Nigeria is a country of many languages – among the most prominent, Yoruba, Igbo and Hausa, as well as English. In a remote farming community in the south of the country, however, a language is clinging on which is one of the most unusual in the world: for in Ubang, men and women speak different languages. Although they are mutually intelligible – boys grow up speaking the ‘women’s’ language around their mother and female relatives – they have different words for almost everything. Linguists have compared it to the difference between US and UK English, only more so.
This is an unusual example; in most places, a yam is a yam, no matter who is speaking. But many languages – about one quarter – and most of Indo-European origin, do have some gendered element to their lexicon. For example, while men and women speak the same French or German language, we’re all familiar with the fact they possess ‘grammatical gender’, with some nouns being characterised as female and some as male or neuter.
Unlike French and German, the Ubang language is one of those considered very endangered, due to changing gender roles and the influence of nearby cultures.
The link between having different grammatical forms, and classifying them according to human gender isn’t immediately clear, and linguists still argue about its link to human characteristics. Nevertheless, the metaphor now certainly affects how language is used. Studies of different language speakers have suggested that the grammatical gender of a noun influences the kind of adjectives associated with it. In Spanish, where the word for ‘bridge’ is masculine, it might be described as strong, sturdy, or towering – all traditionally male attributes. In German, by contrast, where the word is ‘feminine’, it is more likely to be slender, elegant or beautiful.
Are some languages inherently sexist? It could be argued those kind of associations exist outside the word and its gender, and if a German speaker had different cultural predispositions, their ‘female’ bridge might be just strong and sturdy as the Spaniard’s.
So if a speaker’s interpretations are often informed by their ideas of gender, does this also have an impact on localization? Given the stereotypes which exist about ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ attitudes to certain ideas, and the fact that many texts are to an extent open to interpretation, it would be reasonable to expect some level of difference. However, studies have shown there is no measurable difference in the accuracy of male and female translators.
This doesn’t mean that translation is free of gender bias, however. Localization as a field tends to be heavily female: it is well known that woman translators outnumber men, and traditionally it has been seen as a ‘woman’s work’, like a secretary or typist. Even today, there are still clear gender divides between male translators who might work in business, politics and other technical fields; and females who work in fiction or other ‘softer’ subjects. However, with top management levels still dominated by men, it’s unsurprising that in there is a clear tendency in literature to translate fewer women authors.
As in other industries, localization firms are now working to encourage women to diversify into different roles, including management. We still have a long way to go as a society, but we are getting there. While changing culture is undoubtedly presenting us with some difficult challenges – like the decline in the Ubang language itself – we can be grateful that in general, things are heading in the right direction.