Friday, August 2, 2013

Native American Gender

Q: I read that Native Americans didn't have male and female genders, instead they just had animate and inanimate genders. Do Native Americans still feel this way? Is this why there are two-spirits in Native American culture?

A: Actually, more than anything, this is just an example of an English word changing its meaning over time. "Gender" originally just meant "category," which is the Latin word it came from. In Latin, nouns were categorized into groups of "masculine" nouns, "feminine" nouns, and "neuter" nouns, which used different grammatical endings. (You can still see this in many European languages, like Spanish.) That is how "gender" eventually came to specifically refer to masculinity/femininity, which is how it is usually used today.

Native American languages do not have masculine or feminine noun categories. Instead, some of them (such as the Ojibwe language) have animate and inanimate noun categories. Animate nouns, like "dog," take different grammatical forms than inanimate nouns, like "shoe." When linguists talk about "animate gender," they are using the older definition of "gender," and they mean the category of words that are animate.

This doesn't mean Native American cultures don't have male and female genders, don't care about gender, or don't have any traditional gender roles. It is solely a grammar issue. For comparison, the English language also does not have any grammatical masculine or feminine noun categorization.

As for two-spirits, in some Native American tribes, two-spirits were a special class of people who displayed both masculine and feminine qualities. They are completely unrelated to grammar.

Hope that helps, have a good day!
Native Languages of the Americas

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