Foundation: defining gender.

|||| Patience Newbury

“A primeval, albeit universally intelligible language delivering the most rudimentary means of human communication upon which: social systems of order; divisions of labour; industry of culture; ways of perceiving the external world; and structures of spoken languages are founded.”

One supporting hypothesis advances that the language of gender was happened across or created as a technology for assuring the early survival and evolution of the Homo genus of primates, facilitating the evolution of complex social systems endemic to archaic H. sapiens and modern H. sapiens sapiens (and possibly H. neanderthalensis as well). Gender in this sense was foundational to the emergence (and geographic diversification) of more complex verbal and, later, written means of communication which were to follow. Those systems were strongly influenced by this primeval language of gender already in place.

Under this hypothesis, gender bears no relationship to biology or body morphologies, although certain biologies or body morphologies may arbitrarily be assigned contextual meanings using the grammatical rules of gender.

Gender is broken into cultural and/or social dialects apropos to systems of order: a di-gendered social order, for example, is structured into two principal dialects known as femininity and masculinity; a tri-gendered social order would include a third dialect; and so on. Expressions of dialects are accents; these vary according to, amongst others, conditions, situations, surrounding social company, relative social placement, age, and class.

The Language Acquisition Device (LAD) is believed to be a mechanism in the human brain that is able to absorb, integrate, and synthesize any language to which one is exposed within a developmental window early in life (known as the “critical period hypothesis” (CPH)). If so, CPH helps to explain why the case studies of feral children lack the ability to fluently use a spoken or written language, and why they may lack the ability to socially integrate appropriate to how they are being presented to society (often with the help of other people to dress, groom, and place them into specific social contexts).

Separately, a living body lacking the means to communicate (e.g., a body in a permanent vegetative state) also lacks gender because it cannot be an interlocutor and thus cannot articulate cues or contexts required for gender to be received, parsed, or meaningful for other interlocutors.


A footnote on gender, to be unpacked later:
The working definition presented on this entry — and this framework of theory that I will explore on Cisnormativity — disagrees with the Butlerian premise that “gender is socially constructed”. On the contrary: social order is shaped by a precedent language of gender; societ(ies) followed after the basic building blocks of gender were formalized.

6 thoughts on “Foundation: defining gender.

  1. While I find the relationship of this hypothesis of a (possibly pre-verbal) language of gender and actual language a little murky. Is my understanding correct when if I understand you to be saying that gendered inflections language (or the way genders is coded into language) depend, in some important way, on this language of gender?

    • Is my understanding correct when if I understand you to be saying that gendered inflections language (or the way genders is coded into language) depend, in some important way, on this language of gender

      Yes.

      It was a working hypothesis entertained before further peer research supported a related idea that spoken communication — the use of phonemes — appeared to have a specific locus of origin in time and place.

      This proposed relationship between gender-as-language preceding spoken languages is tentatively supported by a prevalence of gendering noted in spoken languages across multiple linguistic families — be it syntax-by-interlocutor; subject-directed syntax; gendered vocal inflections by interlocutor; and so on. Across these, the implementation may differ, but each is still identifiable as gendered once a listener/interlocutor has a basic command of that language’s syntax.

      I plan to explore this further with a peer reviewed paper.

      • I look forward to reading this. I’m also curious to see if you’ll account for languages like Mandarin that have no gendered inflections. That, when speaking, it is impossible to discern the gender of people (even via pronouns since all their pronouns are homophones). Although, I suppose that gendering occurs in terms of adjectives and which get applied to whom. And kinship terms are definitely gendered.

        Although, the answer to my question likely lies in the distinction (which I’m not knowledgeable enough to know) between syntax-by-interlocutor, subject-directed syntax, or gendered vocal inflections. I think the latter is what I understand Mandarin to lack. Possible the second. But I’m not sure about the third.

  2. intriguing. i have some linguistic-anthropology-geek questions and skepticisms that i’d be interested in hearing your thinking on, mostly having to do with what sounds to me like a reliance on ideas about language universals that are mainly useful for dealing with abstract grammars rather than actual human uses of language…

    but more urgently, it seems to me that there’s a problem with part of the premise here.

    the official languages of europe’s colonial powers do something unusual: they divide humans into different noun classes based on (presumed assigned-at-birth) sex. *most languages*, however, don’t have multiple noun classes at all, and a substantial number of those that do have them, don’t divide humans into different ones on the basis of sex. (it’s also worth noting that neither number of noun classes nor their sex-linking in a given language corresponds particularly to the gender systems of the societies that speak it.)

    the fact that noun classes get called “gender” at all is a direct result of that specific characteristic of those european languages, and the racism that centers linguistics as a field of study on the languages of colonial europe.

    there are some dandy maps of noun class number and sex-linking at the World Atlas of Language Structures website: here and here.

    now, there are plenty of ways that language does gender besides noun classes, but i’m having trouble coming up with other *structural* ways, which it seems your argument requires…

  3. The working definition presented on this entry — and this framework of theory that I will explore on Cisnormativity — disagrees with the Butlerian premise that “gender is socially constructed”. On the contrary: social order is shaped by a precedent language of gender; societ(ies) followed after the basic building blocks of gender were formalized.

    This is interesting! So to put it another way, perhaps society is gender-constructed? I don’t think I’d put it quite like that. I think that risks going back to the old argument that gender is the “first” or “most basic” order, somehow prior to other oppressions. But I think it does point to arguments made by many feminists that this specific society and those like it do seem to be very fundamentally founded on the idea of division (or more accurately dualism). But I can’t buy anything which says it’s a biological (or neurological!) imperative. Where are you going with the idea?

  4. Are you arguing that gender developed like language? Or as part of the gendered aspects of language? How does this imply that gender is not socially constructed, if it develops out of language? How do you link together word genders (die Kunst, der Mond, das Boot) and their development with the complex development of human genders? Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, so I suppose I will have to see more of your path of argumentation to determine whether I agree with this theory.

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