Does Covid have gender?

Image: Plato Terentev


The distance between grammatical gender and biological gender does not disqualify the reflections of activists and academics on topics such as prejudice, sexism and exclusion

We all belong to the genus homo. In the well-known taxonomy of Biological Sciences (the one that organizes kingdoms, phyla, classes, etc.), our species sapiens is in the same genre as other less fortunate ones (such as the erectus: georgicus, or the heidelbergensis), all extinct. So we are of the genus homo and of the kind sapiens.

Cases like this make it clear that the term “gender” does not always refer to sex or the social notion of gender (which distinguishes people Are you there e tranny, for example). His story may help to understand the term: “gender” comes from the distant genus, which meant something like origin, ancestry. Theoretically, elements that have the same origin will have common characteristics and, therefore, can be grouped – which may explain the recurrence of this term in different taxonomies (“discursive genres”, “musical genres” and many others “of the genre” – with pardon the pun).

This does not explain, however, why, in most Romance languages, the linguistic gender was divided into “masculine” and “feminine”, or even, continuing what happened in Latin, masculine, feminine and neuter (as in Romanian). Or why, with such a classification, it would be possible to assign “masculine” or “feminine” to elements that, strictly speaking, do not seem compatible with such ordering (what would be masculine in “the schema” and feminine in “the tactic”? ", for example?).

Before discussing the gender of COVID-19 (something certainly less enigmatic than the sex of angels), let's briefly reflect on the notion of linguistic gender.


Linguistic genre: mystery or arbitrariness?

In yours Principles of General Linguistics, the Brazilian linguist Joaquim Mattoso Câmara Jr. makes an exceptional bibliographic review of gender as a grammatical category of nouns. Among other things, Mattoso Câmara points out that gender inflection is more the exception than the rule in nouns in the Portuguese language. Whether between animate entities (“the jaguar”, “the spouse”, “the witness”), or between inanimate ones (“the book”, “the sofa”, “the armchair”), there are many names that do not change shape. to indicate masculine and feminine (it would also not make sense to look for a “feminine” for “the sofa”, or a masculine for “the armchair”).

Furthermore, recalls Mattoso, the language criteria for differentiating genders vary, going beyond the masculine/feminine division. The author cites Malay, a language in which, among other genres, there is one to designate human beings and another to indicate tailed animals. Even in Portuguese, there are nominal forms that are not masculine or feminine: the neutral demonstratives (“this”, “this” and “that”) express the “non-human” value – and can therefore assume a pejorative sense when designating people (in Portuguese). phrases like “Is this your leader?”, for example). This happens because Portuguese pronouns keep a sort of etymological memory of Latin grammar, in which the neuter gender manifested itself. remnants of the language mater.

Despite these considerations, it would be an exaggeration or naivety to conclude that there is no relationship between grammatical gender and biological or social gender, including because the latter can be expressed by the former (“the teacher”/ “the teacher”, “the young person”/ “the young woman”). ", etc.). Among other hypotheses, the exquisite bibliographic review by Câmara Jr. mentions the one defended by the German linguist Franz Bopp: Indo-European peoples would have transferred the notion of sex from the animal kingdom to the other elements of the universe, through associations that saw them as “male” or “female”. Such analogies, however, if they actually existed, do not support the current notions of gender in Neo-Latin languages, which are not even coincidental (among many other examples, we can remember that, in Spanish, “la nose” and “la leche” are terms of the feminine gender).


The COVID or the COVID?

There are no official regulations on the subject in Portuguese, so we should not be surprised if “false prophets of grammar” appear proclaiming a “logical” solution: “since it is a disease, the right thing is COVID-19”, some would certainly say . This output could be exemplified with a text published by the Brazilian Academy of Letters, which, although it did not take a position on the subject, mentioned “the COVID-19 pandemic” when announcing the launch of its journalistic section on the subject.

A more commendable posture was that of the Real Academia Española: in addition to explaining the reason for the capital letters (it is an abbreviation of CORONAVIRUS DISEASE, something like “coronavirus disease”), the entity recorded that the feminine is acceptable, as it follows the feminine gender of the noun “disease”. Also according to the Spanish institution, the masculine is also appropriate, taking into account what happens with other diseases whose names come, by metonymy, from the names of their viruses: Ebola and Zika, for example.

Yes, the Académie Française explains that the genre of an acronym or acronym comes from the nucleus of the syntagm that composes it, like this: the SNCF (Société nationale des chemins de fer, National Society of Railways), because the core of this phrase is “society” and the CIO (Comité international Olympique, International Olympic Committee), because the nucleus, committee, is a masculine name.

When an acronym or acronym is made up of foreign words, the same principle would apply. In this way, proclaims the Académie, we should say “the COVID 19”, because COVID means corona virus disease (“Coronavirus Disease,” the core is the feminine noun “the disease”), while “19” refers to 2019, when the first cases in Wuhan, China, were publicly disclosed by the Chinese government in late December. Also, like the Real Academia Española, it argues that what happens is that speakers, by metonymy, attribute to the disease the type of pathogen that causes it.

In any case, it should be noted that lies the original arbitrariness (or mystery) of grammatical genders: “diseases” are not “female”, nor “viruses” are “male”.


The “x” of the question

The distance between grammatical gender and biological gender does not disqualify the reflections of activists and academics focused on themes such as prejudice, machismo and exclusion. It is worth noting the unusual example of Grada Kilomba, a Portuguese woman whose sociological work Memories of the plantation – episodes of everyday racism was originally published in English. In the translation into her mother tongue, the author inserted a kind of glossary, discussing terms that she had used naturally in English, but which did not seem equally appropriate in Portuguese. About the term “subject”, the writer points out the exclusivity of the masculine in Portuguese, “the subject”: for her, the non-existence of the feminine “the subject” or the non-binary “xs subjectxs” requires us to seek “to understand what an identity means does not exist in their own language, written or spoken, or be identified as an error”.

*Marcelo Modolo is professor of philology at the University of São Paulo (USP).

*Henrique Santos Braga He holds a PhD in Philology and Portuguese Language from USP.

Originally published on Journal of USP.


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