Monday, December 26, 2011


I wonder why it is that we refer to snowmen as "snowmen"? What is it about them, really, that makes them male? True, some wear top hats and smoke pipes, which are stereotypically masculine behaviors. But what about the snowpeople who simply have a smiling face, twiggy arms, and no gender-specific accessories? A friend and I gave Christmas socks to the rest of our coworkers, and one design had a snowperson with a pink scarf. Pink = stereotypically feminine. Yet at least one person still referred to her as a snowman, and when some of us intentionally called her a snowgirl or snowwman, it felt really weird.

I also noticed this assumption of masculinity (for lack of a better term) while playing a card game with my dad this week. The cards have pictures of various kinds of bean characters on them (for instance, the black-eyed bean is in a boxing ring and has a black eye, and the blue bean is dressed like a police officer). There are eight or so different bean characters in the deck, some of which are decidedly male, but most of which are fairly gender-neutral. Yet we both kept saying things like, "I'll plant this guy but let you have those other two guys."

I also find myself talking this way while driving. If I talk about (or at) another driver on the road, I almost always refer to him or her as male. "That guy was nice to let me in," or, "Dude, what are you doing?" It's almost never, "She cut me off," or even, "That person cut me off"--and I'm normally pretty conscious of gendered language.

Just an observation. Well, a few observations, really. I just wonder why we are so inclined to use masculine language over feminine.

Note: In case you've missed it in other posts or conversations, I don't hate men. I think men are pretty awesome. And I have nothing against the term "snowman," or against referring to beans or drivers as guys. I'm just observing speech patterns in myself and others . . . and I think there must be some connection between our language and our societal norms about gender hierarchies.

1 comment:

  1. Ben left these two comments, but they have somehow disappeared. I'll re-post. And, thanks, Ben! That's all really interesting! Yes, I am a grammar nerd for saying that. :)

    "This linguistic feature has its roots in the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE), last spoken well before 1390 B.C. PIE had several declensions for nouns. Two of the declensions were for nouns ending in -a and -o respectively. The o-stem declension had two genders: the animate gender used primarily for people and the inanimate gender used primarily for objects. The a-stem declension had only one gender and was used primarily for abstract nouns.

    "In successor languages and perhaps PIE itself, female personal nouns were moved to the a-stem declension to distinguish them from their male counterparts (although Hittite languages dropped the a-stem declension entirely). Generic personal nouns however were left as animate nouns in the o-stem declension. At this point, the animate o-stem nouns became the masculine grammatical gender, the inanimate o-stem nouns became the neuter grammatical gender, and a-stem nouns became the feminine grammatical gender. The other declensions (the i-stem nouns, u-stem nouns and consonantal-stem nouns) were retained in some languages for no other purpose that I can discern than to confuse children and foreigners.

    "Proto-Germanic mostly followed the typical pattern of masculine nouns including male and generic personal nouns, feminine nouns including female personal nouns and abstract nouns, and neuter nouns including inanimate objects. Old English as a Germanic language also mostly followed this pattern, although it did have some odd exceptions. As part of the shift to Middle English, shortly after the Norman conquest in 1611, English nouns lost gender specific endings. A consequent of this was that it became common to use pronouns that reflected the natural gender of a noun instead of the historical grammatical gender. This removed some oddities and gave abstract nouns neuter pronouns; but generic personal nouns and generic members of a mixed gender group remained masculine.

    "Modern English retains many features from its predecessors. One of these is that many nouns (such as "man", "guy," or "dude") can still be either masculine or generic without changing form, whereas feminine nouns are always distinct. This is not actually an inclination to use masculine language over feminine, but more precisely an inclination to distinguish feminine rather than masculine language from generic language. If there is a connection to societal norms about gender hierarchies then it is informative of the norms that existed in ancient Indo-European society, which is intriguing in itself."

    Ben followed with this self-correction a couple minutes later: "Edit: Norman conquest in 1066"