|It's a girl! Or is it? Sometimes it is hard to tell. Image via the Graphics Fairy.|
I am so sorry mom! I just realized that you might have read the title of the post and assumed we were surprising you with the news of a new grandchild. I'm really sorry to disappoint, but we haven't adopted a baby girl of either the human or feline variety. Fortunately, your other daughter has already given you beautiful grandchildren and will forever be on the top of the "Best Daughter" league tables for eternity because of that. But the good news is that we now know the sex of our boat and it's a girl!
You know how sometimes it is hard to sex certain animals like birds and snakes? Remember when we had that bird that was called Gertrude and then suddenly we had to change
Well, it turns out I shouldn't have worried because all boats are girls! I'm not really sure how they make new boats if there are only girl boats but they're making incredible advances in science these days. The good news is that from now on I don't have to worry about whether to use "he" or "she", I can just use "she". But it is peculiar in the English language to use gender for an inanimate object such as a boat. Yes, I know some people think their boats are very animated and alive. However, I'm not one of them. So I did some research and here is what I found out.
English used to be a gendered language. There are lots of languages out there that are gendered. For example, in French a table is feminine (la table) and a hat is masculine (le chapeau). Might seem strange to think about girl tables and boy hats but it seems perfectly natural to the French, as does eating snails. And if you think about objects being boys or girls, that affects how you view them or so the theory goes. There was a new bridge built in the south of France in 2004. When the French newspapers described the bridge they talked about how it was "immense" and a "concrete giant". When the German newspapers described the bridge, they talked about how it had "breathtaking" beauty and "floated above the clouds" with "elegance and lightness". The French descriptions might be seen as more masculine, whereas the German descriptions might be seen as more feminine. And guess what - the word for bridge in German, "Brucke", is feminine and the word in French, "pont", is masculine. So perhaps when Germans look as bridges they perceive them differently than the French.
But why do English speakers think about boats as feminine objects? And do we think about them differently because they are girls? Today, we use neutral articles ("the" and "a"), but until the 1200s, English had masculine and feminine articles ("se" for boy objects and "seo" for girl objects). For example, the sun was considered to be feminine and was called "seo sunne" and talked about as "she". Somewhere back in the murkiness of history this all stopped. And it might have had something to do with the Vikings invading Britain. There was a lot of speaking of Old English and Old Norse going on at the same time and although both were gendered, the genders they assigned to different objects were sometimes contradictory. It may have been so confusing to all concerned and in order to make things simpler people just dropped gendered nouns over time.
But not completely, boats are still girls in English. Well for many people. The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press and New Times style books now recommend using "it" to refer to boats. Even the Brits are on board as the London-based shipping newspaper, Lloyd's List, only refers to boats using "it". Language is nothing if not adaptable and changeable. So you can decide to have a girl boat. Or you can decide to neuter your boat and start talking about it as "it". You can even give your boat a sex change operation and starting calling it "him". Your choice. Don't you just love freedom of choice?
Want to know more?
If you want to learn more about language and gender, check out Lexicon Valley. They have some great podcasts on the subject including "When Nouns Grew Genitals", "How English Lost Its Genders" and "For He/She's A Jolly Bad Pronoun". The guys at Lexicon Valley also inspired this article on English and gender over at Hotword. And Grammarphobia has chimed into the conversation as well. Lera Boroditsky (a psych professor at Stanford) writes popular science articles on how language shapes the way we think (expanding on the original Sapir-Whorf hypothesis for all you nerds out there). You could check out her article in the Feb 2011 edition of Scientific America if you have a copy lying around your boat. Of course, if you're feeling geeky, she also writes scholarly articles but coverage of her in social media and popular science outlets will do for the rest of us. And then there is this slightly bizarre debate in Wikipedia Talk about boats and gender that you can check out. The discussion ranges from John McCain to Germany having a sex change operation.
|Are they girl birds or boy birds? Hard to tell. Image via the Graphics Fairy|