Re: Phonetic alphabet[wasRe: Bill Gates]

Wesley Schwein (
Wed, 8 Oct 1997 15:59:45 -0400 (EDT)

On Mon, 6 Oct 1997, The Low Golden Willow wrote:

> Gender. We've escaped the pointless chains of gender most other
> Indo-Europeans languages have, but we still have it in our pronouns.
> This fuels the current debate over non-sexist language and may make
> trouble once we have to worry about aliens or AIs. "It" has
> connotations of being dead or very weird; we're pretty used to sentients
> being either male or female.

Language is not thought; language communicates thought between parties who
share linguistic conventions. Certain conventions, including pronouns and
syntactic gender, do not create sexism but _may_ reflect sexist
assumptions. Syntactic gender doesn't really have much to do with
biological sex, as neuter German words like "Maedchen" and "Kind" (girl,
child) demonstrate; syntactic gender is a classification technique. Other
languages in the world have genders based on animate versus inanimate;
physical descriptions like round, open, long, etc.; or no genders/word
classes at all. In these other systems of syntactic gender, there is just
as much arbitrariness of gender assignment. In various Iroquois languages
(Algonquin IRRC), some plants are animate, others classed as inanimate.

Back to sexism, Finnish and Hungarian, Ural-Altaic languages which do not
have syntactic gender (they have one set of pronouns for all people
--"s/he"), still make distinctions which reflect sexism. Words for
professions, such as "teacher," are assumed to be masculine; a female
teacher is called a "teacher-woman," with the word for woman tacked on to
the word for teacher.

How will this relate to AIs? I suspect some cultures and subcultures will
call them "he," others "she," others "it;" Finns will have to choose
whether to use their non-human set of pronouns or, as they do with house
pets, make them honorary humans; some cultures will just not have any
confusing language issues regarding AIs.