David E. S. Stein is a careful researcher of gender representation in ancient Hebrew. He has published a number of ground-breaking articles in the field. He is also well-known for his gender-sensitive adaptation of the NJPS translation of the Torah , which I discuss here, here, and note this as well. He just presented at a NAPH meeting on the subject: I link to a video slide version of the presentation below. In a series of posts, I will reproduce and interact with David's responses to a few pointed questions I threw into his lap.
Q #1: If I boarded the elevator in the lobby of the Empire State Building, and rode to the 80th floor with a fellow Hebrew scholar who asked me to state the rules of usage that apply to the use of grammatical gender in ancient Hebrew, I would say the following in the 45 seconds at my disposal. (1) If the subject or subjects of a verb are exclusively masculine, the gender of the verb must also be masculine. (2) If the subject or subjects are feminine, the gender of the verb must also be feminine. (3) If the subject or subjects of a verb comprise masculine and feminine of a given species, the gender of the verb will be masculine, unless the verb has an explicit compound subject in which one of these subjects is to be spotlighted, in which case the gender and number of the verb will agree with the subject to be spotlighted, not the gender and number of the compound subject. (4) If the grammatical gender of a noun is feminine, but the social gender of the referent subject is masculine, the gender of the verb will be masculine. (5) I can't think of any examples offhand of the opposite, in which the gender of the noun is masculine, but the social gender of the referent subject is feminine.
You will notice that I haven't used up my entire 45 seconds. What would you add to the above? Where do the above statements stand in need of correction?
Here are David’s first seven responses to this question (more to follow):
1. At this point in my research, I avoid elevators whenever possible and take the stairs instead! I am so aware of complexity that I nearly despair of being able to succinctly articulate what I observe. But I’ll try. . . .
2. Let’s explicitly limit ourselves to speaking only about references to persons. (References to animals and to inanimate objects do not necessarily follow the same rules. They are not burdened by our interest in the referent’s social gender.)
3. Your starting point appears to be the extralinguistic reality that the text designates by its wording. You are asking how the speaker or writer of biblical Hebrew would make reference to a given person with a known social gender. What I try to do instead is formulate the rules from the audience’s perspective -- to start with the text (linguistic expression) as the given, and then ask what it is (and is not) saying about the referent’s social gender. That’s what I mean by the term “referential gender”: what the expression is saying about the referent’s social gender.
4. Because the terms “feminine/masculine” are so ambiguous, lately I prefer using the terms “marked/zero-marked” to describe syntactic gender, versus “womanly/manly” to describe referential gender (as distinct from grammatical gender).
5. The key factor in referential gender is often overlooked: the reference’s specificity. We must distinguish between two basic kinds of reference: categorizing versus identifying. With any linguistic reference, the audience must disambiguate whether it is referring to a category of persons (“anyone who fits the description” -- what I call a categorizing reference) or to a particular person (what I call an identifying reference). Some expressions can be employed to make either type of reference; it depends on the situation and shared knowledge.
6. So here is the crucial addition that I would make to your elevator rules: If the reference’s wording (e.g, the verb) is syntactically zero-marked (masculine) and the reference is categorizing, then the referent’s social gender is not specified. The reference per se is gender-neutral or gender-inclusive.
7. For that reason, the mental leap from linguistic realm to extralinguistic (personal characteristics) needs to be explicit. Yet in some of your assertions, it’s not clear. For example, "If the subject is exclusively masculine...” Better: “If the social gender of the syntactic subject’s referent is exclusively manly.” Your way of stating it is simpler, but unfortunately such imprecision can easily lead us astray.
Since it’s “Summertime, and the livin' is easy, fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high” (Gershwin), it may not be easy to distract fellow Hebraists into joining a conversation on this topic at this time. On my part, I would respond to David’s points along the following lines.
First of all, I would say that gender representation in language, like gender construction in culture, is both extremely routinized and nonetheless subject to subversion and inversion in specific cases. I remain interested in stating rules that apply to gender representation, not only in reference to the social gender of persons, but to that of animals and abstract concepts such as wisdom and foolishness. It is a linguistic universal that so-called inanimate objects are endowed with social gender by those who speak of them. As much as we might want to draw a sharp distinction between grammatical gender and social gender – and we need to as linguists - the tendency of language speakers, individually and collectively, is to conflate the two for a variety of ends. Even in a language like English, which is impoverished from the point of view of marking gender, overt marking of gender, albeit “unnecessary” for the “normal” needs of communication, is still common. That is why in English a car becomes a she in a variety of contexts or genres. In ancient Hebrew, attention to the metaphoricity of grammatical gender pays dividends, both from the point of view of a performer of ancient Hebrew, and a spectator.
It is true that I stipulate rules from the point of view of a performer of ancient Hebrew, not a spectator, and that I have social gender in mind, in reference to persons and to members of a species, in my rules (1)-(3), and social gender-by-convention in mind in reference to “inanimate” objects. In my view, it is of great heuristic value to do so. I realize that it is contrived to do this, but no more and no less contrived than to stipulate rules from the point of view of a spectator of ancient Hebrew. I see David’s point about distinguishing between social and grammatical gender. What is of interest is the interplay of social and grammatical gender, not only at the level of syntax, but at the level of realities and categories as varied as ant, god, and wisdom.
Finally, I wonder about David’s “crucial addition” to my elevator rules. My problem is that I am not sure it is practically true that speakers or listeners think in terms of the binary David proposes, categorizing versus identifying. I imagine that speakers and listeners think more or less exclusively in terms of identifying references. Still, I agree with David that the social gender of a referent cannot be read off from grammatical gender, because of what I refer to as the “coed” goes to “masculine” rule. One might pose the question in this way: If I am speaking about a category of individuals that are all male or who will be assumed to be all male under normal circumstances, do I use “masculine” verbs in concord with that fact or do I use “zero-marked” verb forms for lack of an alternative? Put another way, is the “zero-marked/marked” binary an etic distinction, or an emic distinction?
For David Stein's narrated slide show, based on his NAPH presentation, entitled “Meaningful Manipulations of Grammatical Gender: Explaining a Set of Exceptions to So-Called Masculine Precedence in Biblical Hebrew,” go here.