Why Girls Are Neuter In German
Grammatical and Real-World Gender
It seems to me that a lot of the confusion about gender and translation stems from a misunderstanding of the two ways that gender works, as I’ll describe here.
Two Kinds of Gender
On one hand, men are different than women, and we can use the words “gender,” “masculine,” and “feminine” to indicate that difference. We can call this real-world gender, and it has very little to do with language but everything to do with how we live our lives.
On the other hand, gender can be a purely grammatical term, similar to “nominative” or “accusative.” So “feminine” nouns — say, arxe (“beginning”) or ge (“earth”) in Greek — are simply in a different grammatical category than “masculine” nouns like ouranos (“sky”). To say that some nouns are masculine and some are feminine (and for that matter some neuter, like fos [“light”]) is essentially no different than saying that words are “type I,” “type II,” or “type III.” We can call this grammatical gender, and it has everything to do with language and very little to do with how live our lives.
A Diversion: Number
We might compare gender to number. Nouns come in “singular” and “plural.”
As with gender, number can be real-world, as for example the difference between having one of something and having lots of them.
Or the number can be grammatical, as for example the difference between the word “cat” and the word “cats.”
We can see the difference between real-world and grammatical number by noting that verbs in English also come in singular and plural (“meow” and “meows,” for example), and that the difference is purely a grammatical one. “Meow” means the same thing at “meows.”
Usually we use grammatically singular words (“cat”) for real-world singular things (a cat), and grammatically plural words (“cats”) for real-world plural things (a whole lot of cats).
But sometimes we use grammatically plural words for real-world singular things. The word “scissors” is an example, as in “the scissors are on the table.” We use a grammatically plural noun (“scissors”) and a grammatically plural verb (“are”) even though there’s only one thing there (singular in the real world).
And sometimes we use grammatically singular words for real-world plural things. The word “swarm” is an example. (We know it’s real-world plural because a swarm can do things that only a group can do: “The garden was teaming with the swarm” makes sense, while “the garden was teaming with the insect” does not.)
Unlike number, the difference between grammatical and real-world gender is hard for many English speakers to keep track of. That’s because English does not have grammatical gender. In ancient Greek and Hebrew (and many modern languages) words have to match each other in various ways, including both number and gender. So regarding the pure table in Leviticus 24:6, the Greek word for “pure” is feminine, to match the grammatically feminine Greek word “table.” The Hebrew word for “pure” is masculine, to match the grammatically masculine Hebrew word “table.” In English, the word is just “pure,” neither masculine nor feminine. And in the real world it’s just a table. (Well, it’s not “just” a table. It’s part of the Tabernacle, but….)
As with number, there is no reason why grammatical gender has to match real-word gender. However, because the two kinds of gender often coincide, some people have mistakenly concluded that the two always coincide. That is, because some grammatically masculine nouns are used for real-world masculine people, and vice-versa, some people have concluded that it always works that way.
And I think this is the source of the confusion, and the cause of a lot of the disagreements.
For example, the grammatically masculine Greek word pateres may refer to real-world masculine things, real-world feminine things, or any combination. We have to be careful not to assume that the grammatical gender of the word tells us what real-world gender it refers to.
A Modern Example
An example from Modern French will help. The French word for “person” is personne, and it’s grammatically feminine. (So it matches grammatically feminine adjectives.) But it can be a male person, female person, or whatever. The French for “he’s a good person” is il est une bonne personne. The words for “a,” “good,” and “person” are all grammatically feminine, but they refer to a real-word masculine person.
We don’t have gender mistmatches like this in English, because we don’t have anything to mistmatch — we don’t have grammatical gender.
It seems to me that it’s simply a translation mistake to assume that grammatical gender in Hebrew or Greek has to match up with similar real-world grammatical terms in English.
As a final example, we might note that the German word for “girl” is mädchen, and it’s neuter. Surely this doesn’t mean anything about German children. It’s just a grammatical curiosity, like the feminine French word personne and the masculine Greek word pateres.
The obvious question, then, is when grammatical gender matches real-world gender. We’re lucky that we have a pretty reliable way to find out, as I’ll describe in a future post.