I’ve spent the past few weeks engaged in the delightful task of data cleaning, which means poring over the thousands of data points my staff collected to spot potential problems. Obsessively browsing my data for errors has reminded me of one of my favorite aspects of Chichewa, which is shared by the other Bantu languages I’ve encountered: Chichewa has neither pronouns nor gendered nouns. This is reflected in how native Chichewa speakers translate phrases to English – unless they are very experienced with our pronoun system, or have a bunch of time to think about it, they tend to pick “she” or “he” as the pronoun to refer to a person roughly at random. So I have notes on my data like “The children say their mother has gone to the market, he sells tomatoes there.”
While this is a bit amusing, I’m not bringing it up to mock these kinds of mistakes. First off, I don’t speak any language as well as my enumerators speak English (maybe Spanish a while back, but I’m way out of practice). Second, I never corrected these issues even out in the field, because I could always tell what they meant, and more importantly because I don’t think the generally-accepted English system of attempting to put force a gender onto all pronouns referring to people is a good one. I’m a big advocate of the singular (or indeterminate-number) they, which was used by Shakespeare but was stolen from us regular folk by the plague of grammatical prescriptivists who have seized control of our language.
The question of gender equality and women’s rights in Africa is a pretty contentious one. I’ve previously highlihted one specific aspect of Malawian culture that is probably more pro-women than the American equivalent, and much more knowledgable people than myself have made a broader case that the importance of gender inequality in commonly-highlighted areas is overblown. Sociologist Susan Watkins makes this case with regard to AIDS in an excellent book chapter called “Back to Basics” which I cannot find online. In joint work with Michelle Poulin, Watkins argues that an over-focus on women is actually hurting them by failing to target the key drivers of the HIV epidemic. Conversely, certain aspects of women’s disempowerment in Africa are undeniable, such as their relatively rarity in the upper levels of government (although America is still not much better).
This, though, is a very straightforward advantage of the language that most people are raised speaking in Malawi. In English, many sentences are subtle power struggles. Do we default to “he” to refer to people of unspecified gender? Do we force a switch to “she”, or try for a hybrid “he/she” or “she/he”? Switching the default to “she” implicitly acknowledges that the default person is male, and over the long term it’s just as unfair as “he”. “They”, my own preference, still leaves me subconsciously assuming a male. Indeed, even when I’m given no pronouns or references to gender at all, I still automatically assume people are male. Not only are there no girls on the internet, but when I was frustrated by the high error rate of one of my data enterers, I found myself growing to hate “him” and “his” laziness (as it turns out the person was indeed male). There are probably many reasons for this, but I attribute it largely to the fact that I am forced, even mentally, to use a gendered pronoun. Chichewa places no such strictures on its speakers. The fact that a generic person does not have to have a gender (which would most likly end up being male) is a small advantage to women in Malawi, and one America would do well to emulate.