Contrasts of gender, case and tense in English and Serbo-Croatian

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2001

25 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)



1. Gender in English and Serbo-Croatian
1.1. Grammatical gender
1.2. Natural gender
1.3. Social gender

2. Methods of specifying gender
2.1.The word formation of female forms
2.1.1. Introduction
2.1.2. Serbo-Croatian
2.1.3. English
2.2. Grammatical methods
2.2.1. Tense
2.2.2. Case
2.3. Lexical methods

3. Methods of gender abstraction
3.1. Grammatical methods
3.2. Laxical methods

4. Social and political aspects of language usage
4.1. Language acquisition
4.2. Politics and sex discrimination
4.3. Solutions for a non-sexist usage of language





“Sociolinguistics is a term including the aspects of linguistics applied toward the connections between language and society, and the way we use it in different social situations. It ranges from the study of the wide variety of dialects across a given region down to the analysis between the way men and women speak to on another. Sociolinguistics often shows us the humorous realities of human speech and how a dialect of a given language can often describe the age, sex, and social class of the speaker; it codes the social function of a language.”0

One can assume that in southern countries where women are thought to be more under pressure by men, this might be also expressed in the native language.

Indeed, not only in southern countries but also in numerous European languages three basic facts which express the patriarchal status in most countries are apparent:

1. It is obvious that the female gender is semantically of lower range than the male form. In English, “master” indicates a positive connotation while the female form “mistress” indicates something negative. In Italian, “filosofo” means “philosopher” and the female form “filosofessa” stands for “imaginary wife”.
2. Male forms often are seen as revaluating while female forms are perceived as degrading: “She is man enough to …”, or in German, “Im Beruf steht Birgit ihren Mann.” And contrary: “Tom behaves girlish.”.
3. Male forms that are syntactically or morphologically marked refer not only to a group of men but also to a mixed group of female and male persons. For example, when there are 99 women and one man in a lecture-hall, the male form must be taken as the conventional one. In Germany, for instance, it is not common to say “Liebe Studentinnen”.

Yet it must be said that with changing times (with the help of feminism, the discussion about political correctness and the need for equalization of women) in some languages it is accepted to refer to both genders. For example, in German and Serbo-Croatian one would say “Liebe Studentinnen und Studenten” / “Poštovane studentkinje, poštovani studenti”. This is however, not in English “Dear students”. Here one probably would say “Ladies and gentlemen.”

It is not only in the case of syntax and semantics that women are in a worse position. Women are also at a disadvantage in everyday situations, such as discussions in mixed groups. Numerous studies about male and female conversation have shown that women do not have equal opportunities to be heard. Deborah Tannen works out the differences between men and women in conversation. She differentiates the “Report Talk” of men and the “Rapport Talk” of women and concludes that “…rapport style of relating doesn’t transfer well to the public arena where men vie for ascendancy and speak much more than women.”1

How and why female and male expressions developed the way they have done is not the topic of this essay. There are many other interesting works about language change in society, especially between women and men.2

In this essay I will describe and compare the “femalisation” of words in English and Serbo-Croatian. The questions are: Which one of the two languages “treats” women better? Which one seems to be more patriarchal? Does one of the two languages discriminate women more than the other?

To answer these questions I will first give a survey of the grammatical gender of the two languages. For a better understanding I will also add some examples in other well known languages. I will then proceed to describe the patterns of specifying gender in personality terms, and in case and tense. I will evaluate the use of abstract forms, that can indicate female or male in English and in Serbo-Croatian. I will finally discuss social aspects and mention why women and men use language the way they do.

1. Gender in English and Serbo-Croatian

1.1. Grammatical gender

Most of the European languages differentiate female and male, or female, male and neuter articles. For example French (il, elle) and Italian (la, il); German (der, die, das) and Serbo-Croatian (on, ona, ono).

The basic differences between English and Serbo-Croatian are the morphological contrasts concerning grammatical gender. Grammatical gender is characterized by at least two elements in a sentence that morphologically agree with each other. One of these elements - usually an article, adverb or adjective - refers to the noun with the help of a morphological marker (here underlined) .

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

It is conspicuous that in English there are no such morphological markers and finally no grammatical gender. As we can see, “beautiful”, “good” and the past form of “to go”, “went”, do not change. In contrast to Serbo-Croatian and German, there is only one article that does not indicate gender: ”the”.

1.2. Natural gender

To recognise3 if the female or the male form of an English term is being used, it is important to look at the context. Furthermore, for the choice of pronouns it is important if the noun is human, animate or inanimate.

For example:

animate, human terms: the neighbour…she/he/who

inanimate terms: the table…it/which or that

animate terms: the cat…it/which or that

animate, but personalized terms: my cat Minky/Jerry…she/he/who

In Serbo-Croatian the article is never used before a noun. Nouns with an

[a] –ending are always female forms. If a consonant is found at the end it is grammatically a male noun. Words with an [e]- or an –[o] –ending are neuter.

