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David E. S. Stein

I wonder whether the answer might be simpler than you think.

I have seen confusion arise in many analyses of Hebrew and of English, due to the unfortunate conflation of instances that use the same noun but with differing referential function. Perhaps this finding applies to other languages where social gender correlates to some extent with noun choice or inflection.

That is, a noun that is used to refer to a category of persons may well be gender-neutral (or non-exclusive). But when that same noun points to a particular individual, it may assume a gendered connotation.

Would that explain the usage of Mensch as you have observed it?


No, I don't think that observation exhausts the dynamics of what is going on.

Otherwise, you would not have ordinary people, and linguists, thinking of both of the following examples as "cross-dressing" (as it were):

She's a mensch.
He's a bitch.

Nor would it be possible for a selfsame phrase:

She is one of the guys.

to have so many possible meanings, quite apart from the particular gender of the person denotated by "She."

Rich Rhodes

OK. So I've watched this animation several times and I don't get what you're talking about. To the girl, the mensch is a guy, and she says so. To the guy, the mensch is a girl, and he says so. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, and I speak German, so I may hear this differently from you. Mensch just means a stand-up person in Yiddish.

At the same time, I agree that guy is well on its way to becoming gender neutral. (There's a growing linguistic literature on the topic.) On the other hand, *He's a bitch. is not grammatical in my dialect, but It's a bitch. is. That, however, means something different.

The story about your youthful encounter with a young woman calling you a mensch as a come on actually says nothing about the genderedness of mensch. On this right lips, any compliment can be a turn on, you sexy thang, you.
The factors behind the gendered usage of the "human" word are well-known and well-understood. Such reference runs on prototypes, and the usage patterns are by no means limited to words referring to humans. One can use the word referring to general class to refer to the best instance (prototype) of the class. That's how the Germanic word man '(some)one' came to mean 'adult male human', and Latin homo '(adult) human being' came to mean 'adult male human' in the daughter languages Sp. hombre, It. huomo.

Or one can use the name for the prototype to refer to any member of the general class. For example, we can call cattle, cows.

In most societies the best example of the human being is an adult male. Hence, adam - anthropos can appear in context to mean adult male human, when, in fact, they properly mean just '(adult) human being'.

It's worth noting that there are also Koine instances of aner 'adult male human' being used to mean 'human being' unambiguously referring to females.

The short story is. Don't read too much into the gendered use of non-gendered terms. The story is, as you say, much more complex.


Hi Rich,

Thanks for insightful comments. Mensch in German is one thing, Mensch in English another. In German, it has a grammatical gender - masculine - and a range of gendered and non-gendered usages.

Even in German, the question is whether a word's connotations and denotations *in the abstract* form a point of reference or are implicit in every given instance of usage. My sense: no, they are not.

The situation is even more complicated in the case of Hebrew *ish* which, like *aner* in Greek, is gender-neutral in some contexts, and male-gendered in others, most obviously, when *ish* "male" and *ishah* "female" are collocated with those particular connotations activated in context.

So are *ish* and *aner* gendered terms whose male-genderedness is washed out in some usage, or are they gender-neutral terms which sometimes have a gendered use? Is it even helpful to pose the question in this way?

Rich Rhodes


Grammatical gender is taken way too seriously by those who do not speak languages with grammatical gender.

It's interesting that much ado is made over the essential masculineness of Greek anthropos (and Ger. Mensch), but no one ever suggests that Sp./It.persona is essentially feminine (or for that matter that Ger. Kind and Greek teknon, paidion or prosopon are essentially neuter). Because there aren't crucial feminine cases in Greek, the inconsistency goes unnoticed.

This is convenient for those who have theological commitments that are well served by taking the view that anthropos is essentially masculine.

As for the question of whether a term is essentially gendered or not is a matter of norms. This is relatively easy to tell for languages where we can ask native speakers. But in dead languages, you have to look for evidence of use in contrastive environments, like ish collocated with ishah, as strong evidence that they are essentially gendered. (We can always account for the non-gendered use of the prototype term from our understanding of how categorization works.)

David E. S. Stein

Rich Rhodes:
You wrote—
We can always account for the non-gendered use of the prototype term from our understanding of how categorization works.

Would you be willing to say more about this? I’m not sure what you mean. And I am curious.

Rich Rhodes

It'll take quite a bit to explain it, but the short story is that it is common for there to be usage connections between the term for best or most salient instances and the general term. This is most readily seen in language change. In the most common case the general term comes to refer to the most salient instance or the best example, like OE _deor_ 'animal' Mod Eng. _deer- 'deer'. Gmc *_kwoeniz_ 'woman, wife', OE _cwen_ 'wife of the king'. But occasionally the term for the special case becomes the general term, like OE _bridd_ 'little bird, young bird' (_fugol_ 'bird'), Mod Eng _bird_.

