Even in my French class at school, I never much liked the idea of “girl” and “boy” nouns. Not least because I was a girl and the boys were always cited first.Colour-coding vocab lists in pink and blue waseven worse. At an existential level, I was instinctively rebellious.
But I was also a sucker for words. I was seduced – and distracted from issues of equality – by the serious-sounding categories of “masculine” and “feminine”: the markers of intellectual rigour. Later, as head of languages at an independent school in Cambridge, it became a point of principle with me to use these categories with the primary-age children I was teaching. My whole approach was founded on confidence in their ability to rise to my belief in them: if you start by shying away from abstract concepts, you send out completely the wrong message.
So, in my idealist role as teacher, I willingly embraced both masculine and feminine and gave them equal billing on the page. Well, almost equal. The masculine still had pride of place on the left. The masculine was what you attended to first. On the face of it innocent, but in essence socially and culturally freighted. As Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex: “Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female.” An add-on or ornament, a quasi-adjectival adjunct.
There was good pedagogical reason to follow the convention. It seemed as fundamental as putting the units to the right of the 10s in maths. Tidy habits make for a tidy mind. But the truth was it didn’t really matter – except in one, very human way. Swap the order, and linguistically nothing changes. But, sociologically, it’s a revolution.
Increasingly, it strikes me that, as a teacher, I must revise the way I do things. Slough off that cloak of compliance and adopt a new, more anti-establishment look. Put the feminine first, but not dressed up in pretty pink.
It could be that gendered languages – among them heavy hitters Spanish, French, German and Russian – are among the last strongholds of gender binarism. And perhaps scrupulous teachers are unwittingly colluding in perpetuating this reductive, restrictive, anti-egalitarian paradigm. There are few contexts in contemporary Western culture where it is still legitimate to speak without self-consciousness of “masculine” and “feminine”. What useful meaning does this opposition retain?
Maybe it’s an accidental by-product of our compulsion to classify. But even if you argue,along with Saussure, that linguistic signs are arbitrary, that there is no necessary connection between the signifier “table” and the object it signifies – that a table might as well be labelled “chair” – there is no escaping the semantic resonance that accrues to words over centuries of use and abuse. And no denying that gendered languages endorse a persistently gendered mindset. Grammar can be arbitrary, too.
Masculinelips, feminine mouths
Fortunately, even at an elementary level, there are ways you can disrupt this absurd grammatical binarism to subversive, thoughtprovoking ends. “Look,” I tell the children in my class, “the Spanish noun for ‘people’ is feminine. So too ‘reason’ and ‘intelligence’ and ‘compassion’.
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