Languages that do not have gendered pronouns

This question was prompted by an item in WaPo’s Ask Amy column today:

A reader wrote:

I always wondered why my Iranian father and aunts and uncles who came to the United States never could correctly identify men as “he” and women as “she,” until I found out that there is only one (gender-neutral) pronoun in Farsi, the language in Iran.

I didn’t know there was such a thing. I remember from Latin and French that non-human objects can have gender. But I didn’t know that some languages use pronouns with no gender specificity, even when referring to people. Please, fight my ignorance.

I just asked my Tehran-born wife, and she confirmed. The pronoun-like word is pronounced “oo” and can mean either he or she.

او آبی است

can be translated either “he is blue” or “she is blue.” (Note that Farsi is read right to left, so what you see as the end of the sentence is actually the beginning, and the “oo” pronoun is at the right.)

The same is true for possessive, she says. You don’t say, directly, “this is his hat” or “this is her hat.” The equivalent sentences translate more literally as “the hat is that man’s” or “the hat is that woman’s.”

Discussion of the subject with other examples, here

Some European languages specify genders in words that English doesn’t and I imagine I’d do just as bad a job remembering to use the correct form of (for example) “cousin” as the Iranian relatives do for “he” and “she”

Also, the lack of specificity in pronouns in Farsi is balanced by extreme specificity in identifying family relations. In English we just say “aunt” and “uncle,” but the words in Farsi are different depending on whether it’s a sibling of the mother or father. There are dozens of these; the kids and I will occasionally entertain ourselves by coming up with lengthy family connections (“second cousin once removed on the father’s side, by marriage”) and challenging my wife to express them as briefly as possible.

I encourage readers to click on and read the actual Wikipedia article. The text that was (I presume) automatically selected seems somewhat misleading. A genderless language is not one that has no gendered pronouns, although that condition may also exist. A genderless language is one that simply does not require gendered agreement between nouns and other parts of speech. So not especially germane to this discussion.

The usual Indonesian pronouns (ia, dia, or in very formal language beliau) for s/he don’t identify gender. Siblings are also defined as “older sibling” (kakak) or “younger sibling” (adik) rather than brother or sister.

Indonesian was the first language my son spoke (he was raised in a fully bilingual environment for the first four years of his life, and understood English and Indonesian equally well, but only verbalized Indonesian at first - very common among children raised with that language pair).

Even though he had switched over to monolingual English by the time he was 6 or so, he mixed up the words for “he” and “she” all the time until he was at least 8. He was very confused by his parents’ insistence that he sort out “he” and “she” correctly as his brain didn’t accept that it was a fundamental classification, any more than we would have separate pronouns distinguishing between tall/short or fair/dark.

That’s not to say there are no gendered pronouns at all in Indonesian. There are words that loosely translate as “father” and “mother” (bapak and ibu) that also serve as roughly equivalent to “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Those words are often used as the pronoun. For example, you could use ia, dia, beliau, bapak, or ibu interchangeably in a sentence - it would remain grammatical and in all cases the pronoun would be translated as “he” or “she” (or singular “they” if you had no idea of the gender of the person referred to).

The lack of a gendered he/she equivalent is probably one of the less significant issues for a native English speaker trying to learn Indonesian, however. There are multiple pronouns where English has only one, and they convey subtleties (usually related to relative status) that English generally ignores.

Sorry about that. Should have chosen a more apt quote on my own.

Missed edit window - on reflection I need to modify that a little. “Could” be translated is more accurate. Depending on context, you might choose to translate a sentence as “Father wants to go home” rather than “He wants to go home.”

By the way, a relatively recent science fiction novel (Ancillary Justice) has a character from a society without gendered pronouns, and much of the the novel deals with that society, leaving the reader unaware of the genders of many of the characters (the main character is well aware of the genders of the people being spoken of - it’s just not relevant linguistically to that person (that person also blunders sometimes dealing with people on a different planet, in a language with gendered pronouns, partly because of lack of experience in needing to make that distinction in language, and partly because the clothing signals are different on that planet than they are in the Empire our main character is from).

I know Chinese speakers who also make this error, and I see that the Wikipedia article also mentions Mandarin.

It’s similar in Italian and Spanish with possessives - “he” and “she” are different words but “his book” and “her book” are the same, because the possessive pronoun takes the gender of the object possessed. And speakers of those languages often mix up “his” and “hers” in English.

Similar in French. I was confused when first dipping into Les Trois mousquetaires and seeing references to “Sa majesté le roi”, which I instinctively translated in my head as “Her majesty the King.”

Then I realised that the possessive pronoun, “Sa”, took its gender from the feminine noun, “majesté”, not from the monarch, as would be the case in English.

“Sa majesté le roi” and “Sa majesté la reine” are the équivalents to “his majesty the King” and “her majesty the Queen”. (Note another difference: that the article in French is gendered: “le”, “la”; but not the article in English: “the”)

Yeah, that’s really interesting - English has lost the gender for almost all nouns, so the possessive pronoun takes the gender of the possessor, not the possessed.

Not a language expert, just an amateur that likes to explore, but it’s my impression that the Indo-European family of languages are more likely to have grammatical gender than some other language families, although it is possible to have an Indo-European language without that distinction (like Farsi) and a language outside the Indo-European group to have that characteristic.

Swahili has “yeye” which can mean “he” or “she.”

Hungarian has a genderless third person pronoun (ő), but does distinguish between genders in profession titles by affixing -nő to a female professional, i.e. a male doctor is orvos while a female doctor is orvosnő.

Proto-Indo-European supposedly eventually developed three genders, so it should not be surprising if descendant languages have that characteristic.

But, even though modern languages like French have gendered nouns and pronouns, these still may or may not be used in a gender-neutral manner. For example, if in French you say something along the lines of “I met an interesting person and talked to her”, the corresponding sentence would be gender-neutral because no assumption is being made about whether the person is a man or a woman, because in French a person is feminine, like screwdrivers, flax, and glass are masculine while hands and democracy are feminine.

Now, if your language has no gender at all, then at least you do not have the problem of memorizing it and making sure it agrees.

My wife makes this error from time to time. What bothers me is that “ta” and “ta” are written differently. It seems to me that mentally there’s a difference and this mistake should never happen. On the other hand, people always mistake “it’s” and “its” despite being written differently, so some people don’t think in writing, I guess.

I was about to say. My Hungarian parents constantly mix up “he” and “she” because there’s only one word for both in Hungarian.

For people who actually care about getting it right I think people find it’s/its difficult because it is a direct opposite of another one people have trouble with: 's is a possesive only for most words.