Wednesday, March 2, 2011

By Any Other Name...

I’m interested in the influence of gendered language, and the difficulty of conveying an idea when you don’t have to words for it. I was surprised that Bill Marcellino, as a student of rhetoric, didn’t focus more on the basics of gender as it is connected to language in his article. I read Le Guin’s article before I read the book, and even though she talked about her use of masculine words and pronouns, I was still surprised by how much they impacted my vision of Gethenians as I was reading. Of course, it is important to consider that the use of terms like “man” and “mankind” may have seemed at least slightly less gendered when the book was originally written. While I’m no expert on the linguistic history of “mankind," I know from changed song lyrics and the like that over time "man" has been replaced with words like "person." Regardless, words like “man” or “him" don't automatically call up images of someone with feminine qualities.

I was particularly struck by the fact that Estraven used words like “mankind” until I realized that it was an issue of translation. Estraven wasn’t saying “mankind.” Genly was, in retelling his story for us. The novel abounds with translation and communication problems, between narrator and reader, author and reader, and characters. In dealing with gendered words especially, I was reminded of the Whorfian hypothesis that I learned about in Psychology 101, the idea that language can constrain or influence our way of thinking. For example, when bilingual people who spoke English and Spanish were asked to describe a key, they used traditionally feminine adjectives. When English speakers who also spoke German instead of Spanish described a key, they used masculine adjectives. The word for key is feminine in Spanish and masculine in German. At first glance it might seem that, aside from the pronoun problems, English is better suited for a story about genderless people because we have mostly genderless words.

But that’s not entirely true. Though the Whorfian hypothesis is controversial, I think it’s interesting to wonder about how the words we use influence how we think when it comes to matters of communicating with others. Perhaps because I was primed to think in terms of gender while reading, I was struck by the use of the word patriotism, and the way Gethenians, or at least Estraven, connected it to fear. I would never have thought of patriotism in terms of fear of the other, but do think of it in terms of gender. The word it comes from in Latin, patria, is feminine, something I only remembered because it struck me as bizarre when I learned it – why would a “fatherland” be feminine? Of course other words with the same root have even stronger masculine connotations – think patriarch.

What’s interesting for me, then, is that Le Guin uses this word’s definition within the world of the Gethenians to describe some communication problems in general. This idea of fear of the other comes into play in the inability to conceptualize the world as “others” do – certain words of the Gethenians, particularly "shifgrethor," are untranslatable. And they avoid our system of gendered language because it isn’t a concept they understand. But because there are no words for it, it’s hard to imagine what is really meant. Even in the most intimate act of conversation, mindspeech, Genly has to speak Estraven’s language, explaining, “you don't know mine” (253). I think this provides a key example of the limitations of Le Guin’s own storytelling capability. She could only conceptualize so far within the bounds of the English language. So even though reading is a form of mindspeech, sending words from her heads to ours, they have to be words in our language, and so it is difficult to get past some of our preconceived notions of gender.


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