This is how it works for terms for people. In patriarchal societies adult males are the best/most salient instances of humans, hence there can be usages of the term for the 'human being' to refer to 'adult male' and vice versa.



Since I'm fluent in Italian and do fairly well in German and other gendered languages, I know what you are getting at with respect to the relative "emptiness" of grammatical gender in many cases.

But it is not empty in many other cases. Furthermore, emptiness is rather often in the eyes of the beholder.

That explains why there are ferocious (and understandable) attempts in both gendered and relatively ungendered linguistic environments to degender and regender what used to be universally accepted (male-gendered or gender-neutral, take your pick) means of expression.

The debate about the use of masculine pronouns, in reference to people and to God, now invests specific linguistic communities in both gendered and relatively non-gendered contexts. It has become a polarizing factor of the first order.

As far as Bible translation is concerned, the attempt by some on both sides of the debate to construe it as a debate about accuracy in translation is sometimes little more than a rhetorical ploy.

Honesty is such a lonely word. It is still best to admit that all of our apparently benign and irrelevant linguistic discussions take place, not in a vacuum, but in a highly charged ideological environment in which the choice to gender / degender / regender the language of the Bible "horizontally" and/or "vertically" is equivalent to laying down a boundary marker between opposing confessional camps.

Rich Rhodes

I'm painfully aware that the discussion does not take place in an ivory tower vacuum.

My wife and I, who have a very egalitarian relationship, spent 14 years as part of a large, extremely complementarian Christian community in the 70's and 80's. (You're probably familiar with the foundational volume on the topic from that community -- Steve Clark's _Man and Woman in Christ_, all 768 pages of it.)

Now we are part of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a non-confessional denomination, which has a single _de facto_ confession, namely, every ordained minister must sign that he/she is egalitarian.

I have seen the good and bad fruit in each -- and there's plenty to go around. In the name of trying to counter the influence of worldly culture on the church, like [gasp] feminism, the complementarian community effectively embraced 1950's American culture (or an idealized and sanitized version of that culture) and mistook that for Christian culture.

On the other hand, the ECC has failed miserably to bring the rank and file congregations along in their attempt to do what they think is theologically correct, and the result is that many congregations are _de facto_ complementarian, including rank and file pastors who behave like complementarians in spite of their promises to the denomination. The fruit is predictably awful. I've been in the denomination for 20+ years, and I have yet to meet a woman in ministry in the ECC who has not been significantly wounded because of this disconnect.

And I'm yakking on and on because I constantly deal with the very thing you are talking about: gendered or non-gendered language is seen by everyone as standing symbolically for positions in this whole mess.

All the more reason why we linguists, who rolled our eyes when the feminists insisted on _mailperson_ instead of _mailman_ and _waitperson_ instead of _waiter_, also get to say that the reactions to these extremes, like the complete nonsense about singular uses of indefinite _they_ are just as inappropriate.

Someone has to be able to say: Language works like this ...
English works like this ...
Don't write your theology into your translation lest you find yourself under the curse of Rev. 22:18.



I'm glad you are yakking away on this. That's one thing blogs are for.

My egalitarian roots run very deep, several generations. I feel as if I know its strengths and weaknesses as a culture and as a theory fairly well.

At the same time, I have younger cousins who found their egalitarian upbringing wanting and who, in the process of becoming vibrant Christians, have shifted to a soft complementarianism. I see more mutual respect modeled in their marriages than in most marriages I know of where both spouses self-identify as egal. But mutual respect in the soft complementarianism I know first-hand is combined with a certain sure-footedness about lines of domain-based authority and a commitment to old-fashioned courtesies that are unusual in egalitarian settings.

Outside of other more important convictions, egalism doesn't always amount to more than equal rights under the law to hurt one's spouse (as in Kramer vs. Kramer, almost a metaphor for an entire culture), a greater openness to divorce in principle (in practice, it works out about the same), and other amenities.

Egalitarianism in the denomination I serve (United Methodist) is also correlated, among those who run the show, with masculine-free language in reference to God and horizontal inclusive language to the point of awkwardness.

I know it is well-meaning in the extreme, and even helpful in some settings. But still, it comes across as hopelessly irrelevant in most contexts.

In my setting the the rank-and-file for the most part is indifferent on horizontal gender-neutral language, and annoyed to death when the result is "Christa" in worship or God addressed as mother but never father.

Rich Rhodes

I can't do "Christa". Jesus was a man. Get over it.

God as Mother may be OK, but absolutely not to the exclusion of God as Father.

The place where gender-neutral language gets to me is in the hymns.

"Rise up, O men of God". It's OK to have hymns that are addressed to part of the church.

And all too often gender-neutral language ruins the poetry.

"Dear Lord and Father of humankind" [gag]

And you don't get to re-write hymns if the poet used language to refer to himself!

