In the course of investigating the gender-specific pronouns of Zemblan for the previous entry I ran across a couple of interesting pieces about gender and Chinese, Marjorie K.M. Chan’s “Gender Differences in the Chinese Language” and C. Chris Erway’s “Gender Differences in Spoken Chinese, or, How To Talk Like a Real Chinese Man“; just thought I’d pass them along for interested parties. They both mention the use of renjia (人家, literally, “person family”) as a first-person pronoun by women; there’s a brief discussion of it here.

Update (Sept. 2023). I was able to provide an archived link for the Chan paper, but Erway and the “brief discussion” are gone with the wind.


  1. Chinese and Vietnamese are what are known as “isolating” or “analytical” type languages. English and some other western European languages have also been evolving into more analytical-type languages, especially English. Gender seems to diminish or dissappear entirely in analytical-type languages but it flourishes in heavily inflected languages like Georgian, Russian even German and Italian. However, I’m not enough of a linguistic theorist to suggest why this is the case.

  2. Michael Farris says

    Vietnamese isn’t as isolating as you might think, there’s a rich derivational morphology that’s barely understood (and partially hidden by the practice of writing by syllable rather than word).
    Grammatical gender is a way of dividing nouns into classes which allows them to be tracked easily through agreement morphemes. In Polish, the advantages of gender/agreement come into play in complex sentences which can be much easier to parse than their English equivalents.
    But there are many morphological complex languages with nothing like grammatical gender.
    Gender does not equal biological sex which may or may not be marked in a given language (and which may partially coiincide with a gender system).
    In Thai, interestingly enough, there are a couple of different ways of reinforcing the sex of the person speaking but not much marking of sex elsewhere, the normal terms for siblings are phii and noong (older sibling, younger sibling) to which it’s possible (though by no means required) to add sex markers (chaai ‘male’ and saaw ‘female’)

  3. In Taiwan (1983) I was told that the final particle “ne” in Mandarin is mostly used by women. The point was, I think, that it’s often used in wheedling, cozening, suggesting, and complaining. I wonder whether low-status men use it with those who have power over them.

  4. xiaolongnu says

    hi all — interesting analyses. I’m a female Mandarin speaker: I’ve always used “renjia” as a kind of distancing pronoun, the way one would use the English “one,” but I’ve never used it to refer to myself in the way I would use English “one” (as in “I almost asked for his autograph, but one doesn’t want to be pushy.”) I’ve heard it used as a third-person pronoun to mean “a person” or “people” in a generalized sense, but have never encountered it used to mean “I.”
    “Renjia” always struck me as an extension of “ren” as used to mean “one,” as in example (3)b. in Marjorie Chan’s article (“zhen rang ren shoubuliao” for “that’s unbearable,” lit. “really makes one unable to bear it”). To my mind “renjia” is a more colloquial variation of this usage.
    The linguistic analysis in these articles is really interesting. I never read a good explanation of “niangniang qiang” before, though it’s an unavoidable phenomenon, as is the idea that certain regional accents (in the PRC they’ll tell you it’s Suzhou and Hangzhou hua in particular) sound feminine when used by women and effeminate when used by men. Same thing with “sajiao,” the prominence of which in Chinese popular culture can really drive a feminist nuts and spoil many otherwise butt-kicking kung fu movies.
    I had another point, but it’s the last week of classes, so it escapes me now.

  5. Cryptic Ned says

    I’m so glad to be introduced to “sajiao” as an actual concept that there’s a word for.
    I remember working at a Chinese restaurant it was literally bizarre to hear the owner’s niece (daughter of immigrants to Pennsylvania) order us around in a resounding American voice and then shift to a whiny childish high-pitched voice to talk in Chinese (to her father and uncle).

