The Use of Gendered Language in Latin

Hannah’s post in “My Problem with Rashida’s Tweet: #stopactinglikewhores” got me thinking about our recent class discussion that the very language we use to discuss gender and gender binaries are already embedded in excess of their meanings.

I’m taking Intro to Latin I this semester, and it is truly shocking how much our English language derives from Latin.  I had always known that Latin was the foundation of our language, but I had not realized how many actual direct cognates there are.  For instance, the Latin for “animal” is literally “animal.”

This got me thinking about how much our language derives from Latin in terms of gender.  Each noun in Latin is a gendered noun.  So, for instance, for the “animal” example, “animal” is a neuter noun.spqr

Another example of a noun in Latin is “domus, -i” which means “house, home.”  This feminine noun is where we derive the verb “domesticate” from.  Our terminology of “domesticate” is literally embedded as a feminine terminology, if we adhere to Latin.

Furthermore, the noun “vigor, -oris” meaning “vigor, liveliness, activity” is a masculine noun.  Have women been conditioned by use of the Latin language seeping into our English, that as women, we are not allowed to be active?  Grammatically, it appears only the masculine are capable of having “vigor, liveliness, and activity.”  Has this condition of passivity and spectatorship, as discussed in Jhally and Mulvey, been unconsciously conditioned to us through our language?

On a similar note, recently, we have been discussing in class Latin’s use of relative and reflexive pronouns (ie: he, she, it, who, whom, what, which, etc).  In discussion, we began to discuss how to refer to a group of people.  Latin automatically references the masculine, if there is ambiguity.  Furthermore, as my Latin professor pointed out, “even if there is a sea of women, and there is one man in that sea, Latin will automatically refer to the group of people as a group of men.”  Isn’t this how we operate semantically in English?  Don’t we reference “he’s” most of the time, versus, “she’s”?  It appears that our language is literally composed from a phallic perspective.

What are your thoughts about gender in regards to language?  Is it possible to discuss gender without in fact using the terminology that has in fact already been embedded in gender?  Do we need to construct a new vocabulary to have these discussions?


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