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Gender neutrality in languages with gendered third-person pronouns

The meaning of «gender neutrality in languages with gendered third-person pronouns»

A third-person pronoun is a pronoun that refers to an entity other than the speaker or listener. The English pronouns he and she are third-person personal pronouns specific to the gender of the person (not to be confused with grammatical gender). The English pronoun they is an epicene (gender-neutral) third-person pronoun that can refer to plural antecedents of any gender (or unknown gender) and, informally, to a singular antecedent that refers to a person of either or unknown gender, the "singular they".[1] The singular English pronoun it implies that the antecedent has no gender, making it inappropriate in contexts where the antecedent is known to have a gender, but what that gender is is not known.

Many of the world's languages do not have gender-specific pronouns.[2] Some languages that do have gender-specific pronouns have them as part of a grammatical gender system, where all or the vast majority of nouns are assigned to gender classes and adjectives and other modifiers must agree with them in that; but a few languages with gender-specific pronouns, such as English, Afrikaans, Defaka, Khmu, Malayalam, Tamil, and Yazgulyam, lack traditional grammatical gender and in such languages, gender usually adheres to "natural gender".[3]

Problems of usage may arise in languages like English which have pronominal gender systems, in contexts where a person of unspecified or unknown gender is being referred to but commonly available pronouns (he or she) are gender-specific. In such cases a gender-specific, usually masculine, pronoun is sometimes used with an intended gender-neutral meaning;[4] such use of he was common in formal English between the 1700s and the latter half of the 20th century (though some regard it as outmoded[5] or sexist[6]). Use of singular they is another common alternative dating from the 1300s, but proscribed by some.[7]

Pronouns such as who and which are not discussed here, though similar but different consideration may apply to them.

Some languages which historically did not have gendered pronouns have introduced them to translated Western literature.

Many languages of the world (including most Austronesian languages, many East Asian languages, the Quechuan languages, and the Uralic languages[2]) do not have gender distinctions in personal pronouns, just as most of them lack any system of grammatical gender. In others, such as many of the Niger–Congo languages, there is a system of grammatical gender (or noun classes), but the divisions are not based on sex.[8] Pronouns in these languages tend to be naturally gender-neutral.[citation needed]

In other languages – including most Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages – third-person personal pronouns (at least those used to refer to people) intrinsically distinguish male from female. This feature commonly co-exists with a full system of grammatical gender, where all nouns are assigned to classes such as masculine, feminine and neuter. However, in some languages, such as English, this general system of noun gender has been lost, but gender distinctions are preserved in the third-person pronouns (the singular pronouns only, in the case of English).

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