For example: the moon (-/it) – der Mond (m/er) – mesec (m/on).

the sun (-/it) – die Sonne (f/sie) – sunce (n/ono)

the book (-/it) – das Buch (n/es) – knjiga (f/ona)

1.4. Social gender

There is a third way of choosing pronouns. This is most interesting for the feministic language research. The category “social gender” is neither motivated by grammatical nor by “natural” characteristics of a word. Rather, it is motivated by stereotypes which were built up in our society. For example, “secretary” automatically indicates “female”. There is neither a morphological marker nor a semantic reference to the sex (like it is in “sister”, “mother” or “aunt” for example) that would justify to choose the pronoun “she” in a neutral context. But most people probably would choose the pronoun “she” in combination with “secretary“, because they would think that “secretary” was and still is a typically female profession.

In one of her works, Hellinger talks about “prototypisch weiblich”4. In case of “lawyer”, the semantic meaning would be “prototypic male”.

We can recognize the same „prototype-thinking” in German: everybody says “Jeder Richter würde ihn verurteilen.“ It could be said as well: „Jede Richterin würde ihn verurteilen.” It would mean the same but it is not usual and - I must confess - unaccustomed to my ears.

In comparison to the grammatical or the natural gender the social gender underlies present social conditions and can be inter-changeable. The English words “engineer” and “nurse” were never categorised as male or female. Yet because of social prescriptions, it was always usual to say: “The engineer, he…; The nurse, she…”.

To explain why a word is lexically female, male or neuter linguists often go back to the ideology of men’s superiority. In the bible, Eve was created from Adam’s rib. It is not surprising that also in speech, men are in consideration. The male form is always primary and the first-class category.

English : I, you, he/she/it,…

Serbo-Croatian: ja, ti, on/ona/ono,.…

French: je, tu, il, elle,…

German: ich, du, er/sie/es,….

The same pattern is valid in many more languages.

2. Methods of specifying gender

2.1.The word formation of female forms

2.1.1. Introduction

Personality terms serve to characterise, identify and define persons. They can be neutral (for example, “aunt” – female person, sister of my father or my mother, belonging to my family) or can be valuing (for example German “Tippse” that devaluates the term “secretary” or English “bitch” indicates a “vulgar, bad, mostly female person, who had a lot of sexual partners or who prostitutes her-/himself”).

In many languages it is usual to build a female form of a male expression. For example in German: “Soldat-in”. The insertion of military service for women in Germany is only a few months old. It will therefore be interesting to follow the development of the military vocabulary. It is still usual to say: “Gefreiter Birgit Schulz”. Nevertheless, the question is whether female forms will develop over time, so that one day it become usual to say “Gefreitin Birgit Schulz”, “Oberstin Meier” or “Generälin Müller”. But also in this case, all of this female vocabulary is built up with the male stem. The female form is expressed only by two letters: the suffix “-in” and in case of “Generälin” by the change from /a/ to /ä/ .

Yet one thing is sure: completely new words would not be created to express the female form. And in most languages the male form is not built up from the female stem. An example of this is the German: “Hebamme”. The male form is not “Hebammer” but “Geburtshelfer”. Or in the case of Spain: The male form of “azafata” (English: “stewardess”) is not “azafato” but “comisario de abordo”- a completely new creation.

2.1.2. Serbo-Croatian

Most terms are built up around a stem. Special suffixes indicate female or male meaning. The elements /–ica/, /-kinja/ and /-ka/ mark a female person, /–nik/ marks a male person.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

In the Serbo-Croatian language, it is semantically clear, throught terms and senrences, if the subject is male or female.

2.1.3. English

Most of the English personality terms work only with one form. These words are attached to the so called “dual gender”.5

For example: worker / worker (female and male)

speaker / speaker (female and male)

In earlier times, Old English had patterns for building female and male forms. These pattern where however lost during the Middle Ages these patterns were lost. The building of female forms was not bound to the existence of a male form (this is still the case in German). There were some lean-suffixes (originating from French) like “–ine”, “-trix”, “-ette” and “–ess”. But they were short-lived and only a few words with these suffixes remain:


0; Website from the University of Oregon, Explore!Linguistics

1 Tannen, Deborah, You Just Don`t Understand, p.451.

2 For example: Hellinger, Marlis, Sprachwandel und feministische Sprachpolitik. Internationale Perspektiven, 1985

3 Hellinger, Marlis, Kontrastive feministische Linguistik, 1990, p. 61

4 Hellinger, Marlis, Kontrastive feministische Linguistik, 1990, p. 61

5 Quirk et al. ,1972, in : Hellinger, Marlis, Kontrastive feministische Linguistik, 1990, p. 65

Excerpt out of 25 pages


Contrasts of gender, case and tense in English and Serbo-Croatian
University of Duisburg-Essen  (Anglistics)
Hauptseminar Language, Sex & Gender
1 (A)
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ISBN (eBook)
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492 KB
Contrasts, English, Serbo-Croatian, Hauptseminar, Language, Gender
Quote paper
M.A. Tamara Olschewski (Author), 2001, Contrasts of gender, case and tense in English and Serbo-Croatian, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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