Lately, I’ve noticed several writers that used the feminine personal pronoun (in all cases + reflexive pronoun) when referreing to “Israel”. For all I knew – and for what the biblical account of that name coming into being tells – “Israel” is masculine. So I looked up what dictionaries have to say on that matter:

She

She\, pron. [sing. nom. She; poss. Her. or Hers; obj. Her; pl. nom. They; poss. Their or Theirs; obj. Them.] [OE. she, sche, scheo, scho, AS. se[‘o], fem. of the definite article, originally a demonstrative pronoun; cf. OS. siu, D. zij, G. sie, OHG. siu, s[=i], si, Icel. s[=u], sj[=a], Goth. si she, s[=o], fem. article, Russ. siia, fem., this, Gr. ?, fem. article, Skr. s[=a], sy[=a]. The possessive her or hers, and the objective her, are from a different root. See Her.]

1. This or that female; the woman understood or referred to; the animal of the female sex, or object personified as feminine, which was spoken of.

She loved her children best in every wise. –Chaucer.

Then Sarah denied, . . . for she was afraid. –Gen. xviii. 15.

2. A woman; a female; — used substantively. [R.]

Lady, you are the cruelest she alive. –Shak.

Note: She is used in composition with nouns of common gender, for female, to denote an animal of the female sex; as, a she-bear; a she-cat.

“she.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 19 Oct. 2008. .

See, Webster’s does not collocate the feminine pronoun with any nationalities, but:

pron.

Used to refer to the woman or girl previously mentioned or implied. See Usage Note at I1.
Used to refer to a female animal.
Used in place of it to refer to certain inanimate things, such as ships and nations, traditionally perceived as female [ed.’s emphasis]: “The sea is mother-death and she is a mighty female” (Anne Sexton).

n. A female animal or person: Is the cat a she?

[Middle English, probably alteration of Old English sēo, feminine demonstrative pron.; see so- in Indo-European roots.]

Usage Note: Using she as a generic or gender-neutral singular pronoun is more common than might be expected, given the continuing debate regarding the parallel use of he. In a 1989 article from the Los Angeles Times, for instance, writer Dan Sullivan notes, “What’s wrong with reinventing the wheel? Every artist has to do so in her search for the medium that will best express her angle of vision.” Alice Walker writes in 1991, “A person’s work is her only signature.” It may be argued that this usage needlessly calls attention to the issue of gender, but the same argument can be leveled against generic he. This use of she still carries an air of unconventionality, which may be why only three percent of the Usage Panel recommends it in sentences like A taxpayer who fails to disclose the source of ______ income can be prosecuted under the new law. · Some writers switch between she and he in alternating sentences, paragraphs, or chapters. This practice has been gaining acceptance, especially in books related to fields like education and child development, where the need for a generic pronoun is pervasive. It can also be seen in academic journals, where the sentence The researcher should note that at this point in the experiment she may need to recheck all data for errors might be followed later in the same section by The researcher should record his notes carefully at this stage. This style may seem cumbersome, but if generic pronouns are required, alternating between she and he can offer a balanced solution in an appropriate context. See Usage Notes at he1, they.

“she.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. 19 Oct. 2008. .

Is the nation of Israel traditionally perceived as female? The comma in the highlighted line above suggests a non-defining relative clause, which would mean that all nations are traditionally perceived as female. However, only the American Heritage Dictionary suggests that use of “she” whereas the other dictionaries I’ve got at hand (and there are plenty) don’t.

Basically, the way I see it is that Britain gets referred to as “she” since her / its allegory is the undoubtedly female / feminine character “Britannia”. If you feel there’s a need for a generic pronoun to refer to Israel, there still is “it” (which, in case of doubt, collocates with any nationality). That is unless you are one of those that conflate grammatical gender with actual gender and that only feel properly addressed if somebody uses the feminine form. I, for my part, consider myself emancipated and feminine enough to not base my self-perception on the use of pronouns and will therefore opt for the more easily readable choice rather than try to castrate the languages I speak.

About the author

froylein

11 Comments

  • Interesting note. Personally, I think that Israel as ארץ ישראל is female. Eretz is female. So the old song goes “Eretz Yisrael Sheli Yafa v’gam porachat.” I don’t think it takes anything away from woman’s rights to refer to a country as female. I also refer to guns as female; I doubt many would argue that a weapon is delicate and thus putting women in their places.

