Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • Grammatical gender is the concept found in about a quarter of the world's languages; that you can sort all nouns into male or female.

  • Le or la in French. Der, die, or das in German, the das is for neuter.

  • In Zande, which is found in a few countries in Central Africa, there are four grammatical genders: human male, human female, animate, and inanimate.

  • There are even occasional languages with even more complicated systems than that.

  • Now, I'm a descriptivist linguist⏤I am not meant to judge whether language features are good or bad; I'm just meant to describe what they do.

  • But grammatical gender is just such a stupid concept.

  • I sort of hate myself for saying that, but it is really silly.

  • So, that's a... that's a computer, is it, French? So it's male. All computers are male.

  • And that's a bottle, is it French? So it's female? All bottles are female? Really? Should I dress it up in a friggin' pink apron and give it a rolling pin as well?

  • (Descriptivism. Don't judge).

  • I'm exaggerating, but I genuinely have tried searching the literature for any advantages of grammatical gender.

  • There's only one vaguely convincing argument, which is that it can help clear up ambiguities and speeds up recognition of words by a small amount.

  • Okay. But three-quarters of the world's languages manage just fine without it. And meanwhile, grammatical gender causes a heck of a lot of problems.

  • First problem: it affects the way you think. When asked to describe a key, German speakers -- who classify key as male -- were likely to associate it with "hard," "heavy" and "jagged".

  • Whereas Spanish speakers -- who classify key as female -- were more likely to say it was "golden," "intricate," and "little". That also says a lot about gender roles in society, but my word, that's something I ain't qualified to talk about.

  • Second problem: it's really clunky. Job adverts in languages with grammatical gender have to either use both terms or a half-assed marker to clarify that they're asking for anyone.

  • Which brings me to English. English doesn't have grammatical gender -- it used to, in Old English.

  • We've still got a couple of words like blond and blonde that change depending on gender, but we don't have to worry about having to file everything into one box or another.

  • But what we do have is the third-person pronouns "he", "she", and "it". And that's a problem.

  • If I want to refer to you, the viewer, I have to use the pronoun "he or she".

  • Which is ludicrous for several reasons: one, it's an unwieldy three syllables, and it sounds awful.

  • Two, there are folks who don't fit into, or don't want to declare as, either of those categories, and if that surprises you, you need to get out more.

  • Since "it" is a bit dehumanising.

  • There's really no suitable pronoun to use.

  • Except. English does have a solution. And lots of people are using it.

  • And a lot of old stick-in-the-mud folks hate it. The answer is "they".

  • Facebook is using "they". I signed up to Facebook before they started asking for gender.

  • And I've never actually told them that I'm a guy. So my friends will see "Tom Scott updated their profile picture".

  • And you know what? That sounds absolutely fine to me.

  • It just seems normal now. It's going to depend on your dialect whether it sounds good to you, but brace yourself, 'cos singular they? It's spreading fast.

  • I bet you didn't even notice.

  • When I used it in the very first sentence of this video. And it's got history. Even Shakespeare used it.

  • Better yet, because "they" sounds natural, it gets around the problem of trying to force invented pronouns into English -- which, let's be honest, has never actually worked.

  • So there you go. I've gone against my descriptivist training, and said that one linguistic trait is better than another.

  • And I'm okay with that. Because... some people are "they". Get over it.

Grammatical gender is the concept found in about a quarter of the world's languages; that you can sort all nouns into male or female.

Subtitles and vocabulary

Click the word to look it up Click the word to find further inforamtion about it