The gender: To divide or not, that’s the question

Unlike many other languages, English does not have grammatical gender. In English noun ending in -er or -or simply mean a ‘person who does something’.

Written by Amitabh Ranjan | Updated: October 7, 2015 10:21 am

It is good news that more and more Indians are endearing themselves to English. The Almost 90 per cent rise in enrolment in English-medium schools in the last five years is a tell-tale sign. It is still more heartening to know that this trend is quite pronounced even in the Hindi heartland, particularly Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

You don’t have to be an Anglophile to feel like that. English in this age of Internet has evolved as some kind of a lingua franca of the world.

Since the language has borrowed from innumerable languages and has been evolving constantly, one has to be always inquisitive to keep abreast of its novelties and oddities.

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It was an innocuous argument with the principal of the college where I am teaching currently as a member of the guest faculty that sent me on word hunting. The argument was over the gender-use of a couple of words that were there in the draft of the souvenir on the occasion of the college’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations. In the end, it was me who was left enlightened. And what follows is what I found in one of my most cherished possessions – a book on the evolution of words, a Reader’s Digest publication.

Unlike many other languages, English does not have grammatical gender. In English noun ending in -er or -or simply mean a ‘person who does something’. A writer is someone who writes and a doctor is one who practices medicine. A tennis instructor or a symphony conductor can be either a man or a woman.

Certain gender-marked French word endings have been grafted onto English words. In 1926, the British usage expert H W Fowler offered the opinion that “feminines for vocation words are a special need of the future. He frowned on female writers who did not accept the label authoress. Today, his contention that the generic word author should be exclusively a male name is untenable.

The -ess and -ette suffixes were adopted into Middle English from Old French. Some -ess words were applied to saints, divinities, and nobility like patroness, benefactress, protectress, foundress. A duality of usage marked -ess words in the titles of nobility. This duality is still current. For example, the wife or widow of a duke is called a duchess. This is the same title for a woman who holds the rank in her own right. But a woman cannot pass on a status title to her husband as a man can to his wife.

A woman who marries a prince becomes a princess but a man who marries a princess dies not become a prince. Titles of offices once followed the same pattern. Thus, an ambassadress or a mayoress might have been a woman who held the office or the wife of a man who did. Woman who sewed for a living was originally called seamster. This was the English translation for the Latin word for ‘tailor’, sartor. But when took up the needle and thread, they took over the word seamster too. Women then came to be called seamstresses.

Well, it’s never too late to learn.

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