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Grammatical gender and sex
Title Grammatical gender and sex
Message Text This started as a shoutbox discussion that might run here to a couple of posts, a squabble or two, a flame if we are lucky, heck, who knows, maybe I'll get banned for irrelevancy, and not before time.

I'll make the following claims and let everyone pick them to pieces.

There are exactly three genders and exactly two sexes.

The three genders are 'masculine', 'feminine' and 'neuter'. These genders appear in grammatical form in various languages, including German (der, die, das), Latin and ancient Greek. In German, every noun is masculine or feminine or neuter. A noun cannot be two or three out of the three and it must be one of the three. They are exclusive and exhaustive grammatical terms.

The terms 'masculine' and 'feminine' are also used to describe and evaluate objects and behaviour insofar as they are appropriate to or appropriately associate with male or female persons. For example, boxing is a masculine sport and knitting is a feminine occupation. Such descriptions and evaluations (including the examples I just gave) are contestable, due to controversy about what, if anything, can be said to be appropriate to or appropriately associated with each of the two sexes. A further reason for their contestability is changing fashion. Pink sarongs were undoubtedly feminine until David Beckham wore one unashamedly and so made them masculine by association with the masculinity of football. (What's that? He didn't? It wasn't pink? Well, anyway, that's what I tell my girlfriend.)

The term 'neuter' or 'neutral' can be used to describe or evaluate objects and behaviour insofar as it is appropriate to neither of the two sexes. The word 'neuter' means 'neither' in Latin. This use is not common, simply because people are generally less concerned with neutrality than with masculinity and feminity, due to their associations with sexual attractiveness, which is one of our favourite pre-occupations.

There are two sexes - male and female. The verse in the Bible 'Male and female created He them' is controversial, not because of its reference to 'male and female' but because of its reference to 'He', namely God, who is supposed variously to exist or not. However, the Biblical observation, that there are in fact two and only two sexes - however they came into being - is correct.

It is true that there are human beings (and other animals) who have the sexual characteristics of both males and females. They are hermaphrodites, and they are both male and female. But to be 'both male and female' is not to possess a third sex. Rather it is to possess both of the already identified two sexes, with their distinctive physical characteristics. This observation needs to be remembered by Sunday school teachers when confronted with the precocious question: 'If snails aren't boys and aren't girls, then did God not create them?' The question rests on misunderstandings both of the Bible and of hermaphroditism. God (if it was God) created male and female, but He (if it was He) decided in some cases to allocate the organs of both male and female to the same bodies - for example, the bodies of snails.

Also, there are human beings who have no sexual characteristics. These people are neither male nor female. Again, to be 'neither male nor female' is not to have a third sex, but to have no sex at all. This is in contrast to the situation with gender. For a person or an object or instance of behaviour to be neither masculine nor feminine is not for it to lack gender. Rather it possesses the third gender: neuter or neutral.

Broadly speaking, sex is a matter of biology and gender is a matter of convention. But there are some curious complexities. For example, the carriages of a train are joined by a coupling which is said to have a male part and a female part. Although the reference is to 'male' and 'female' there is no biological implication. Rather, the sexual terms are used metaphorically, because of the similarity of the coupling action to the sexual coupling of humans or animals. (If you can't see the similarity, you don't have a salacious enough imagination.) Interestingly, the train coupling, although it has male and female aspects, is neither masculine nor feminine. True, some might say that train couplings are 'boysy' and not 'girly', but one could plausibly claim that there are neutral. In any event, the 'male' coupling is no more or less masculine than the 'female' coupling.

That is all I have to say on the topic. If it is mistaken from start to finish I accept full responsibility.

Just a final word about pronouns. 'It' can be used to refer to a hermaphrodite (having both sexes) or to an asexual (having neither sex) person or animal. We happen not to have separate pronouns that relate to all four possible combinations of 'male' and 'female'.
Category Philosophy of Language
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Submission Date Sep 5, 2006 - 10:22 AM

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