Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 2

In Part 1 of this series I outlined the issue with the Greek word anthropos and Joel Hoffman’s claim that this word has a male meaning component. I showed that the word is used only extremely rarely to contrast with words meaning “woman”. I also linked to evidence that the word is used of specific women, although rarely and never in the New Testament, in which case it has feminine grammatical gender.

At this point I want to introduce my readers to the concept of markedness. This is an important idea in linguistics, one which was first developed in the field of phonology but is now proving useful in describing other aspects of languages.

Steve Runge helped me to learn more about markedness in a series of posts earlier this year on his NT Discourse blog. The most important post for this discussion is the first one; in his other with the markedness tag he applies this theory to Greek verbs and discourse. Here is part of Steve’s introduction:

Markedness is an organizational framework for taking a complex set of data and organizing it into meaningful groupings to facilitate description of the members. The organization is accomplished by taking the most simple, basic member of the set, and using it as the canon against which the other members are contrasted. The most basic member is referred to as the default. The other members of the set are then described by how each differs from the default and from the other members. The default option is the one used when, to paraphrase the Hallmark commercial, “you do not care enough to send the very best.” In other words, when there is nothing special that one wants to signal as present, the default is the natural choice. For this reason, the default is generally the most frequently occurring member of the set. It does not signal or mark the presence of any special feature. In this way the default is also called the unmarked option.

This system that I have described is an asymmetrical approach to markedness, where each different member of the set marks the presence of a different, unique feature. There is another approach to markedness that is far more widely known within NT studies, though it is not used nearly so prevalently in linguistics proper. I mention it here for clarity sake, knowing that it may cause confusion for some. The intention is to show what I do not mean by markedness when I use the term.

The second approach to markedness is the symmetrical one. …

At this point I would like to make it clear that I am also using the “asymmetrical approach to markedness”, and not “the symmetrical one”. Read Steve’s post for more explanation of the difference.

I would like to apply this concept of markedness not to Greek verbs and discourse but to Greek gender and gender-related words. Of course I can only do this very inadequately in the course of a short blog post – there is very likely enough material here for a PhD. But I would like to make some provisional observations based on my experience of how Greek works.

First, I think Greek makes a clear distinction between gendered lexical items and grammatical gender. At the lexical level one can distinguish between gender pairs of words which are very different in form, e.g. ho aner “man” and he gune “woman”; pairs which differ only in their ending, in effect declining like adjectives, e.g. ho adelphos “brother” and he adelphe “sister”; and words which can be masculine or feminine depending on the gender of their referent but do not change their form, e.g. ho diakonos “servant/deacon (male)” and he diakonos “servant/deacon (female)”. The word we are mainly discussing here, anthropos, fits in the third category, although its feminine form is rare and not found in the New Testament. Some words fit in more than one category: the female form of ho theos “god” can be he theos, as in Acts 19:37, or he thea, in Acts 19:27.

In Greek, as in all gendered languages as far as I know (certainly also in French, Latin, German, Italian, Russian and Hebrew), the masculine plural is regularly used to refer to groups of mixed gender. This is already a strong indicator that masculine is the unmarked or default gender and the feminine gender is marked. Further evidence of this, at least in Greek, comes from the regular use of the masculine gender in indefinite sentences, e.g. to refer back to the genderless pronoun tis “someone”/”who”, even when the sentence is clearly applicable equally to men and women.

So how might these principles apply more specifically to anthropos? I will discuss that in Part 3.

0 thoughts on “Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 2

  1. As I note here, technically I am not quite correct in calling the Greek pronoun tis “genderless”. In fact it has two forms, one either masculine or feminine and the other neuter. But it certainly makes no distinction between masculine and feminine.

  2. I need to make a small correction concerning Russian. That language has lost all gender distinctions in the plural, except for a few traces. I strongly suspect that historically the feminine plural has disappeared because its special marking is rare and redundant. So what I said about the masculine plural is not quite correct. There are of course in Russian words for professions etc which have different forms for men and women, and (as in English until recently) the plural of the form for men can be used for groups of mixed or indeterminate gender. In that sense what I wrote is correct, but not technically so concerning grammatical gender.

  3. Pingback: Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 1 - Gentle Wisdom

  4. Pingback: Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 3 - Gentle Wisdom

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