Friday, January 10, 2014

A Gender Neutral Pronoun Re-emerges in China

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A Gender Neutral Pronoun Re-emerges in China, by Victor Mair (Slate.com, 26 December 2013)

Excerpt:
One of the first things a student learns when studying Mandarin is the third person pronoun, tā. This was originally written 他 , with "human" radical (a radical is a part of a Chinese character that imparts some semantic or linguistic information), and it stood for feminine, masculine, and neuter—"he," "she," and "it." During the early 20th century, however, some bright folks—undoubtedly in emulation of European languages—thought it would be a good idea to introduce gender into the Chinese writing system, so 她 (with "female" radical) came to be used for the feminine and 它 (with "roof" radical) for the neuter. I always thought that rather odd, because no attempt was made to differentiate the three forms in speech, only in writing, hence 他, 她, and 它 were still all pronounced tā.
Victor Mair is Professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

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