Japanese siblings, English genders

One of the great things about learning other languages is that you also learn about the concepts that underlie linguistic representation.

In Japanese, there isn’t a commonly-used word that means just brother. In conversation it’s always older brother (兄) or younger brother (弟).

(Pedantically speaking, there is a word consisting of the characters for both, 兄弟, but that also encompasses the meaning of siblings — yes, this probably is the patriarchy in evidence — so it’s unusual to refer to male siblings exclusively.)

Japanese speakers with limited English, in my experience, try to clarify the ambiguity as early as possible in the conversation. They might have concepts of sibling, younger brother, older brother, younger sister, and older sister, but not so much of just a brother or a sister. Those with better English can defer the distinction until necessary.

I think that being able to conceptualise something that does not have a direct equivalent in one’s own language is a step towards and prerequisite for becoming fluent in another language.

In English, items are it and people are conventionally he or she, and, although they has good historical provenance as a non-gender-specific third-person singular pronoun, it has historically been used to refer to an unknown third person, rather than a known one. But grammatically there’s nothing stranger about singular they than there is about singular you as opposed to thou:

Again, the corrupt and unsound form of speaking in the plural number to a single person (you to one instead of thou;) contrary to the pure, plain, and single language of truth (thou to one, and you to more than one,) which had always been used by God to men, and men to God, as well as one to another, from the oldest record of time, …

Today, I was talking to friend A about (non-mutual) friend B. Following B’s expressed preference, where I used a pronoun at all, I used they exclusively.

Despite this, A assumed a gender for B and used that exclusively. I didn’t make a point of it, I didn’t correct A, and I don’t know to what extent A’s assumption was based on A’s or my gender, but I found it interesting that A felt that a gender was necessary and could be assumed. More than that, I found it interesting that A couldn’t carry the ambiguity but had to attempt to resolve it unilaterally.

The idea of male or female runs pretty deep, but it’s not the only way to think about people. It might feel uncomfortable, but really it’s just a tiny fraction of the difficulty of learning a foreign language, a feat accomplished by billions.

If you can learn to order dos cervezas, por favor, you can probably learn to conceptualise a person without immediate reference to gender. It’s worth giving it a try, but you probably will have to try. Even so, English is much easier than, say, Hebrew.

Incidentally, the Japanese language has very little gender marking, and you can talk about someone for a long time without revealing their gender. But, of course, language is only one facet of gender in society.