  6. Michael Farris wrote >>Vietnamese isn’t as isolating as you might think…>>> Michael, I beg to differ with you. Although Cambodian is a fusional-isolating type language, in Vietnamese the Chinese influence is overwhelming widely affecting both its vocabulary and morphology. It even has Chinese-like tones. After all, Vietnam was a Chinese province for over 1,ooo years even though the Vietnamese language was originally closer related to Maylayan and Indonesian. Please see also the following web site:

  7. Michael Farris says

    Brian, I’m aware that Vietnamese is traditionally described as isolating and it is possible to create completely isolating sentences. Textbooks are full of them. The example in the site you reference is not standard Vietnamese orthography (probably too difficult when the site was made)
    But … I’ve studied Vietnamese for several years (in a non-traditional, non-linear kind of way) and I’ve found that real world Vietnamese doesn’t fit the model so neatly.
    The biggest hole in the purely isolating theory are a kind of word based on partial reduplication of a base syllable. The reduplicated element may be the initial, the final and it may appear before or after the main element.
    A typical example is
    vui – happy, cheerful
    vui vẻ – happy, cheerful (different from the first in a way readily apparent to native speakers but not me)
    vẻ is not a morpheme in the traditional sense (maybe), it’s bound and only appears after the syllable vẻ (though sometimes an intervening element can occur) and no one has previously assigned any discernible meaning to it.
    These forms are not rare, it’s hard to imagine a single paragraph of non-technical Vietnamese without one or more examples (they especially proliferate in fiction) and they do show up in technical writings as well, just no so often.
    There are similar processes in many other languages, like the English example where you reduplicate the word but change the initial of the reduplicated form to d- (killer-diller, super-duper, etc). But while this a marginal, non-serious phenomenon in English, it’s fundamental to understanding Vietnamese and it’s only now (my teacher tells me) starting to be described in a way that makes sense.
    And (warning: vague impressions coming up) the more I read and understand Vietnamese, the more intricate and intertwined the word order seems (as opposed to Thai word order, for example, which is mostly flat and transparent).

  8. Michael,
    I saw your return message. Since the linguists I’ve read say that none of the typology classifications flexionalal (fusional), agglutinative, isolating (analytical) or polysynthetic fit any language perfectly you probably do have some wiggle room to say that Vietnamese has some non-isolating characteristics. (Although I would think that Cambodian has more). I just feel more comfortable with being able to pigeon-hole a language’s typology into one of these 4 (four) categories or at least somewhere in between like Modern English which is supposed to be fusional-isolating.
    I have known only a few Vietnamese people in my life. I probably learned the most about the language when I knew a Vietnamese girl in the 1980’s named Lu Thi My. I’m sure your knowledge of the language is much more extensive than mine. I found it to be a very nuanced and complex language. In fact, the Vietnamese are supposed to be one of the most intelligent people in the world.
    Some linguistis classify Vietnamese as Austronesian others as Maylayo-Polynesian. However, if Austronesian is just a sub-group of the latter both classifications make sense. Contact with Chinese though has certainly made it very different from Maylayan, Indonesian , Malagasy and Hawaiian. As far as I know, nearly all of its words are gender neutral like Modern English. Take care!

  9. Excuse me, Maylayan should read Malayan.

  10. My understanding is that Vietnamese is generally classified as Austroasiatic (the family whose most famous other branch is the Mon-Khmer languages, including Cambodian). It used to be considered Sino-Tibetan or possibly Tai; I don’t know of serious suggestions that it’s Austronesian/Malayo-Polynesian.

  11. Michael Farris says

    Yeah, Vietnamese and Cambodian are usually classified together as Austroasiatic although Cambodian and Thai (not related genetically according to most conventional linguistics) have a higher comprehension rate (I’ve been told by speakers of both) of about 50% due to borrowings (from Cambodian to Thai, or from India, usually through Cambodian, to Thai).
    I think you might be able to make a (very tenuous) case for an expanded Austronesian with both Tai and Austroasiatic, but not for Austronesian and Austroasiatic without Tai.
    Those who know a southern Chinese language (such as Cantonese) tell me they can understand a lot of Vietnamese individual words (again based on borrowings rather than a genetic relationship).

  12. Here‘s the direct link to dd’s URL, a Keywords post about sajiao.

  13. Sorry, that post got messed up when I moved from MT to WordPress. Here is a correct URL for the individual post.
    I’ll fix the Chinese later on tonight!
    John Emerson: It isn’t just “ne” it is a whole host of particles. I believe this is similar the use of “tag questions” by English speakers to soften their sentence. (e.g. Isn’t it? You know? etc.)

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