Friday, December 23, 2011

Gender of spoken pronouns in Chinese

In English there is a clear spoken difference between he and she (and also between him and her), but the sound for both (tā) is the same in Chinese. In Chinese, pronouns also don't change if they are used as subjects or objects, so he=him and she=her.

On one occasion I was talking with a native Chinese speaker, Ms. A (甲小姐; jiǎ xiǎojiě). My understanding was that all of the persons she mentioned were also native Chinese speakers.

Ms. A was telling me about Ms. B (乙小姐; yǐ xiǎojiě), who had been entertaining her friend Ms. C (丙小姐; bǐng xiǎojiě) at home when Mr. D (丁先生; dīng xiānsheng) called. It seemed that Ms. B might have been interested in the possibility of exploring a relationship with Mr. D. However, he seemed to have become less enthusiastic about such a possibility after he learned that Ms. B's friend was there -- someone whose gender could not be determined from what Ms. B said over the phone, because 他 (tā) sounds the same both for a male and for a female (even when the female-only 她 (tā) is used for women -- which is only some of the time, in my experience).

On another occasion I was speaking with a native Chinese speaker with whom I periodically use a mixture of Chinese and English. This person was mentioning a transgendered person, and started with something like, "我不知道應該用 he 還是 she."
("Wǒ bù zhīdào yīnggāi yòng he háishi she."; "I don't know if I should use he or she.")

I said with a smile, "用 tā 吧!"
("Yòng tā ba!"; "Use the-Chinese-pronoun-with-the-sound-tā-from-which-gender-cannot-be-determined!")

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