Sunday, December 14, 2014

Is it a boy or a girl?

Once of the challenges of  the new global village is trying to determine whether your correspondent is a male or female. When interaction was limited to the local and known culture, the gender of the name was almost always known just through passive experience.  For example, in England, Jim was man while Jane was a woman.  Today, as a translator, I communicate with people worldwide, often leaving me clueless whether my interlocker is male or female. Googling the name in pictures often clears up the issue, but not always.  The cultural / language basis is also sometimes helpful.

For example, English names for girls often end in the ee sound, i.e. Julie, Mary, Stacie, Stephanie and Nancy.  Most other female names are traditional, such as Jane and Susanne.  Interestingly, it is very rare that a “girls” name is given to a boy, maybe for reasons expressed in Johnny’s Cash’s famous song “A Boy Named Sue” (See  if are not familiar with this classic song.). Given the omnipresence of Anglo-Saxon culture, most people can distinguish the women from the men.

In Metropolitan France, the letter e at the end of the name feminizes it.  Examples include Jean and Jeanne, Paul and Paulette, Henri and Simon and Simone, to name a few.  Also, since it was traditional to name children after saints (partly as part of policy to eliminate langue d’oc, a common language in France several centuries ago), French French names are easily identifiable.  Interestingly, African French names are wonderful hodgepodges of the two cultures: typical French first names and exotic (to Western ears) African last names. So, gender identification is generally not difficult for French names.

By contrast, Hebrew is quite a challenge, even for Hebrew speakers.  First, many names are unfamiliar to Western cultures, including Idan and Shiran.  Some names have specific and humorous meanings in English, such as Moran and Pines (a girl and a boy, respectively).  The only rule is that generally if a name ends in an a sound, it refers to a female.  Examples include Yosef/Yosefa, Ziv/Ziva, Ayal/Ayala and Michael/Michaela. Also, names ending in it are feminine, e.g. Ronit, Sigalit, etc.  The major problem is that, consistent with the stereotypical macho culture, girls are often given many traditional boy names (but not the other direction), creating mass gender confusion.  Some of the androgynous names include Tal, Chen, Gal and Chen. To given an idea of how confusing this is, I teach one class with three students named Mor, two of them female.  Alas, guessing the gender of a Hebrew name can be a crapshoot.

So, faced with foreign name without a gender-identifying title, correspondents have few alternatives. They can google the name as a word or picture; they can make a guess based on the ending of the name; or they can simply ask as politely as possible if the person is a boy or girl.  Hopefully, the respondent will understand that nothing is obvious in a global village.

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