God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Two Examples of Just How Tricky Gender Can Be

Gender, and in particular the gender implications of anthropos, have come up over and again recently (for example, my posts here and here, some great information from Suzanne here, and a response by Peter here). I hope to have time in a few days to prepare a fuller post with a little more background and information.

In the meantime, here are two examples — one from Russian and one from Spanish — that show how tricky gender and language can be.


moi doktor ne znala shto deleat
my (masc.) doctor (???) NEG knew (fem.) what to do
“My doctor didn’t know what to do.”


el azucar blanca
the (masc.) sugar (???) white (fem.)
“The white sugar….”

In (1), we see that the normally masculine word “doctor” gets a masculine adjective (moi) but a feminine verb (znala) because she is a woman. (This contrasts with how gender usually words, as in the example I gave here about the French personne, which gets feminine agreement even when it refers to a man.)

In (2), we see the noun azucar (properly with an accent that I can’t figure out how to type) with the masculine determiner el but the feminine adjective blanca. (La azucar blanca is also possible, and depending on dialect, so is el azucar blanco.)

These highlight the complex nature of gender in language.

More soon.


September 26, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics | , , , ,


  1. Joel,

    You example with “el azúcar blanca” does not work because in Spanish the color white is feminine. The expression “azúcar blanca” is not used. See here and here.

    Claude Mariottini

    Comment by Claude Mariottini | September 27, 2009

    • I understand that one wouldn’t think it would be used, but it is, for example here (just one random example out of 555,000 Google hits for “el azucar blanca”):

      “Imposible, porque el azúcar blanca refinada….”

      This apparent grammar mismatch is precisely why the example is interesting.

      Comment by Joel H. | September 27, 2009

  2. There is a rather similar oddity to the Russian one which I just found in John 16:13:

    hotan de elthe ekeinos, to pneuma tes aletheias, …
    and when comes that(masc), the(n) spirit of-the truth …

    Presumably ekeinos is intended to refer back to the masculine parakletos in verse 7 and so is masculine, and the neuter to pneuma is in apposition. Could something similar be happening in the Russian example, as might be seen from a fuller context?

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 28, 2009

    • I think you’re probably right that “he” refers back to v. 7, in which case this isn’t really a gender clash; it’s what we’d expect. There’s no reason nouns of different genders can’t be used in opposition (though it’s sometimes linguistically awkward.)

      The Russian example is different.

      The Russian word doktor always takes masculine adjectives, even when it refers to a woman. So far, that’s not unusual. It’s like the French personne, which takes feminine adjectives even when it refers to a man.

      What is unusual is that the word dockor takes feminine verbal agreement when the word refers to a woman.

      So we might contrast the French Cette personne est arrivee…. (“That[fem.] person[fem.] arrived[fem.]…”) with the Russian moi doktor znala… (“my[masc.] doctor[???] arrived[fem.]….”) It’s the conflict between the masculine adjective and feminine verb that’s odd. There is no gender assignment for doktor that makes sense of this.

      Comment by Joel H. | September 30, 2009

      • Joel, I agree that nothing makes sense of this Russian example. That’s why I would like to confirm that this is taken from a genuine text by a mother tongue speaker and that there is nothing relevant in the omitted context, like a feminine noun in apposition, to explain the anomaly. That is, I would like to check that the original sentence was not something like “That woman, my doctor, didn’t know what to do.” But I can’t do this as you give no context.

        I know that Wayne Leman, of BBB, has done some research on a variant dialect of Russian in which gender distinctions are breaking down in strange ways. See this site. The main evidence concerning gender is in a paper by the top Russian linguist A.A. Kibrik, in Russian only. If your example is a genuine one then perhaps the same process is also happening in standard Russian, but in that case I’m sure Kibrik would be aware of it and interested.

        Comment by Peter Kirk | September 30, 2009

  3. Peter: While I constructed the example, I tested it with native speakers, and it’s representative of a general phenomenon in standard Russian. (The example comes from a paper I gave in Buenos Aires some years ago — I’m trying to find my handout, and I hope to expand on this information soon — but I’m not the only one who knows about this.)

    Comment by Joel H. | September 30, 2009

  4. I will never truly understand the grammatical gender of numbers in Hebrew. Really. It just flip-flops…

    Comment by Gary Simmons | November 15, 2009

    • As chance would have it, we just went through this on Higgaion.

      And it turns out there’s a pattern lurking behind the numbers, and why they appear to be backwards.

      In every language there are two kinds of words, called “open class” and “closed class.” “Open class” are words that can be invented on the spot, like nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. “Closed class” words are everything else, including pronouns and numbers.

      The pattern is that -ah marks the feminine in open class words, but it marks the masculine in closed class words. That’s why shlosha is masculine, and it’s also why atah (and not at) is masculine. (We have a similar phenomenon in English with -s, which marks plural nouns but singular verbs.)

      I have more in my Jerusalem Post column called “As Easy as One, Two, Three,” a link to which is available here.

      Comment by Joel H. | November 15, 2009

  5. […] is more complex than Language 101 classes would suggest (I have some particularly vexing examples here), and it’s not unheard of for words to allow two […]

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