Friday, March 16, 2007

Why do nouns in other languages have gender?

Who's asking: Paul Tomme, Arlington, TX

Paul suggests that languages form by masculine and feminine nouns creating little baby nouns, and that's a charming idea.

Answering this question in full would require me to go back to school for an advanced degree in linguistics, in order to publish a dissertation that would add only a tiny piece of a theory to the vast body of academic work on this subject.

But hey, what's the Internet for, if not for a little reckless speculation and oversimplification?

Apparently, the earliest human languages distinguished not between male and female nouns but between living things,which had one noun form, and inanimate things, which had another. At some point, the form for inanimate things split into neuter and feminine forms; Greek and Latin nouns fall into one of these three genders.

As languages evolved, many dropped the neuter gender, while others added extra gender-based distinctions or additional "genders" to keep the animate-inanimate distinction.

Many languages blur the distinction between natural gender and grammatical gender; the word for girl in German, M├Ądchen, is a neuter noun. This is not because little girls don't have gender, but because the suffix -chen is one that designates nouns as neuter.

It's convenient that English dispenses with gender, but our language has so many other oddities -- explain cough, rough, through and ought to a non-native speaker -- that we have little room to congratulate ourselves.

What I Read This Week

Travel is seriously cutting into my time for everything else. I'm headed to Montreal today -- a day early -- to try to beat the weather, so the situation is not likely to improve next week.

Declan Hughes, The Wrong Kind of Blood. Although some of the greatest American crime writers claim Irish descent, Ireland's been slow to embrace the crime novel as part of its literary tradition. In his first novel, Hughes essentially transposes a classic hardboiled story to modern-day Dublin, and it works very well indeed. Ed Loy, who left for Los Angeles 20 years before, goes home for his mother's funeral and gets himself tangled up in a deadly web of old secrets. Loy returns next month in The Color of Blood, which is already on my to-be-read pile.

1 comment:

JIM LAMB said...

zimOh, but nouns in English do have gender. We just don't express them directly with suffixes or preceding articles like some other languages.

Dispite the most frantic efforts of the politically correct to change the custom, a ship is still she. When the watch officer on one ship refers to a ship as "he" the reference is to the commander or master, even if it happens to be a woman. There are other nouns where this is true.

After my recent experience in the French islands, I can say that the normal French speaker slurs the gender article so badly it is barely audible so all that effort I spent in school learning the genders was wasted. The natives of St. Martin simply speak English. I didn't hear Dutch spoken until I was in the airport departure lounge. The only French I spoke was with Canadians and people who were from France.

Have a great time in Montreal and give my love to Claire.