  • The comound word ארץ ישראל is female, as is ארץ – land. The genus for ארץ ישראל is not derived from the name ישראל but from ארץ.

  • I was talking about the English language. 🙂 In English, the gender should be neuter AFAIK. Is the official name of the state Eretz Israel or just plain Israel in Ivrit?

  • All countries and lands and cities are female in Hebrew. In English, it’s generally the same as well, not to mention in most other languages. The U.S. is referred to as a “she,” too, in certain types of speech. It’s just how we roll, I guess. Pretty sure this somehow goes back to Latin.

  • In Britain and British literature, as far as I have encountered it, it’s usually confined to Britain. (Most well-known example likely is Shakespeare’s description of britain with “her triumphant shores beating back the envious siege…”) That is pretty much what the dictionaries tell me as well apart from the American Heritage Dictionary. In German, locations are neuter unless in compunds reflective of a state form, e.g. the USA translates as “die Vereinigten Staaten von Amerika”; “Staat” is masculine, therfore “Vereinigte Staaten von Amerika” collocates with the masculine pronouns in the plural form. In French and Italian, as far as I recall, they can be about anything. In Latin, it depends on the deity / allegory linked to the location, e.g. “Germania”.

  • Oh, forgot, it also depends on the compound the place names goes with, e.g. a few places from my area that developed when Latin had already developed:

    Colonia Agrippina (= the Agrippinian colony. Cologne); feminine as “colonia” is feminine and requires the feminine adjective.

    Rigomagum oppidum (= Rigomagan village / fortress; Remagen); neuter as “oppidum” is neuter. The original Celtic name “Rigomagos” (king + field) is either masculine or neuter depending on the translation of “field”.

    Confluens (= flowing together; Koblenz); neuter.

    Lugdunum (Lyon); neuter.

    Lutetia (Paris) was a Celtic settlement; the grammatical gender is unknown. Romans adopted the name, and usually used it as a Latin name ending in -a in the nominative case singular, which means they used it as a feminine word.

    America (originally Amerige, as a genitive of the masculine Amerigo [Vespucci]) came into existence in analogy to “Europa” and “Asia” as feminine forms as Ringmann suggested in his Cosmographiae Introductio of 1507.

  • The official name in Hebrew is “Medinat Yisrael,” the State of Israel. Medina is, of course, feminine, and becomes Medinat when it gets smichuted up to go with Yisrael.

    In English, countries are traditionally referred to as female. Not sure why, just the way it is.

    In French, nearly every country is masculine, with the exception of Israel, which is indeed feminine.

  • Matthew, it indeed makes me wonder as in all literature I’ve encountered so far plus grammar books plus dictionaries apart from the above-mentioned, references to states are made using the neuter pronoun unless the compound requires a different gender (and since most nouns refering to objects in English are neuter, pretty much all stateforms are neuter, too). A quick search in the American Heritage Dictionar’s entry on Germany showed that even the one dictionary that claimed that nations are collocated with the feminine pronoun uses “it” in reference to Germany in its dictionary entry. I’m aware the American Heritage Dictionary aims at portraying a combination of popular use combined with some etymology, but their very own use of “it” in reference to nations suggests that the use of the feminine pronoun is colloquial.

  • In Hebrew all countries, cities, etc., are grammatically feminine, regardless of their ending sound (with the one exception being–as far as I know–the Vatican!).

  • Shalom…

    Really interesting post all… many thanks.

    I ‘ve just come across this site as i’m doing a little swotting – i’m learning Hebrew at the moment you see…. we’re looking at personal pronouns.

    I was a bit confused about something i heard today and was after some clarity…

    While we were looking at personal pronouns today our Rabbi told us that you have to be careful with personal pronouns as they can also be seen as an object (he/she)….

    i asked for an example and he said Isaiah ch 53 – is the ‘He’ spoken of, 1) the nation of Israel, 2) The Messiah or 3) both ? (He believes Israel).

    But grammatically from whats been said on this post (very clearly) – Isaiah 53 cannot be speaking about the nation of Israel…. because She (Israel) is a ‘She’… not a He…

    That would be right?
    Any thoughts or counters concerning biblical hebrew?

Leave a Comment