Feminine-ism and Linguistics

Stephen Cope considers the distinction between gender and sex

I was blessed in having a German mother, who brought me up bilingually. Thus, when it came to being taught French, and the rest of the class were struggling with the notion that ‘la plume de ma tante’ implied that pens were female, I was quite happy with the idea that ‘die Feder’ had a feminine grammatical gender. We English have it easy, as far as our language is concerned: males are masculine, females are feminine, and (with a few, perhaps outmoded, exceptions) things are neuter. The difficulty occurs when we try and learn a foreign language without adopting the foreign mind-set that goes with it.

Thus French people, as far as we see it, have to come to a conclusion about each single noun, as to whether it is male or female, and many’s the schoolchild, I am sure, that has been entirely baffled by the notion of boats being male and boots being female. And when German people have a choice between masculine, feminine, and neuter, and still seem to make arbitrary decisions as to which should be which, many despair.

Things and people

The point is that for the French, as for the Germans, grammatical gender has no necessary bearing on biological gender. For them, pens are just as much female as they are for us – namely, not at all. And many of us English simply don’t take that into account when translating concepts.

The perfect example occurs with the Third Person of the Trinity. As far as traditional English is concerned, we are talking about the Holy Ghost here, just as much as the Germans would be talking about der Heilige Geist. A masculine noun, Geist, and therefore the Holy Ghost automatically takes masculine endings for adjectives, and appears, to all intents and purposes, to be male. However, once William the Conqueror and his hordes arrived, and made a mess of the English language by adding French words, we started to speak about the Holy Spirit, just as the French would talk about le Saint Esprit. Also a masculine noun. So therefore whether we speak traditional or francophile English, it would appear that the Third Person of the Trinity is male.

Just Schnapps

However, there are two arguments against this conclusion. The first is the simple one that for the Germans and the French, Geist and esprit are ordinary nouns which under ordinary circumstances are thought of just as much in a masculine way as would a pen be thought feminine. Take, for example, Zeitgeist (spirit of the age), or Himbeergeist (raspberry schnapps) – hardly masculine. Or esprit de corps (team spirit) or esprit d’escalier (a witty retort thought of too late).

And also, there is the evidence of other languages. While Latin also uses masculine (spiritus), Greek, the language in which the Gospels were written, uses a neuter noun (pneuma) – does this imply that the Holy Spirit is an ‘it’? Both Latin and Greek have three choices of linguistic gender. And when we come to Hebrew (two choices only), in which the sacred texts of the Old Testament were written, the word for ‘spirit’ is a feminine noun (ruah). More than that, the language that Jesus would have spoken day by day was Aramaic, which again only has masculine and feminine, and in which again the word for ‘spirit’ (also ruah) is feminine.

The Language of Jesus

These last points have led some feminists to conclude that, because Jesus would have used a linguistically-feminine noun for the Third Person of the Trinity, so therefore the Holy Spirit is in fact female. Which is precisely the argument I have tried to counter by reference to ‘la plume de ma tante’, and has its basis in an English (mis)understanding of the nature of a foreign language. One can conclude as much that the Spirit is female in Hebrew and Aramaic as one can that the Spirit is male in French, German and Latin – or indeed that the Greeks were confused about the whole matter!

Syriac sting

There is a sting in the tail, however. While we have little evidence from elsewhere, Christian ancient Syriac gives a new perspective. Syriac is another Semitic language, and has the same basic word for ‘spirit’, which is linguistically feminine. However, in Christian ancient Syriac, whenever the word is used to describe the Holy Spirit, it always and exceptionally takes a linguistically-masculine form. Does this mean that the Syriac-speakers were deliberately making the Holy Spirit male?


Stephen Cope is Rural Dean of Bridlington and Vicar of Rudston with Boynton, Carnaby and Kilham, and Priest-in-charge of Burton Fleming with Fordon, Grindale and Wold Newton and formerly a student of both Medićval and Modern Languages and Theology at the University of Oxford.

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