God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Gender Neutrality and Gender Indifference

A quick note about “they” in colloquial English. It’s used for two purposes: (1) when the speaker doesn’t know the gender of the referent; and (2) when the speaker doesn’t care about the gender of the referent.

For example, if I see a cell phone in the aisle of a plane as I’m exiting, I might pick it up and give it to a flight attendant, explaining, “I think someone dropped their cell phone.” I use “their” because I don’t know if it’s a man or a woman.

But equally, if I want to tell you about a phone conversation I had last night, I might tell you, “I was talking to a colleague yesterday and they said the most interesting thing….” I use “they” not because I don’t know who I was talking to, but because I don’t want to emphasize their gender. (See? I did it again. “Their” gender.)

September 8, 2009 Posted by | general linguistics | , | Leave a comment

Why Both Kings and Queens Can Be Parents

Grammatical and Real-World Gender, Part II

Earlier, I wrote about the difference between grammatical gender and real-world (or semantic) gender. I noted that the former doesn’t always indicate the latter. For example, personne in French is grammatically feminine but semantically inclusive.

As promised, here’s a little bit about how to tease the two kinds of gender apart.


One good way is to use ellipsis, such as “and so did…” or “and so is….” because ellipsis requires meanings to match up (semantic identity) but not the grammar.

For example:

(1) John went to the party and so did Mary.

It’s clear that the second half of the sentence is short for “Mary went to the party,” even though “and so did Mary went to the party” isn’t grammatical in English. In other words, ellipsis here copies the meaning of “went” but not the grammar of “went.”

Another example comes from:

(2) John loves his mother and so does Mary.

This is ambiguous. Either Mary loves John’s mother, or Mary loves her own mother. This second meaning is particularly interesting for us, because it shows us again that the “and so” ellipsis construction copies meaning and not form. (We also learn that “his” and “her” in English mean the same thing.)

Ellipsis In English

With this in mind, we can compare four sentences:

(3) John is an actor and so is Mary.

(4) John is a parent and so is Mary.

(5) *John is a father and so is Mary.

(6) *John is a king and so is Mary.

The asterisks indicate the ungrammatical sentences.

The examples in (3) and (4) are fine because “actor” and “parent” in English are gender-neutral in the real world. That is, men and women can both be actors and parents, even in the dialects that use the word “actress” for a woman actor.

By contrast, in English, only men can be fathers and kings.

Ellipsis In Other Languages

The reason this is so important is that the pattern in (3)-(6) is the same even in languages that have grammatical gender. For example, in Modern Hebrew:

(3′) John sachkan v’gam Mary [lit.: John actor and-also Mary]

(4′) John horeh v’gam Mary [lit.: John parent and-also Mary]

(5′) *John aba v’gam Mary [lit.: John father and-also Mary]

(6′) *John melech v’gam Mary [lit.: John king and-also Mary]

Just to be clear, (3′) is grammatical in Hebrew even though *Mary sachkan [“Mary actor”] is not, because Hebrew requires Mary sachkanit [“Mary actress”]. In other words, Hebrew has masculine and feminine words for “actor” (sachkan and sachkanit, respectively). Generally, the masculine word is used for men, and the feminine for women. But we see from ellipses that this difference is purely a matter of grammar, not of meaning.

Toward Two Kinds of Gender

The pattern in (3)-(6) and (3′)-(6′) works the same way in modern languages across diverse language groups: German, French, Russian, Arabic, and more. In other words, kings and queens seem to be different in ways that actors and actresses are not, and the difference doesn’t depend on which language is used to express it.

Some languages have masculine and feminine forms for “actor” and “actress,” but even so, ellipsis shows us that the words mean the same thing.

Further investigation shows us that the following kinds of words are the same for men and women: nouns in general, including jobs, positions, functions, roles, etc. By contrast, the following are generally not: royalty (king, queen, and sometimes lower ranks), family roles (father, mother, and sometimes son, daughter, brother, sister), and gender roles (man, women).

A Note on Parenthood

We stop to note that this answers an important question: In languages that have grammatical gender, what’s the difference between “father” and “[male] parent,” or between “mother” and “[female] parent”? The answer is that, like in English, “parent” is the non-gendered word, while “mother” and “father” are the gendered words. In other words, both men and women can be parents, but only men can be fathers, and only women mothers. This fact doesn’t depend on the grammatical gender of any of the words involved. (As chance would have it, “parent” in Modern Hebrew is horeh, and the word is masculine. There is no feminine word “parent.”)

Some Results

Because all languages seem to work the same way in the core cases, we can use the data about modern languages to understand ancient ones. What we expect, and what we find, is that ancient Greek and Hebrew have grammatical gender that only sometimes matches up with real-world gender.

In particular, basileus and melech are specifically a man (“king”), while basilissa and malka are specifically a woman (“queen”). They do not mean “ruler.” Similarly, patros and av are masculine in the real word (semantically) as well as grammatically, and meter and em are feminine. They do not mean “parent.”


It is tempting to extrapolate the pattern we have seen with singular nouns and apply it to plural ones, too, but it’s a mistake — a topic I’ll turn to soon.

September 8, 2009 Posted by | translation theory | , , , , , | 6 Comments

On Ethics

Thanks to Dr. Jim West for bringing an essay by Professor Philip Davies to my attention. In it, Davies claims:

Ethics develop in a society where individuals have to make their own moral judgments about intrinsic goodness. […]

[T]he Bible cannot serve a modern democracy as a moral guide — unless of course we decide ourselves, on or own ethical principles, which bits of it we will follow and which ones we will not.

In other words, according to Davies, “ethics” is when we decide for ourselves what is right and wrong. I’m curious how many people belive this.

Of these two options:

1. “Ethics” means I have to choose what’s right and wrong.

2. “Ethics” means I have to discover what’s right and wrong.

what do you believe?

September 8, 2009 Posted by | Off Topic | , , | 4 Comments