Corrected version--please disregard previous sloppy post!

Edward Hobbs (
Sun, 26 May 1996 19:20:54 -0400 (EDT)

Grammatical gender, real-world sex, and "Pneuma"

Dear Colleagues of the B-Greek List:

I have done my best to stay out of silly-season arguments on this List; but
it seems that there is such rampant confusion over the term "gender" that a
few words from a grammarian are in order.

Prior to the massive disruptions in meaning of English words involved (even
remotely) with sexuality, which have been taking place during the last two
or three decades, the word "gender" had virtually nothing to do with sex.
It referred to a grammatical category which is widely significant in many
languages (though very little in modern English). Decades ago we always
gave a lecturette to beginning Greek students about "gender," carefully
distinguishing it from sexuality: "Nouns in Greek have gender; people do
not have gender. 'Feminine gender' does not refer to a woman, but to a

Recent decades have seen a rise in the use of "gender" to mean "sex", so
that "gender studies" no longer has a linguistic reference, but means
"sexuality studies," "male/female studies." But the result is that
misunderstanding of the use of the term "gender" in grammar has increased
almost unbelievably.

(For those who want a thirty-second statement of this change, see the Third
Edition of the _American Heritage Dic-tion-ar-y_, page 754.)

"Gender" in languages which use it significantly (this excludes English,
since it has almost entirely vanished therein) is simply a system like area
codes, one which allows a much wider data base. Some languages have as
many as (roughly) twenty "genders", some have three (Greek and German),
some have two (French and Hebrew), and English has one (i.e., it has been
dropped as a classification system for nouns).

The problem for beginners studying ancient Greek is that the terminology
chosen by the pre-Aristotelian grammarians to describe this system was not
"neutral", such as alpha, beta and gamma, but instead "masculine, feminine,
and neither." This apparently stemmed from the fact that many nouns in
alpha-group referred to males, and many in beta-group referred to females;
gamma-group was fuzzy, hence "neither". Even in referring to humans, a
little girl (KORASION) might be "neither," just as German Maedchen (girl) is
"neither". All foxes, whether males or females, in Greek were beta-form,
"feminine" (ALWPHX), while all hares were alpha-form, "masculine" (LAGWS).
BOUS could be counted either alpha- or beta-form, hence "ox" and "cow".
And so it goes, on and on. The choices often look strange: in German one's
wife is neuter (das Weib)! We consider "sun" and "moon" to be "neuter,"
though this is only revealed when we call them "it"; but "sun" is masculine
in Greek (and feminine in German), while "moon" is feminine in Greek (and
masculine in German).

when referring to humans (but not always then).

The problem in English translation is that WE use it only when having to
choose between "he, she, it." We disregard the Greek gender when we choose
the pronoun in English. In Mark 5, Jesus is asked to come to the
QUGATRION (neuter) of Jairus for a healing. He takes the parents of the
PAIDION (neuter) in where the now-dead girl (still neuter--PAIDION) is,
and tells the KORASION (neuter) to rise; "and at once the KORASION rose and
walked, because [3s. dummy] was twelve years old." Now surely anyone would
translate this as "she" in English. Carlton Winbery's example made the
same point from the other direction.

We only become agitated when we start worrying about whether God's Breath
("breath" in Greek is "neuter," while in Hebrew it is "feminine"!) should
be called "he," "she", or "it." THIS CAN'T BE SETTLED BY GREEK GRAMMAR!
Those who want to have an all-male Trinity prefer "he," those who want a
bit more "spirit-like" 3rd person like "it," while a large portion of the
early church thought of the Spirit as the Mother (the early Creed says
the Son was "begotten" by the Father, "conceived" [see Aristotle on
SULLAMBANW!--only females did it] by the Spirit, and "given birth" by Mary)
which means that you can have your choice, depending on your theology.

But PLEASE let's not try to settle theological issues with Greek pseudo-

Edward Hobbs
(Wellesley College; sometime Harvard, sometime U.Cal., sometime GTU)