English is different from many European languages like French and German because, in general, nouns are neither masculine or feminine. Words used to describe inanimate objects (things) have no grammatical gender. When it comes to living beings (people and animals) however, in most cases we do use different masculine nouns and feminine nouns. In recent times, there has been an effort to address sexist or chauvinistic attitudes in society and this has impacted on our evolving language, where formerly we differentiated between gender roles and descriptions, such as job titles, whereas now we try not to. This is something to be aware of as you continue on your English language learning process.
Let’s look at some examples below where gender matters or is at least relevant.
When we are specifically referring to men, boys or male animals, we will use the relevant masculine noun, whilst when referring to women, girls and female animals, we will use the relevant feminine noun.
This is particularly the case with family roles, where we distinguish between father/mother, husband/wife, son/daughter, uncle/aunt, nephew/niece.
You’ll find this also with words that denote positions in society, for example king/queen, prince/princess, etc.
Traditionally, for jobs or occupations performed by both men and women, we have tended to distinguish between the genders, for example actor/actress, waiter/waitress, host/hostess.
Some nouns are used for both males and females, for example farmer, plumber, electrician, mechanic/pilot. These nouns are referred to as common gender nouns. Traditionally this was because these roles were considered to be men-only jobs and therefore did not need a suffix to indicate male or female but these days you will find both sexes in these roles and therefore specifying gender is irrelevant. Likewise, words like policeman, fireman, businessman are increasingly being replaced with alternatives such as police officer, firefighter, businessperson. You are just as likely to hear the word ‘humankind’ these days as you are ‘mankind’ when referring to humanity.
English differs from many Asian languages in that it (currently) uses gender pronouns and possessive adjectives. Traditionally it has been seen as very important to get the gender of a person correct. If you are talking about a female, you must use she, her and hers, and for males, he, him and his.
In the past, if the gender is not known or not specified, it has been typical to assume it is male. Sofor example, in a doctor’s pamphlet, the sentence might read: If the patient is experiencing chest pains, he should inform the nurse immediately. This is now considered very outdated and sexist so if we don’t know the gender or the word refers to both genders, we use the unisex ‘they’ (them/theirs).
There is one general word for each specific animal. However, many species of animals also have a specific name for the male and the female. This is particularly so for domesticated animals where breeding and reproduction was and is a factor. Examples include pig – boar/sow, horse – stallion/mare, sheep – ram/ewe and so on.
Occasionally (rarely), you might hear someone refer to their car as female. For example:
Person 1: How’s your new BMW?
Person 2: Oh she’s a great machine to drive!
This is also the case with ships and countries. The historical reason for this is unclear but since it is quite a quaint tradition, even in these days of political correctness, it may just persist. And then of course there’s Mother Earth/Mother Nature, which it stands to reason will always remain female!
Below are some links related to this topic.
For those of you interested in increasing your vocabulary, here is a link to a list of masculine, feminine and common gender nouns.
Here is a TED talk entitled ‘Grammatical gender and the conceptualisation of objects across five languages’.
Here is a blog post from Living Language entitled ‘Does the language we speak affect how we think?’