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, Mädchen, 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.