Gerhard Mussies on Gender

In independent adjectives, the value of the feminine categories consists in the positive reference to a female person (we use the words feminine and masculine for the categories, the words female and male for the sexes) e.g. Odyssey ε, 212-213, ἐπιεὶ οὔ πως οὐδε ἔοικε/θνητὰς ἀθανάτῃσι δέμας καὶ εἶδος ἐρίζειν. From the New testament we know only instances that happen to contain participles or numerals: Matt. XXIV 41 δύο ἁλήθουσαι ἑν τῷ μύλῳ μία παραλαμβάνεται, καὶ μία ἀφίεται, and Luke I 45 μακαρία ἡ πιστεύσασα (στεῖραι in Luke XXIII29 μακάριαι αἱ στεῖραι is perhaps not an adjective).

The gender value of the masculine categories is the positive reference  to a person, but this person may be male or female. Often the context gives a clue for us to decide whether woman (women) or man (men) is (are) spoken about, but not always so;  in e.g. Apc. XXII 11 ὁ δίκαιος δικαοσύνην ποιησάτω ἔτι καὶ ὁ ἄγιος ἁγιασθήτω ἔτι both sexes are meant indiscriminately. The masculine category is therefore unmarked as opposed to the feminine.

Gerhard Mussies, The Morphology of Koine Greek as Used in the Apocalypse of St. John: A Study in Bilingualism (NovTSup; Leiden: Brill, 1971), 123; my emphasis.

Its that last line that’s probably most important here: “The masculine category is therefore unmarked as opposed to the feminine.” This statement has massive implications for the debate about gender in translation, thought the sentence’s meaning is completely dependent upon how Mussies uses the terms “Marked” and “Unmarked.” Luckily, he provides a discussion of that as well, which shows that he follows Roman Jakobson & Joseph Greenberg’s perspective of these terms.*

[I]n describing the semantic differences between two opposed series of words one can usually consider either of the values as positive i.e. positively expressing a certain notion, whereas the opposed value is neutral i.e. expressing indifference with regard to the positive value of the other category. In practice, this means that according to context the value of the unmarked member may imply the absence of the notion expressed by the positive value, or express a notion which does not exclude that of the positive value. Semantic oppositions, therefore, are not polar, not like “X vs. Y” which are then exclusive of one another, but but rather like “X vs. O” i.e. “X vs. (X plus Y)”. An example is furnished by the opposition between the vocative and the nominative e.g. δοῦλε vs. δοῦλος, πόλι vs. πόλις, etc. Of the vocative the value always implies the addressee, the person spoken to; the value of the nominative, however, is neutral: contextually it may indicate the addressee (nom. “used as a vocative”), or not (nom. used with 3rd p. verb); it is unmarked as opposed to the vocative.

Ibid., 72-73 (my emphasis).

Following this understanding of markedness and Mussies’ observation that the feminine is marked, while the masculine is unmarked, [see comments] we must ask whether it is valid to say that Greek words that are grammatically masculine should always be translated with referentially male English words. Mussies’ view of Gender and markedness greatly weakens the case for always translating a word like ἄνθρωπος as “man” even in the singular. It also provides greater evidence that the meaning of the word is much closer to the English “person” than “man.”

By the way, in my opinion, Mussies’ Morphology is probably the most important contribution to Greek word formation in at least the past century, if not ever. Its unfortunate that it was published by Brill and thus virtually unattainable. I’m continually looking for an affordable copy.

*see especially Joseph Greenberg’s Universals of Language (2nd ed.; Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press), 1966.

10 thoughts on “Gerhard Mussies on Gender

  1. Thanks for reminding me of linguists which I studied in Toronto 30 years ago.

    One note however. This discussion refers first to grammatical gender, so it applies directly to participles, adjectives and and words like adelphos/adelphe. But anthropos, on the other hand, has the meaning of “human being” – it simply means a human and has no masculine meaning either marked or unmarked. This is not because masculine is unmarked and may apply to females also, but rather the semantic content is to be “human.” For example, in French the word “la victime” means the victim and does not mean that the person is feminine, just as “la personne” also means a person, and has no reference to the female. This is where semantics decides.

    So the rule you highlight applies to participles, adjectives and words like adelphos and adelphe, which have both a grammatical masculine and feminine form. The feminine form applies to women only and the masculine form is unmarked and applies to both.

    I don’t know if this is clear or not.

  2. No problem – gender seems to be one of the trickiest elements to conceptualize clearly in another language because of the different levels. Are you following the posts on gender in Hebrew?

  3. I read this post after the plain sense post. This bears similarities to my rule of thumb – What I called the Holy Spirit contradicting context is like marking the gender because it leaves us no doubt. However, anything else is unmarked, leaving room for translation/interpretation that is men only or men and women.

    What is most tantalizing to me is the question Greek itself proposes about humanity: Why did such a system of gender emerge so complicated? The strictly logical thing would be either two (feminine and masculine) or three (fem, masculine, and neuter) genders that are all marked. In English, where we have no neuter, I understand why we use one gender to act inclusively. But in Greek, with a neuter, why would inclusive meanings sometimes use neuter and sometimes masculine?

  4. Just in case it helps you (Ephilei) in your consideration, my understanding is that an earlier stage of the language had only “animate” (masculine/feminine) and “inanimate” (neuter) (I think you have to go back to the stage before Indo-European branched from Hittite to get this). I would imagine that the noun classes began developing, and the labels occurred because people noticed that ἀνήρ and γυνή belonged to different classes.

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