“Thou my great Father, thine own may I be,
Thou in me dwelling and I one with Thee”


"Thou my great Father, I Thy true son;
Thou in me dwelling, and I with Thee one."

I guess this is why I simply say what I think is true about the language of Scripture, and let people yell at me. (Have you seen the conversation going on over at Aristotle's Feminist Subject?)

I'm an equal opportunity offender. I'm too close to gender neutral for the complementarians but I'll insist on original gendered language when it's warranted.

David E. S. Stein

To Rich Rhodes:
Thank you for taking the time to spell out what you meant. If I understand you correctly, you are drawing upon a linguistic theory that human beings think in cognitive categories that feature prototypical members.

To John:
Although that theory can indeed explain a lot of things, I find myself wondering in what way it applies to the Hebrew noun ’ish. (I mention this because we were debating under what conditions ’ish establishes its referent’s gender as a matter of denotation, or whether the referent’s maleness is rather a connotation provided only by context.)

Prof. Rhodes suggested earlier that the fact that a grammatically masculine noun has a feminine counterpart noun is “strong evidence” that the masculine version has an intrinsically male reference. Yet perhaps that claim oversimplifies the situation. It seems to ignore that in Hebrew, a masculine-feminine noun pair is embedded in a larger grammatical pattern that divides the animate world into two categories: female and not-female. Grammatically feminine inflections are used when a referent is believed to be solely female; otherwise, grammatically masculine inflections are used by convention. (I say “by convention” because in certain other dual-gender languages, the grammatical gender used is not the same one that’s used when the referent is believed to be male. At least, so claims Greville Corbett in his 1991 book on gender as a linguistic category.)

In Hebrew, this linguistic convention applies broadly: not only to nouns but also to pronouns and to verbal inflections in the absence of a noun; and not only in 3rd-person reference but also in 2nd-person address. Given such pervasive application of that convention, one would expect grammatically masculine-feminine noun pairs to follow the same rule: the masculine term would naturally be used except when a referent is believed to be solely female. If so, then when a noun is pointing to a non-specific referent and the topic is not restricted to males, this convention alone seems to be enough to explain Hebrew’s usage of a grammatically masculine term.

In other words, such contextual situations mute the male meaning-component of the noun; by convention, both speaker and listener simply ignore that aspect of the word.

What I would wish to ask Prof. Rhodes is:
What then is the need to invoke prototype theory? What difference does it make if in Israelite society, adult males were perhaps considered “the best/most salient instances of humans”? (And how would we prove such a claim anyway, since the linguistic convention confounds the analysis?)

In asking these questions, I grant that in the biblical world, certain men (family patriarchs, elders, kings) typically represented their entire corporate household or clan or nation, in terms of decision-making and ritual-or-ceremonial presence. Yet isn’t that fact of societal organization a logically distinct phenomenon from linguistic categorization and prototyping?

Furthermore, prototype theory seems ill-suited for the analysis of the Hebrew noun ’ish in particular. For it is a noun that indicates relationship between the referent and another party. It does not designate an “adult male” in isolation, except as a matter of connotation. As such, it does not denote an element within the cognitive category “human being.“ Rather, it belongs in a different cognitive category altogether.

I would agree with Prof. Rhodes that “there can be usages of the term for the 'human being' to refer to 'adult male' and vice versa.” Yet I am still wondering: how is that relevant to ’ish?

David E. S. Stein

Oops, I see that I misrepresented what Rich Rhodes had written, for which I apologize.

He cited not only the mere existence of a feminine counterpart noun (like ’ishah) but also of its occasional collocation with the masculine noun: “of use in contrastive environments, like ish collocated with ishah, as strong evidence that they are essentially gendered.

Yet the recognition of this point does not change my questions. Due to the linguistic convention that I discussed in my previous comment, the meaning of ’ish in “contrastive environments” cannot tell us everything about its meaning when used alone. Or so it seems to me.



Rich Rhodes, I think, plans to do a series on this topic over at Better Bibles.

It is my understanding, and I base this also on my daily use of a dual-gendered language, that masculine pronouns for example can be utilized with a generalized reference at least three different ways:

(1) with references to males only. That males only are spoken of is determined by context, sometimes, by *extra-linguistic* context alone; or by delayed clarification within the discourse stream;

(2) with reference to males "primarily," i.e., with their situation in particular view, but with the possibility of refocussing the discourse, even suddenly, on females only;

(3) in a completely washed-out gender-neutral fashion. This is particularly frequent with the use of the 2nd person plural.

I am of course completely oversimplifying! (2) is not a common procedure today, because of broad cultural changes it seems to me, but it still occurs, and is culturally appropriate in some instances.

The questions, then, are: how to know when is 'ish used in one of these three ways, or some other; what kind of collocations characterize one usage as opposed to another; what discourse-level cues, redundantly or otherwise, clarify matters?

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  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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