending that the invitation came from friends of the same sex.  Ignorance is bliss.  Hebrew parents can have no illusion.   הם [hem] and הן [hen]  are both gender specific, male and female in this case. 
This clarity also affects the world of entertainment.  For example, in English, Frank Sinatra’s signature song I did it my way can be sung by both male and female singers.  That is true for most love songs also.  Unfortunately, that does not work in Hebrew.   The verb form for the female “did” and “love” will have a different number of syllables, making it difficult to convert for a singer of the opposite sex.  If the singer chooses not to change the words, it creates a disjunction between the gender of the singer and verb form. 

This sharp distinction also creates daily decisions for Hebrew speakers.  Imagine the head nurse speaking to the hospital nursing staff: 18 female nurses and one male nurse.  Which form should the head nurse use, the male or female form?  Traditionally, the male form was and is used, although today it seems a bit awkward, even if most Israeli females do not make an open fuss about it.

So, as the French and diplomats know very well, there is nothing wrong with ambiguity sometimes, especially if you want to hide information or keep the peace.

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