Are you still on edge, waiting for my part three of my tales of pain and peril? Well I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait a touch longer, because this is by way of being an ordinary update.
Since the events narrated in part two of the pain-themed posts, things have taken a remarkable turn for the better here. Largely through Swedish Mike and his wife and their barmaid Paulinha (who, also happens to be the still un-recorded Chilly Willy’s daughter), I have been rapidly included into three quite related and vibrant circles: the bar itself, a group of youngish teachers, and a group of musicians. An additional, and as yet untapped, circle consists of Ana’s friends — who may well supply me with many informants for the tricky 60+ group. Informants, finally, are coming through at a something close to a reasonable pace although, ironically, having a sudden increase in offers of involvement, I have been more thoroughly exposed to Brazilian timekeeping (see the previous post), have spent a substantial portion of the last week just waiting for people to turn up, and there remains a high offer:actuality ratio. I have, in fact, taken to carrying the equipment needed for an interview around with me and if I am introduced to someone who expresses an interest in taking part my immediate question is, “Can you do it now?” Nevertheless, I am feeling considerably more positive, having previously started to stress a little about the chances of completing this on time.
Now, do I hear a cry for a photo and a lame excuse to talk linguistics? Well, OK then, but just a short one as the final pain post is still only half-written. But here’s a picture for you of the back wall of the gated carpark of my apartment block. This appeared a few days ago, and this morning I was chatting with Jebediah — the old mineiro in the block — about it. I assumed that it was either a thief trying to unsubtly break in, or a drunk parking the other side of the wall (which is also a carpark). So, having raised it as a topic, I asked “Era um ladrão ou um bêbado?” (“Was it a burglar or a drunk?”). And Jebediah replied “Era uma mulher.” (“It was a woman.) It is this final comment that is the topic of the post — was Jebediah being sexist, or merely correct?
In the absence of knowing the identity of the perpetrator, I used the masculine forms um ladrão and um bêbado. These are what linguists call the UNMARKED FORMS. This is because, were I to have used the feminine uma ladrona/uma bêbeda this would have implied a definite assertion that the individual concerned was female — these forms are MARKED as female. But in using the masculine form I was making no such equivalent assumption. The two are distributionally asymmetric — with one form used in generic cases and the other only in specific.
English has no gender marking on nouns, but comes across this asymmetry when using pronouns. For instance, if in an equivalent situation in England I had asked “Was he drunk?” then — historically — this would have been taken in the same manner: an unmarked form, not actively asserting masculinity, just not asserting femininity. However, this use of masculine pronouns in English has come to be critiqued as “gendered language,” and potentially considered to be a sexist assumption of masculinity. As a result many English speakers use alternative locutions: the slightly verbose and clumsy “he or she” (or vice versa), the deliberate use of “she,” or the so-called “singular they.” Alternatively, some choose to phrase their language such that the question of gender does not arise, as I did above in using a dummy pronoun. This is not an essay on style — but suffice to say, paraliptically, that I do not even consider it worth mentioning the ugly and unpronounceable written “s/he.”
The debate as to which form one should use rages through discussion boards — both linguistic and feminist — on the internet, with conservatives of the ilk that are wont to use expressions such as when I was at school …, political correctness gone mad…, and the like claiming that as it is an issue of grammatical markedness there is no need to alter the traditional use, and feminists (a term which I use to mean simply “people who are concerned with women’s equality,” please take your pejorative interpretations elsewhere) arguing that this asymmetrical gendering of language reflects a wider social asymmetry and should therefore be addressed.
The point of this post is not to set out my position on this matter but rather to contrast English with Portuguese. Portuguese marks gender on nouns (or, more correctly, on noun phrases — more on this will probably crop up in a later post) and does so in a similar manner, whereby masculine gender is the unmarked form. Now I have no idea whether or not this has received in the Lusophone world the same critique — that it represents a form of grammatically-encoded sexism — as the English pronominal system has. It is worth noting that in Portuguese subject pronouns are often dropped (as in the statement Era uma mulher — more on this in another post too), so the situation is quite different. It would, unlike English, take a radical restructuring of Portuguese grammar to remove this feature. I know of no way — short of actually enumerating um ladrão, uma ladrona, um bêbado ou uma bêbeda that I could have raised the question without using the unmarked masculine. It is also worth noting that masculine and feminine grammatical genders abound throughout Portuguese, as all nouns have them, even where the referent of the noun is inanimate. In English the only times we use words with gender marking the referent of that word does have a sex (with the exception of the odd convention such as referring to a ship as she). So it may well be that this simply fails to register as an issue in Lusophone countries as the vast majority of the time, it is not a person that is being (hypothetically) affronted by being (possibly) incorrectly referred to with the masculine.
And what of Jebediah? When he said Era um mulher was he merely making an empirical correction in light of some additional knowledge he had? Or was he, in equating my hypothesized causes (theft, drunkenness) with the simple statement that it was a woman, additionally making a silly comment based on fatuous stereotypes of women drivers? Obviously, the latter. But if I’d admitted that up front, I’d have had no excuse to fascinate you all with a quick précis of gender and markedness.
 For the record: I am inclined to agree with the view that, historically, this represents a grammatically-encoded sexism; but do not go as far as to consider individual users of unmarked he/him sexist. In written materials I avoid it, usually by rephrasing or the use of the singular they — arguments against which I consider to be entrenched in a world-view in which grammar is prescriptive, inviolable and inalterable and that by extension would have us all theeing and thouing and marry-nuncleing. In speech, I suspect I am less attentive, and it may well occur. [Back up]
 I may soon have to quit this stylistic technique of overtly commenting upon my own rhetorical sleights of hand; not least because I run the risk of starting to comment upon the stylistic technique of commenting upon my stylistic technique of overtly commenting upon my own rhetorical sleights of hand; which could well be the start of some exponential and out-of-control cycle of meta-ness. This may have already started. [Back up]