Friday, November 18, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender (2)


Like Greek, Hebrew nouns and adjectives have gender. Unlike Greek, they occur only as masculine or feminine. There is no neuter gender in Hebrew. In addition, there is a small number of nouns that sometimes occur as masculine, and sometimes as feminine. As an example, when the English Bible reads “people” on the basis of the Hebrew word ‘am it is reflecting a masculine noun. So those poor Israelite women had to suffer the pains of knowing that there was no way in their language to “include” them, as the very word that referred to the people as a whole was masculine in gender. Perhaps to emphasize the point that noun gender has nothing to do with sex, most body parts that occur in pairs are feminine in gender. The exception to this rule is the word for “breast,” which is a masculine noun.

Also unlike Greek, Hebrew verbs have gender. So in the Book of Ruth, if one passage says, “Ruth said” and another passage says, “Boaz said,” the form of “said” will differ between the two occurrences, since Boaz is masculine and Ruth is feminine. The only point at which this is not the case is with first-person (I/we) forms of the verb. Further, Hebrew generally uses masculine verbs forms for a mixed-gender subject, whereas a feminine verb form always implies a feminine subject. Or, as one of the standard Hebrew grammars puts it, “A feminine verb form can indicate that the subject noun is feminine, but nothing certain can be inferred from a masculine form (Jo√ľon-Muraoka, ¶89b). Another way to put it is that the masculine verbs forms are not necessarily gender-specific, while feminine verb forms are. In short, Hebrew uses masculine forms for generic references.

Pronouns are the only parts of speech in English that are “gender specific” in terms of how that term is usually defined. “She” is used for specifically female, “he” refers to male or generic, while “it” generally refers to things. Idiomatically, some things are referred to by masculine or feminine pronouns. So, for example, boats are usually called “she/her.” I don’t know enough about the history of the language to account for these exceptions. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, “he” and “him” were regularly used, and were understood to be used, in generic cases. That is, in a situation where the sex of the subject is unknown, “he” was used. For example, “When the reporter calls, tell him I’ll get back to him.” Though the pronoun “him” is used, there no expectation that the reporter was actually a male. In the 1970s, certain feminists began to insist that using the masculine pronoun in this fashion did in fact deliberately exclude women. Despite the fact that no one had ever thought so, this philosophical silliness quickly took over academic circles in the USA and, more slowly, in Europe. For some reason, it also quickly infected the area of Bible translation. Hence, as early as 1976 (the publication date of Today’s English Version (also known as the Good News Bible), some attempt was made to eliminate the generic use of masculine pronouns.

I will conclude today with one example, and then move on in the next posts to consideration of further examples. Psalm 1:1 (KJV) says, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” Notice that the only specifically masculine term in the verse is “man.” In order to eliminate that reference to “man,” the TEV says, “Happy are those who reject the advice of evil men…” In order to eliminate “man” as in the KJV, the translators introduced a plural (the original is singular). They then proceed to introduce “men” where none stood before. It is curious that “evil men” is acceptable (are only men evil?), but “the man” is not.

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