What's Gender Got
to Do With Grammar?
Gretchen: Wilhelm, where is the turnip? [German die Rübe] Wilhelm: She has gone to the kitchen. Gretchen: Where is the accomplished and beautiful English maiden? [German das Mädchen] Wilhelm: It has gone to the opera. (Twain, "The awful German language," A Tramp Abroad, 1935, pp. 1147-1148)
A cartoon in Ladies' Home Journal magazine by Henry Martin depicted a woman pulling up at a service station and saying to the attendant, "Fill him up!"
The two epigraphs to this chapter derive their humor at least partly from a deliberate confusion of the distinction between what linguists have traditionally called "natural" and "grammatical" gender. In his essay Mark Twain goes on to say that in German "a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has," because the word for 'young woman' is das Mädchen, or neuter in gender, and the word for 'turnip', die Rübe, is feminine. Hence the pronouns that refer to them must be either neuter (it) or feminine (she), respectively. A linguist would say simply that every German noun belongs to one of three gender categories conventionally labeled masculine, feminine, or neuter. Twain's literal translation sounds comical to English speakers because only persons or other living things with biological sex are usually referred to as she. Things such as turnips do not come in male and female varieties and therefore have to be referred to as it. Conversely, if the Ladies' Home Journal cartoon were translated literally into German, it would not be funny at all. Because the word for 'car' in German (der Wagen) is masculine, a masculine pronoun would have to be used in referring to it.