Armenian: Genderising the Agender by Rafik Santrosyan


Parisian autumn sun pulls me off my desk out to explore the streets of Quartier latin. As I am excusing myself for abandoning my newly and greedily purchased pile of books by intellectualising my Instagram-motivated pseudo-photographic desires, my eyes catch a woman’s approving glare.  She is sitting with probably her son at this tiny café on the pavement. I walk by, of course without keeping eye contact which back home in Armenia I would not have refrained from.  A few steps past their table, I realise they are speaking Armenian. I turn back and greet them in Armenian. “Oh, you speak Armenian?! How come?” she says now switching the curiously appreciative look in her eyes into an almost inquisitive, slash suspicious one. Before I know it, I am already enjoying café crème with them. “I’m a researcher here. I work on gender and language,” I answer her question as to what brings me to Paris. My answer does not ring a bell. I try my best, finally resorting to the broadest possible description of my work, “I’m a feminist”. Her already unusual three-second silence was promising, and I thought I could now say good-bye before the silence broke again, “But you’re a male at birth, right?” For some reason, my conversational partner could not comprehend why a man (who also happens to be born as a male) calls himself a feminist. After trivialising all my endeavours to explain how destructive patriarchal frameworks can be for both men and women and that everyone should be a feminist irrespective of their sex and gender, my newly acquired friend generously offered to cook for me when I am “cold and hungry”, thus unconsciously invoking a gendered discourse where I, already a come-out male at birth, should be dependent on a mother figure to feed me. It was rather amusing to realise that my identity as an individual, a feminist, a scholar was denied because it conflicted with my sex, and the conversation was ushered into a reality where my “self” and her “self” were possible only in opposition to and exclusion of the other through imposed gendered behaviour. In a patriarchal framework, no other reality is possible except a gendered one in which the male is catered to and the female is the caterer… of food, services, progeny. The swift transition to “motherly advice and care” was in fact nothing but flipping the patriarchal gendered hierarchy: had she accepted me as an individual, she would have had to – in her gendered wisdom – accept my “superior agency” as a male. But she could not afford it, providing the age difference and alleged social status! Our individualities are so confined to sex and gender that our other merits are disregarded, allowing for a woman to see motherhood as her only form of agency.

As a matter of fact, in a recent word association survey, native Armenian speakers, irrespective of their education, gender, age, residence, etc.  were inquired to provide their first associations of gender after reading words that either implied high agency or, on the contrary, denoted minimum to no agency. The results of the assignment showed that occupations that implied agency, dominance, and control were chiefly associated with maleness and masculinity. Yet, words denoting secondary and subservient positions were associated with femaleness. To further explicate that the notion of gender is constructed around the axis of agency in Armenian, respondents were provided two types of sentences wherein either the subject acts, exerts dominance and influence over the situation or the subject is acted upon and shows minimum to no agency. As anticipated, the results of the survey reflected implicit androcentrism with maleness characterised by agency and femaleness defined by subservience and lack of agency. The only aspect of female agency recognised is pregnancy and breastfeeding – motherhood as a biological function that cannot be fulfilled by the male.  Remember the woman feeding me?

Adam & Eve

Gender is also a language-specific grammatical category. Languages like English have this category for the third-person pronoun (she/he) while other related Indo-European (IE) languages such as Russian or German also have nominal gender i.e. nouns and adjectives that are arbitrarily feminine, masculine, or neuter. As such, grammatical gender has been hypothesized to shape or influence aspects of mental representation of objects based on the grammatical gender arbitrarily ascribed to these object names in certain languages.  There are IE languages, however, that do not have this linguistic feature of gender marking. Such is Armenian — a separate branch of the Indo-European family of languages, where neither pronouns nor nouns and adjectives are marked by gender.

One might expect that being native in such a grammatically genderless language, speakers of Armenian would be predilected to see gender beyond a binary categorisation and accepting of gender as a spectrum. However, speakers of Armenian, as my Parisian acquaintance unwillingly yet so convincingly illustrated, turn out to perceive gender the way that patriarchal culture has throughout millennia constructed it for them at a semantic level:  binary physiological sex linked with a body of non-linguistic knowledge that ascribes roles to either of the sexes.  By virtue of being gender-neutral, Armenian fails to provide space for its speakers to develop sensitivity towards other intricacies of gender as a social construct by limiting it to just physiology. Native speakers of Armenian are left to rely on a vast body of non-linguistic knowledge encrypted in the language and passed from one generation to another. Cultural understanding of gender — or more precisely the lack of it – cannot persist without language that solidifies this knowledge and makes it possible for the transfer through fossilising the formula of an agent/male and an object/female at a microscopic level.



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